Bringing the "book group" idea to the world of charitable giving

A modest proposal that combines the opportunity to give, to learn and to share good times with friends.

Steve Kelman

With a season of giving approaching, I want to share a version of an idea I heard recently at a dinner for a charitable cause that seems to me to be a nice mixture of an opportunity to give, to learn and to share good times with good friends.

My host at the dinner, and one of my tablemates, are working together to establish an organization aimed at women with considerable financial resources but limited experience with philanthropy. (Readers without "considerable financial resources" -- please read on, I am going to adapt their idea to people with somewhat less money to give!) Their idea is to have, say, 100 women each give into a pot a fixed sum of money, say $5,000. This would give the group total resources of $500,000. The group would decide in advance that these funds would be dispersed in grants of $50,000 or $100,000 each to a limited number of charitable organizations, based on votes by group members. The group would then solicit various charitable organizations of its choice to apply for these grants, in paper and/or with in-person presentations.

The idea of the organizers is not only to disperse money to worthy organizations but also develop a network of women who have gotten to know each other better and to give new philanthropists greater experience in evaluating proposals for help.

As I listened to this fascinating idea, I thought of a much more modest adaptation to my own less grandiose circumstances. I am actually thinking of trying to do this, and want to put the idea out to others as well.

My modest version: Get together a group of five couples who are already friends. Each couple contributes $2,000 each year, creating a pot of $10,000. Choose five small local service organizations as possible grantees. Set up five dinners at the homes of each of the five couples, where the group hears presentations. After the five presentations, the group votes on which organization should get the $10,000. (One could alternatively imagine five larger charities about which group members could gather information on the Internet.)

I tried this out on a person at the dinner experienced in the world of local social service organizations, and he said that:

  1. There would definitely be in most large cities a number of local organizations for whom a contribution of $10,000 would be significant enough to make it worthwhile to make a presentation to a small group; and
  2. In most large cities, there would be places to go to learn about possible organizations a group would want to consider.

He added that versions of the idea I was suggesting are spreading, under the moniker "group giving." I think of it as a sort of application of the idea behind book groups -- which have become a staple of American life -- to charitable giving.

Anybody want to give it a try?

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