Drawing on his research at NUS Business School in Singapore, Rob John reflects on the growth of giving circles across Asia
Giving circles are an intriguing phenomenon. These self-organised groups comprise individuals who pool donations, and jointly decide which charities to support. Members are typically engaged across the grant management cycle (screening, selection, due diligence, funding agreement and monitoring) and sometimes offer skilled volunteering to the selected organisations. Research from the US and UK over the least ten years suggests that participation in a giving circle can help donors become more generous and strategic with their money and time, and positively change their attitude towards non-profits and philanthropy.
My own research at NUS Business School in Singapore explored what drives innovation in Asian philanthropy, and led me to track giving circles in the region. In 2014 we identified 35 giving circles in eight countries, which we categorised as those that had been transplanted into Asia from existing circles or networks in the US or UK, or locally-initiated indigenous groups. Transplanted circles, even those operating like a franchise, needed strong local leadership and displayed autonomy in shaping their organisation to best serve local circumstances. The founding members of Social Venture Partners (SVP) Melbourne, for example, departed from standard US practice to create a dual fund structure that gave the chapter flexibility to donate grants to charities and provide equity and loans to the locally strong social business sector. We found that giving circles in Asia, whether transplanted or indigenous, covered a wide spectrum of donation size by members into the pooled fund – some as little as US$ 200, while the largest was US$20,000 per member annually. Most circles, however, expected each of their members to give several thousand dollars per year.
Our follow-up study in 2017 revealed that the number of giving circles had nearly doubled to 66 in nine countries. The largest growth was in Australia, from nine in 2014 to 21 today, boosted by expansion of transplanted networks and the formation of new indigenous circles. Nineteen of the giving circles in Asia were hosted by community foundations or other intermediaries that provided back office services or strategic partnership. The growing popularity of collective giving in the region prompted us to explore if joining a circle enhanced an individual’s knowledge and practice of philanthropy, as observed in earlier research from the US and UK. We surveyed 188 individuals in 38 giving circles in China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam. Eighty-three per cent of them had been active in their giving circle for at least a year, with the majority recruited into the circle by friends or colleagues who were already members. Forty-four percent of respondents had volunteered to a charity being supported by their circle, with over half their time described as “skilled”, that is advising on strategy, fundraising or operations.
In line with research from the US and UK, the majority of surveyed members felt better informed about social issues and the charity sector (86 per cent) and more positive about the work of non-profits (87 per cent). Fifty-five per cent confirmed that the experience of giving with others led them to increase their donations overall, with 58 per cent claiming their giving to be more discerning, strategic and focused on outcomes.
Participating in a giving circle appears to be a powerful way for individuals to make progress in their giving journey, offering experiences and a level of satisfaction more usually associated with the institutional philanthropy of foundations or family trusts. Many of the circles we interviewed also multiplied their social impact by collaborating with community or corporate foundations and other circles.
Giving circles are citizen driven initiatives that are now firmly part of the philanthropy landscape globally.
Rob John is an independent philanthropy researcher and Associate of the Centre for the Study of Philanthropy & Public Good. Between 2011 and 2017 he was Visiting Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore, NUS Business School. This post is based on his article in Alliance Magazine, Vol 23, No 4 (March, 2018). For more information about Rob’s research on Asian giving circles please visit https://robjohn.academia.edu/ and http://givingcircles.asia/
Image: Field visit by members of the “next-gen” giving circle ’20 20 Social Impact Young Leaders Group’ to a school in Sichuan Province, China. Photo courtesy 2020 SIYLG