Giving circles for greater good

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Carol Sorgen

At their annual summer garden party, members of the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle mingle with others who are considering joining the group. Giving circles, which pool member contributions and make donations to community nonprofit organizations, are growing in popularity.
Photo courtesy of the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle

When Penny Wald and her husband moved to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor eight years ago, she began looking for a way to become involved not only in her new city, but in the philanthropic community as well.

A retired educational consultant and professor of education, Wald had become involved in a “giving circle” when she lived in Alexandria, Va., prior to moving to Baltimore. Such groups pool their charitable contributions and decide jointly where to give, and how to further their involvement in community and social causes.

Wald, 67, investigated opportunities after moving here, and found the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle (BWGC), a project of the Baltimore Community Foundation. She joined five years ago and has found it an ideal opportunity “to meet interesting women by doing good work with them,” not to mention getting to know her adopted hometown.

The mission that motivates BWGC members is, through collective giving and collaboration, to empower other women and their families in the greater Baltimore area to become self-sufficient.

The BWGC was founded in 2001 by Shelley Goldseker and Pam Corckran. Their vision was to bring together Baltimore women from diverse backgrounds to engage in collective philanthropy focused on women and their families who were living in poverty in the Baltimore area. By the end of the first year, there were 52 members. Today there are 445.

Grants total in the millions

Giving circles are a relatively new trend — within the past two or three decades or so — but are based on centuries-old traditions of mutual aid societies and other forms of giving within communities.

According to the Giving Circle Network, there are currently 400 documented giving circles nationwide. A survey responded to by about 40 percent of those found that they alone have raised $88 million since their inception (most since the year 2000) and granted almost $65 million to fund community needs.

Giving Circles are ethnically diverse and, though a majority of members are female, co-ed and even all-male circles exist and are growing.

Circles vary in size and formality, from those with a handful of neighbors hosting “parties with a purpose,” to some (like BWGC)  with hundreds of members. Most focus their support on local needs, but needs throughout the world are also increasingly addressed.

At BWGC, each member of the circle contributes $1,100 annually; $1,000 goes directly to the grants being awarded that year, and $100 to an administrative fund. According to Margaret (Peggy) Schapiro, who serves as BWGC co-chair with Wald, the circle has awarded more than $3.5 million in grants to more than 140 local organizations since its founding.

This year, those contributions were responsible for awards totaling $425,000 to 22 programs serving women and families in Baltimore city and county. Those programs included Night of Peace, for a family shelter to assist homeless families with children; Rebuilding Together Baltimore, to provide home repair services to allow low-income elderly women to maintain their homes and their independence; and the YWCA, to provide supportive housing and services for women and their children.

The circle’s work is done by committees involving any and all members who care to join one.

“We encourage, but don’t require, members to join committees, but know that committee work is a wonderful way to connect with the talented, dynamic women that make up our membership and build personal connections with other circle members,” said Schapiro, 67, who lives in Lutherville.

For example, the education committee provides opportunities for circle members to learn about local training programs for women living in Baltimore; the membership committee works to bring new members into the circle; the communication committee keeps members up-to-date with each other and with current issues; and the visioning committee primarily researches new ideas for the circle to consider and provides recommendations for future action.

For Schapiro, who joined in 2002, one of the appeals of the circle is the diversity of its membership and the opportunity to meet and work with women from different walks of life who are all working for the same goal.

“The circle embraces people who want to be actively engaged,” added Wald, noting that the women have a choice on how engaged they want to be — whether it’s simply making a donation or taking a leadership role.

A changing role for women

Sherry Welch, a board member of the Catonsville Community Foundation (CCF), first became aware of women’s giving circles in Baltimore and other cities across the country in the 1990s.

“It was a time of sea change for women,” said Welch, 62. “As more women earned more money, they began to understand their financial power, and that they could do more [working] together than individually.”

Welch, the new executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Metropolitan Baltimore, presented the idea of a giving circle to the CCF as a way to engage more people in local philanthropy. The idea caught on, and the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle (CWGC) was launched in 2010. Membership is diverse and includes a wide range of ages and viewpoints.

According to Dianne Burch, who is CWGC co-convener, the goal, however, remains the same — to be part of a philanthropic effort that directly impacts and supports the Catonsville community. (As far as Burch knows, the CWGC is the only giving circle in the region that is community-specific.)

Each member makes an annual tax-deductible contribution of $260. The donations are pooled to make grants each year to programs selected by members, upon review of grant applications that meet agreed-upon criteria.

The members meet quarterly to educate themselves about community needs and philanthropic best practices. In addition to seeking and reviewing grant applications, they also visit grant sites to observe programs in action.

Recent grants have been made to community nonprofit programs such as Catonsville Rails to Trails, Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, Catonsville High School Cross Country, and the PJ Schafer Cardiovascular Research Fund. In 2013, the group awarded a total of $25,000 in grants to 14 nonprofits serving the greater Catonsville community.

For Welch, the value of giving circles is two-fold: “It’s a meaningful way for women to get together and do good.”

For more information about the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle, visit For the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle, see

For a list of giving circles throughout the Baltimore-Washington area, visit