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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

New Generation of African American Philanthropists, a giving circle in Charlotte. Philanthropy, long a part of African American culture, is growing through giving circles.

April 4 marks the birthday of the late Maya Angelou, whose wise counsel remains as legacy. Endowed with countless gifts, Ms. Angelou is known for uncommon insight and expressiveness on many topics, perhaps a surprising one: the power of philanthropy.

In a high-stakes era, where anti-black racism is mounting and economic rifts are widening, philanthropy through participation in giving circles is attracting growing numbers of black Americans. Ms. Angelou’s essay, “The Sweetness of Charity,” delves dynamics between the giver and the receiver. And though the term “charity” stirs many connotations, the essay focuses in on the bond of shared humanity revealed through giving.

The sweetness recounted in the essay evokes the liberating appeal of giving circles. Freedom that, in these times, renders black-led giving circles all the more crucial.

Collective giving on rise
If you’re unfamiliar with the phenomenon, a giving circle is a form of philanthropy where individuals with common interests come together as a group to pool their charitable dollars.

Members of the group collaborate to distribute their funds and resources to selected beneficiaries, such as community-based organizations and social causes that align with their interests. While these are basic characteristics, on the ground, giving circles vary widely.

Like book clubs, each giving circle has autonomy to determine such things as its operational structure, membership requirements, amounts contributed by members, means for pooling dollars, funding interests, and processes for fund distribution.

A 2016 study by the Collective Giving Research Group documented roughly 1100 giving circles nationwide—a number tripling over the past decade. Significant to the overall increase are identity-based giving circles.

For 60 percent of all giving circles, identity is a central factor. That is, circle organizers specify race, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual identity among the one or more identities defining their collective giving group. As community foundations and other mainstream philanthropic institutions struggle with issues of racial inclusion and responsiveness to marginalized groups and communities of color, black-led and other identity-based giving circles pose a disruption to philanthropy’s structural barriers to social change.

Black Americans were shown, in a 2012 W.K. Kellogg Foundation study, to have produced the steadiest growth of new identity-based charitable funds over the prior four decades. Among the wave of new funds are giving circles. Black organizers of circles cite the model’s adaptive nature, democratic principles, and suitability for giving back with greater responsiveness to one’s community among the features they find attractive.

Circling back to age-old model
For African-descent people, giving circles are an iteration of a giving model that has long been a part of black communities and one that carries cultural resonance and historical significance.

Collective kinship giving models, such as susu (or sou-sou), are a system of saving and distributing resources for the material welfare and spiritual wellbeing of each other found throughout the Caribbean with roots in West Africa.
American history is awash with examples of how black Americans have exercised collective giving to finance social resistance in serial struggles for liberation.

For a population systematically denied wealth accumulation, and too victimized by wholesale wealth extraction, collective giving has been instrumental to black life for 400 years—from the formation of early America through the atrocity and abolition of slavery to Reconstruction and from the Jim Crow era through the civil rights movement, extending to today.

During slavery, free blacks would pool funds to purchase the freedom of the enslaved. Some groups formalized their giving and civic organizing by establishing mutual aid societies, such as the Free African Society, established in 1787.

The corps’ mobilization of collective resources


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