The Impact of Giving Circles

According to a May 2009 study, “The Impact of Giving Together: Giving Circles’ Influence on Members’ Philanthropic and Civic Behaviors, Knowledge and Attitudes,” conducted by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, giving circles contribute more and act more strategically. The principle investigators were Dr. Angela M. Eikenberry, an assistant professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Jessica Bearman, an independent consultant focusing on philanthropic and nonprofit organizations; with research assistance from Hao Han and Melissa Brown, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, and Courtney Jensen, University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Eikenberry and Bearman explain that giving circles are a relatively “new philanthropy” – most starting in the last five to ten years, with indication that many more exist and continue to be created. Giving circles, as Bearman estimates, account for more than $100 million in giving and have engaged at least 12,000 people; however, Eikenberry and Bearman state, of the little broad-based research on giving circles that exists, the studies have been “largely exploratory” because of its newness and “dynamic, grassroots features.” Their study aims to broaden the understanding of giving circles – “to illuminate changes in how much individuals give, how they give, and how they think about their giving.”

The study analyzed data from a survey of 341 current and past members from 26 giving circles and a control group of 246 donors and public service graduate students and practitioners; semi-structured interviews with 30 giving circle members and past members from 11 giving circles; and participant observations of four giving circles, in order to answer questions such as:

  1. Has participation in a giving circle changed members’ behavior related to giving, volunteering, and civic engagement?
  2. Has participation in a giving circle changed members’ knowledge or awareness about philanthropy, nonprofits and community issues?
  3. Has participation in a giving circle changed members' attitudes or perceptions about philanthropy, community issues, political and social values, and government or nonprofit roles and responsibilities?

Highlights from the study’s findings include:

  1. The members of giving circles give more, on average, than the donors not in a giving circle. Additionally, the giving is higher for giving circle members who are more engaged, have a longer membership history, or are members of multiple giving circles; amount of giving among members furthermore differs in relation to the type of participation in the giving circle – e.g., members who mainly participate in deciding funding decisions versus members who mainly volunteer or attend social events or educational sessions.
  2. The members of giving circles think more strategically about giving than the control group, for example, by conducting research or using factors such as organizational data performance in making decisions, and in considering options such as supporting operation expenses or giving multi-year gifts.
  3. The giving circles reach a wider audience than the control group, giving not only to a larger number of organizations but also showing more likely to give to organizations that support women, ethnic, and minority groups, the arts, culture, or ethnic awareness, and “other” (e.g., environment) – with the caveat that they are less likely to support federated or combined giving funds (e.g., the United Way) and religious organizations.
  4. The length of membership in a giving circle has a positive correlation with an individual’s sense of civic responsibility, within and outside the giving circle; the findings did not, however, show a major correlation with political activism.
  5. Participation in a giving circle increases knowledge about philanthropy and awareness of the nonprofit sector on a local and international level, even among members with a “heightened awareness” prior to their participation in a giving circle.
  6. While giving circle members are more likely than the control group, among other things, to believe in the positive impact of giving on a community’s health, as the size of a giving circle increases, the amount of time volunteering decreases and the less members believe that giving and volunteering have a positive impact on the health of a community.

Overall, Eikenberry and Bearman suggest the level of engagement, length of engagement, and size of the giving circle are the most important factors to understanding giving circles’ effects on members. Based on these findings, the researchers give four key recommendations for giving circles (explained in more detail in the study publication(s)):

  1. Invest in engaging and keeping members for the long-term,
  2. Consider how a giving circle’s size may affect its impact,
  3. Don’t worry about shifting funding away from existing priorities, and
  4. Use giving circles to increase awareness about community and policy.

The study, “The Impact of Giving Together: Giving Circles’ Influence on Members’ Philanthropic and Civic Behaviors, Knowledge and Attitudes,” in its entirety is available here.
The summary of the study, “The Impact of Giving Together: A Snapshot of a Study on Giving Circles’ Influence on Philanthropic and Civic Behaviors, Knowledge, and Attitudes” is available here.
The 2006 study, “More Giving Together: The Growth and Impact of Giving Circles and Shared Giving,” researched and written by Jessica Bearman for the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers is available here.
For information on giving circles generally, please view the previous post, “Giving Circles.”
Additional resources on giving circles are available on the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmaker website, in the “Giving Circle Knowledge Center”.
– Emily Chan