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Big philanthropy’s newest disruptor? Tiny philanthropy

May 12, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


Updated to clarify Shanell Ransom's affiliation with the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle. (May 12, 2021 at 4:30 p.m.)
 There is big philanthropy.

This is where billionaire donors or foundations create bureaucratic structures to give millions of dollars to charitable causes they deem important. Traditionally, big philanthropy has been organized around areas of donors’ interests, not around matters of greatest social need.

And then there is tiny philanthropy.

This is where like-minded individuals develop giving circles and mutual aid societies often in response to a problem, pool their money and collectively deciding who should receive.

“Bread & Roses started as a giving circle during the early 1970s, and to this day, collective giving permeates all of our grantmaking, which remains community-driven and community-led,” said Bread & Roses Community Fund Executive Director Casey Cook.

But the Fund’s work often includes discussion on the civic actions necessary to ameliorate the conditions that gave rise to the need in the first place.

Casey Cook. (Courtesy photo)

“Pooling money through giving circles is a nimble way for people to practice collective care and respond to the needs that arise in their communities,” Casey added. “Giving circles are able to give money to emerging mutual aid efforts, to neighborhood businesses, to individuals, and to anywhere else they decide to direct their money.”

The steering committee of the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle (PBGC), defined giving circles as simply “vehicles to move dollars with no strings attached.”

Big philanthropy answered the call to rescue Americans from the economic devastation of COVID. During the first half of 2020 almost $12 billion was given in COVID-related spending, according to a report by The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) and Candid.

Two-thirds of the money came from corporations, but half of the awards were made by community foundations.  Almost $2 billion was contributed by independent foundations with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation leading the pack.

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Tiny philanthropy answered the call too, albeit with far fewer dollars, but with a much different approach — summed up as solidarity, not charity.

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, despite spending billions, some are beginning to question big philanthropy’s approach to charitable giving. Is it part of the solution or does it exacerbate the problem?

“Community-led responses to COVID-19 have a clear advantage over those coming from distant centralized bastions of power, which, intentionally or not, often reflect and reinforce existing inequities,” wrote Samer Araabi, research director for Accountability Counsel.

For example, the Candid report found that only 5% of the money that identified recipients was designated for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. This despite the fact these were the very people most impacted by the pandemic.

Shanell Ransom. (Courtesy photo)

According to Philadelphia Black Giving Circle (PBGC) Steering Committee Member Shanell Ransom, that is unfortunately not unusual. “The Philadelphia Black Giving Circle (PBGC) was started a few year ago as a response to the consistent underfunding of Black-led and Black serving nonprofits in the region and this problem still exists,” Ransom said, adding “Representation is important, lived experience is critical and it is liberating for us (Black people) to work together and fund solutions created by our own community. PBGC aims to be a place of acceptance, joy, healing and learning.”

The major complaint against big philanthropy is it maintain the same relationships with power and creates permanent dependency for its grantees without significantly  impacting  the source of the problem.

“Big philanthropy — more than ordinary small donations that most people make — is an exercise of power. It’s an attempt to direct your private assets for some public influence, often with a naked aspiration to change public policy,” wrote Rob Reich, author of  Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing democracy and How it can do Better. (Note: Rob Reich is not the former Clinton administration Labor Secretary).

Tiny philanthropy also recognizes the power imbalance and intentionally designs inclusive communities that operate in an equitable context. “We aim to be a circle, where nonprofits can come to us and be their authentic selves, that is they do not have to shape shift or code switch for funding. Organizations can share their work without the fear of saying the wrong thing,” Ransom said.

Tiny philanthropy is also likely to join resources.

“At our Tribute to Change event in October, we honored Asian Mosaic Fund and Philadelphia Black Giving Circle for their leadership in social change philanthropy,” Casey said. “At the event, folks from Philadelphia Black Giving Circle recounted that they had approached Asian Mosaic Fund when they were first forming to learn about their giving circle model. After openly sharing their knowledge, Asian Mosaic Fund members pooled their money to make a seed grant to help Philly Black Giving Circle launch. That was incredible to hear about — a beautiful moment of solidarity among our city’s philanthropists.”

Some of the larger grantmakers are beginning to think like their small counterparts to enhance effectiveness of their giving. A recent national survey on health equity programming showed that 82% of the respondents indicated that their programming was or will move away from a charity-minded model and into a more transformative giving model.

One concern is that these changes, while lauded, had been advocated by grantees for years and essentially ignored. It took a world-wide pandemic with historic rates of illness, death, evictions, and unemployment to realize change.

One take-away for large bureaucratic traditional grant-makers?

“Actively think about ways to make nonprofits lives’ easier and make changes to your operations/grant application process,” Ransom said. “Consider beginning relationships with grant dollars and work to increase the number of Black-led/Black-serving organizations in your grant portfolio.”

Last April Generocity made a list of local mutual aid organizations that mobilized during the first days of the pandemic. Check them out here.


Philadelphia Black Giving Circle

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