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Blacks Build Ties Through Giving Circles - Donors - The Chronicle of Philanthropy- Connecting the nonprofit world with news, jobs, and ideas

August 11, 2013

Blacks Build Ties Through Giving
These groups have become a valuable resource for
community foundations
By Eric Frazier
Winston-Salem, N.C.
Linsey Mills and his wife, Michelle Serrano-Mills, were already committed
philanthropists in 2004 when a friend told them about a new way to give.
Mr. Mills, a financial consultant, and his wife, a business consultant, already
contributed to their own donor-advised fund, offering scholarships and other
charitable aid. Yet when they heard about the giving circle Next Generation of
African American Philanthropists, they felt compelled to join.
They’re glad they did. Instead of simply writing checks to a community foundation,
they pooled their money with like-minded African-Americans, studied their
community’s social needs for themselves, and made their own decisions about how
to help.
Working within the structure of the group, they’ve made new friends and gained
deeper insight into how charities bring about social change—and why they
sometimes fail. The couple now gives to both their donor-advised fund and the
giving circle.
The group has helped spawn about a dozen similar circles around the country,
feeding what organizers say is a largely untapped philanthropic urge in black
working- and middle-class communities.
Mr. Mills says the group’s success offers valuable lessons for charitable institutions



Blacks Build Ties Through Giving Circles - Donors - The Chronicle of Philanthropy- Connecting the nonprofit world with news, jobs, and ideas

seeking to mobilize African-American donors like him. Lesson No. 1: Don’t assume
that only wealthy blacks, like the Oprah Winfreys of the world, can become
“There’s a stigma out there that African-Americans and people of color don’t give,”
he says. “That’s not true. It’s just that when we do give, it might be for a crisis
situation. It might be helping someone go to school. It’s just not documented.”

Having a Voice
That dynamic is one that charities need to invest more time in understanding,
experts say. If they don’t, Mr. Mills and others say, they’ll miss their chance to build
influence with the next generation of donors, an increasingly racially and ethnically
diverse group for whom the traditional rules and definitions don’t always apply.
Members of the Next Generation giving network and its sister circles have so
deepened their commitment to and knowledge of philanthropy that they’ve become
a valuable resource for community foundations and charities, providing everything
from board members to valuable intelligence about little-noticed grass-roots
charities that might need help.
“We’ve been able to talk to a lot of organizations and community foundations about
how we’ve brought people together,” Mr. Mills says. “It’s given us an ability to have
a voice, so people are not just seeing African-Americans as the recipients of

An 'On Ramp’ to Philanthropy
The idea for Next Generation and its sister circles came largely from Darryl Lester,
former director of programs at the Triangle Community Foundation, in Durham, N.C.
Frustrated with what he felt was a lack of effort among community foundations to
persuade minorities to give, he left Triangle in 2001 and set to work on a Ford
Foundation research project. He traveled around the South talking to focus groups of
mostly young African-Americans about philanthropy.
He explained what community foundations were and how they operate, and found
that by and large, the people he spoke to had never been approached as potential



Blacks Build Ties Through Giving Circles - Donors - The Chronicle of Philanthropy- Connecting the nonprofit world with news, jobs, and ideas

The receptiveness he experienced among the people he met led him to conclude that
if they banded together, giving circles could provide an ideal “on ramp” to the
philanthropic world for a rising class of African-American donors.
After all, he reasoned, the mutual-aid societies that operated in segregated black
communities before the civil-rights era were just giving circles by other names.
“It wasn’t some foreign concept to people,” says Mr. Lester, who is now a consultant
to nonprofit organizations. “In a crisis, people will come together to help a person in
need. So we just built on that impulse.”
Mr. Lester says it wasn’t always easy to persuade middle-class African-Americans
that they counted as philanthropists.
And it was just as hard getting some community foundations interested in what the
circles had to offer. Some said they didn’t want to work with giving circles unless
they contributed at least $10,000 initially (the minimum sum required to create
donor-advised funds). Others, like the Triangle Community Foundation, relaxed
their minimum requirements for donor-advised funds so the circles could
In 2004, a Next Generation group got started in the Raleigh-Durham area, as did
another in Birmingham, Ala. Nine years later, at least 13 giving circles have sprung
up around the country from the organizing efforts of Mr. Lester and his colleagues.
In 2012, according to the Community Investment Network, an umbrella organization
the circles formed, members of the affiliated circles gave $45,000 in grants and
donated 16,000 volunteer hours. Chad Jones, executive director of the network, said
the true total is likely higher because those numbers don’t include all giving across
the various circles.
“Some folks would say, 'Well, that’s not a lot of money,’” Mr. Lester acknowledges.
“But when you think about it, it is a lot,” he adds, because the donors had not been
previously solicited by charities.

