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NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series spotlighting how anyone can be a philanthropist—even you—regardless of your income or know-how.

When it comes to helping others, anyone can give. And anyone can work with others to form a “giving circle,” a unique approach to philanthropy that’s growing in San Diego and allows donors to unite and make a difference.

Giving circles typically pool the financial gifts from a group of people. But that’s only a part of the larger picture. Giving circles also allow their members to coordinate their individual donations of time and showcase their own talents in ways that help non-profits survive and thrive.

“It is charitable to cut a check individually. It is strategic philanthropy when you bring many women together to research community needs, vet applications, collectively make the decision as to where the group will invest their grantmaking dollars for the greatest impact, and have a great time in the process,” says Tracy Johnson, executive director of the San Diego Women’s Foundation. “We can do more together than most of us could ever do individually.”

SD Womens Foundation Logo_CAN DO SDWF Logo new color

The foundation is one of several local charitable organizations that embraces the giving circle model. At San Diego Social Venture Partners, for instance, about 70 households donate $5,500 or more a year and gain an unprecedented opportunity to dive deeply into philanthropy.

Among other things, members learn first-hand from experts about the opportunities and challenges of philanthropy. Members also provide free consulting services to local non-profits.

(LtoR) San Diego Social Venture Partners Patrick Dempsey, Andy Rinde, Samantha Gleiberman, and Meghan O'Brien

(LtoR) San Diego Social Venture Partners Patrick Dempsey, Andy Rinde, Samantha Gleiberman, and Meghan O’Brien

San Diego Social Venture Partners

“As an alternative to traditional volunteer opportunities, you get a hands-on opportunity to use the specific professional skills in the way that you’ve developed over the course of your career to strengthen the business side of nonprofit organizations,” says Lakshmi Paranthaman, executive director of San Diego Social Venture Partners. “This has much more impact, and it helps bring about systemic change in non-profit organizations devoted to improving the community.”


Latina Giving Circle, another San Diego organization, has raised $20,000 for its first round of grants in 2015. The organization convened its members to collectively identify the most critical issues affecting the Latino and Latina community. After the convening (and much discussion), the members voted to support organizations that work to advance career opportunities for Latina women and girls in San Diego County.

The members of the group range from young children to seniors, says Myrian Solis Coronel, chair of the Latina Giving Circle’s program committee. Men and non-Latinos can be members too.

The organization was born in 2013, in part as a response to a perception that Latinos are recipients of services but not leaders in terms of giving.

“A group of women wanted to pool our money together to strengthen our community,” Solis Coronel says. “We don’t want to just write checks. We offer professional skills to organizations and mobilize service days to support the great work these organizations are delivering. We want to create a collaborative, non-traditional form of philanthropy.”

In the first round of giving, 18 organizations applied for two $5,500 grants. Group members will continue to assist the grant recipients and the other applicants with issues like leadership education and preparing to serve more people, Solis Coronel says.

At the San Diego Women’s Foundation, hundreds of women pool their donations of $1,000 or $2,000 each. The group’s motto puts it best: Women Can Do More Than Woman.

Each year, the foundation picks a specific funding initiative. Currently, it’s focusing on helping underserved communities gain readiness for sustainable jobs. Previous initiatives have supported areas like leadership development and water quality and conservation.

Then the foundation offers grants of $25,000 or more — $180,000 to $200,000 a year. “We’ve invested almost $3 million in 75 nonprofit programs in our 15 years of existence,” executive director Johnson says.

Follow-up is crucial, she says. “As women, that’s one thing that is really important to us as philanthropists. We want to know where our money went, where it is spent, and what impact it had.”

What’s next? Giving circles can only become more popular as communities realize their value as an alternative to traditional approaches. “Philanthropy comes in different forms,” says Latina Giving Circle’s Solis Coronel. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Everyone can find their philanthropic “fit” and give back in ways that best suit them. If a giving circle sounds like that fit for you, contact the organizations profiled in this article or check out one of these additional San Diego giving circles:

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