As Zahirah Mann tells it, the concept for Angelenos for Los Angeles, a giving circle housed at Liberty Hill, came together over several months.
She and co-chair Anne-Marie Jones and several of their friends formed the giving circle in fall of 2011, and made their first grant at the end of 2012. But some of the first ingredients—the information that sparked a decision to make more impact with their philanthropy—came in February 2011 at Uplifting Change, Liberty Hill's initiative to bring together local donor-activists to leverage community assets to strengthen Black Los Angeles.
"Professor Ange-Marie Hancock gave a presentation at the conference discussing her own philanthropy and the findings of her survey of African American philanthropy in Los Angeles. She described philanthropic giving in the Black community, which primarily consists of individuals donating to their churches and schools, assisting their families and so on. This type of giving is thoughtful and in many cases substantial, but not necessarily strategic."
Zahirah remembers that Ange-Marie, now a member of Liberty Hill's Board, used her own history as an example, explaining how she began to direct her philanthropy in a more targeted way.
The presentation resonated with Zahirah, who thought about how she and her husband were giving as a couple. "We are ardent environmentalists. He, especially, was making donations to anyone and everyone who called or sent a letter requesting a donation. Our giving was spread among a number of groups. While all the organizations were concerned with an issue we cared about, our giving was not at all targeted.”
At that same 2011 Uplifting Change, Zahirah and Anne-Marie were intrigued by a panel on giving circles. "The panelists spoke about how they were able to make high impact gifts each year by pooling their resources with friends and colleagues," says Zahirah. "We were impressed with how much some groups were able to give in grants, amounts that for us would be really aspirational!"
From those first sparks of an idea, Zahirah and Anne-Marie, along with some dedicated friends, "decided to form an organization where we could come together and do some high impact giving. Since so much of the idea started at Uplifting Change, we were very focused on giving back to L.A. and to the Black community. After a few discussions, we decided that our mission would be to create and support positive social change in the greater Los Angeles Black community.”
There are now 15 active participants, and several additional contributors. Angelenos for Los Angeles encourages participation at a number of different levels delineated in the membership agreement, which asks participants how involved they would like to be in the circle, regardless of their investment level. The bylaws outline the governance structure based on investment, including rules related to voting and other decision-making. Members of the circle give at least $900 annually, which membership can be shared between up to three individuals; supporters of the circle give at least $100 annually. All participants are encouraged to gather at different times throughout the year in a “casual social setting where everyone can come as they are” to discuss potential grantees, community involvement, and a host of other issues that relate back to the mission and advancement of the work.
For the grantmaking, "we do not have an application process," says Zahirah, "Circle participants come to the group and describe organizations whose work is consistent with the circle's mission. Each person brings their own experience to the discussion and it really helps us understand the best way to move forward."
Of the circle's very first grant in 2012, she says, "It was so exciting. We had an end of the year party; as we were counting up the votes there was so much energy in the room! The first year we raised enough funds to make a grant of $10,000 plus a contribution to Liberty Hill. The main grant went to Peace4Kids. We were so excited to have learned about the organization, a group working with foster youth— if we can improve their outcomes, we get that much closer to resolving so many other societal concerns related to homelessness, criminal justice, etc.”
Now moving into a third year, Angelenos for Los Angeles made their 2013 grants to the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and Peace4Kids and also a contribution to Uplifting Change, honoring Kafi D. Blumenfield.
The giving circle has evolved. They've done away with having subcommittees and doing site visits, instead availing themselves of Liberty Hill's due diligence process. And they've learned what works for them.
“It helps to have everything happen in the context of the broader group, where everyone is given the opportunity to participate,” says Zahirah. “It’s been a great exercise in trust. What we have found is that everyone who actively participates in the circle is not only invested financially, they are invested in the process and invested in the outcome. What’s great about our giving circle is that once people feel committed to the group, they do everything they can to ensure the continuation of the group and its mission. I think that has actually been the biggest accomplishment of the circle and what I am most proud of: helping to develop a group of active philanthropists. They are simply amazing.”
And with that kind of sustainability, Angelenos for Los Angeles will be giving with impact, to be pooling resources and awarding meaningful amounts in grants, and to be creating lasting change for the better in L.A. for years to come.
For information about starting a giving circle, please contact Sarah Vaill at 323.556.7203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read Giving Black in Los Angeles: Donor Profiles and Opportunities for the Future (2012), download the report.