A Chance to Bond
Organizers say they set a low minimum for joining the giving club, sometimes
asking for little more than most people might give to their churches in a year.



Blacks Build Ties Through Giving Circles - Donors - The Chronicle of Philanthropy- Connecting the nonprofit world with news, jobs, and ideas

Ruth Peebles, a consultant to nonprofits and a founding member of Next
Generation, says the group’s dues are modest—an annual minimum fee of $350. If
someone wants to participate but can’t pay the full amount up front, “we don’t turn
folks away if there’s a genuine interest,” she says.
Giving circle members research charities whose missions they find compelling and
take suggestions back to the group.
Members of Next Generation and its affiliated circles say their participation was
strongly motivated by their desire to attack drug abuse, crime, fatherlessness, and
other social ills hobbling their communities and families.
“What motivates them is being around all of the issues in the news, issues like high
school dropouts or the Travyon Martin case,” says Tracey Webb, founder of the
BlackGivesBack.com blog and of the Black Benefactors giving circle, in Baltimore.
Another draw: the chance to develop bonds with other socially conscious AfricanAmericans. When they were all learning about philanthropy together, it didn’t seem
as intimidating, say giving-circle members. The personal ties they forged with each
other mattered almost as much as the charity work they underwrote.
For instance, Ms. Peebles says, Mr. Mills and his wife served as her business coaches
when she moved from part-time to full-time consulting. And when her father died,
members of the group attended the funeral. So did alumni of a housing program for
homeless adults. She and other group members had befriended them after Next
Generation financed a trip to Washington for those in the program to talk to
lawmakers about homelessness.
“It’s turned into something more than just our giving circle giving money away,”
she says. “It’s building relationships with people and offering our time and talents
when we can, but also extending the hand of friendship.”
Members of the giving circles have benefited charities in more ways than just
providing a source for donations. Community foundations and other charitable
institutions hoping to add diversity to their boards have found the groups to be a
good source of prospective board members.

'A Ripple Effect’



Blacks Build Ties Through Giving Circles - Donors - The Chronicle of Philanthropy- Connecting the nonprofit world with news, jobs, and ideas

Giving-circle members have also identified grass-roots charities that foundations
For example, Mr. Lester says the Next Generation group provided a general operating
grant of about $5,000 to the West End Revitalization Association, an advocacy group
fighting to preserve an endangered neighborhood. The group used that
demonstration of local support to attract matching grants from national
“It created a ripple effect,” Mr. Lester says.
Community foundations have taken notice of such efforts to find small charities
worthy of support.
In 2006, the Foundation for the Carolinas, in Charlotte, N.C., helped expand a
giving circle there called New Generation of African American Philanthropists. Its
roughly two dozen members pledge $1 per day for three years, for a total of $1,095.
The foundation promotes the group on its Web site.
Such giving circles, says Mr. Lester, show that most community foundations and
charities aren’t doing enough to nurture African-American donors. They might not
see huge increases in the dollar amounts of their giving right away, he adds, but
those who take action now will see long-term benefits as blacks increase their
“Right now, money’s being left on the table,” he says. “People now are saying, 'I
want to give back.’ If I’m giving of my resources, if it’s a dollar or a dime, it’s

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