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The Voice of the Black Community


The sweetness of African American giving circles
Philanthopy grows, and more is needed
Published Wednesday, April 3, 2019 6:09 am
by Valaida Fullwood, Akira Barclay and Tracey Webb

and voluntarism was pivotal during the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic of Philadelphia. Accounts from the time, cited in Thomas E. Will’s “Pennsylvania History” article, claim nearly 20 times more black people aided the afflicted than did whites, helping lift the city out of crisis.

Over the century following Emancipation, various approaches to collective giving created black newspapers, hospitals, banks, churches, schools and colleges?—?bedrocks for strengthening black society in America. By design, the historic Rosenwald school project relied on collective giving among Southern Blacks to match the financial contributions of Sears & Roebuck CEO Julius Rosenwald.

This collaboration built over 5300 schools and had a multigenerational impact on the educational gains of blacks in the Jim Crow South. During the civil rights era, collective giving was again a measure for advancing social change. Notable is The Club From Nowhere, a group formed by Georgia Gilmore with other black women that funded the Montgomery Bus Boycott with money earned from selling home cooking and baked goods.

Vast variety among today’s black giving circles
Resurgence of formalized collective giving in the form of black-led giving circles has produced a wide spectrum of groups all across the country. Most major American cities boast at least one black giving circle, and they are flourishing in smaller cities and rural areas, too.

The majority of giving circles are place based, with a specific city or geographic area framing their membership and giving. Some circles, however, extend beyond borders and are based on bonds formed in childhood, during college or through other shared experiences and interests.

One giving circle was formed by alumni of an HBCU, living in different cities, who decided to pool resources and invest in artists whose work advances social justice.

While numerous black giving circles comprise both men and women, many have gender-specific identities and giving priorities. Women Engaged, a black-led giving circle in South Carolina, is one of dozens of circles formed to support black women and girls.

The Brotherhood of Elders Network, an intergenerational group in the Bay Area, is one of several giving circles specifically comprising and focusing on African-descent men.

One New Jersey-based women’s circle channels its support to organizations led by black lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer women that are working to improve the lives of black LBTQ women. These are but a few examples, illustrating the intersectional identities, wide geographic span and range of funding interests among black-led giving circles.

With less than two percent of funding by the nation’s largest foundations going specifically to black communities, as reported in a 2017 ABFE—A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities and Hill-Snowdon Foundation study, black giving circles provide strategic, sometimes niche, support for organizations routinely neglected by other forms of philanthropy.

What’s in a name
African ancestry as well as cultural histories and social principles valued in Black communities are often asserted in the names giving circles choose.

Ujima, a Swahili word meaning “collective work and responsibility” is where Ujima Legacy Fund, an African American men’s circle in Richmond, Virginia, draws its name. Zawadi, the name chosen by a New Orleans circle, means “gift” in Swahili. Sankofa, which appears in the name of several giving circles, comes from Ghana’s Akan tribe and conveys the idea of taking lessons from the past to guide the future.

A giving circle in Christiansburg, a town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, created the name New Mountain Climbers not only as a reference to place but also to MLK and his famous “Mountaintop” speech. Naming generally carries a message and serves as a point of pride.

‘For us, by us’ investment and impact beyond dollars
In combination with grants and financial investments, black giving circles are intentional about contributing additional value?—?both concrete and intangible?—?to their causes and communities.

Members are frequently inclined to be hands-on with grantee partners, giving time as skills-based volunteers to lend technical assistance and in-kind services to sharpen capacity. This type of support, around operations and capacity building, is vital to nonprofit organizations yet remains a funding area many foundations exclude.

Members of black giving circles commonly come with a deep connection to the place, having been born and raised or living and working where their grants are made. Accordingly,


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