The Joy of Convening in Houston: Reflections on Collective Giving


A few weeks ago my friend Laura Midgley and I went to Houston for the Community Investment Network (CIN) conference, which celebrated its 15th anniversary by reflecting on its legacy of building up communities through investing their time, talent, treasure, and testimony (using our collective voice for change). CIN is national network of giving circles impacting communities of color. It connects and strengthens African-Americans and other donors of color by leveraging their collective resources to create the change THEY wish to see. The majority of their members are African-American from the Southeast.

While I had some familiarity with giving circles in general, I was new to this organization and was introduced to it by Laura, who has been a leader in the collective giving movement in her roles as a long-time trustee of the Washington Women’s Foundation and as a board member and co-founder of Catalist, another national network of collective giving organizations.

Laura went to Houston with the specific mission to further Catalist's relationship with CIN.  Five networks in collective giving— The Latino Community FoundationAmplifier (giving circles based on Jewish values), the Asian Women’s Giving CircleCatalist, and CIN—have collaborated on a co-design project aimed at accelerating the size and impact of the giving circle sector on community transformation. (Read about the co-design work funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.) The missions of these five networks of collective giving groups are closely aligned, so rather than compete, they collaborate. We all use conferences to inspire affiliates to dig deeper into this work and to prepare the leaders to go home to their communities feeling elevated. Sometimes this work can be wonky but we came home from Houston reminded it must always be joyful. 

I went to Houston strictly to listen, learn, and observe. Though I am a member of the Washington Women’s Foundation, I don’t have much first-hand experience with giving circles, but have always been impressed with their personal engagement in their communities and the members’ commitment to learning and each other. My work as a philanthropic advisor has been limited to high-net-worth individuals and families who are looking to become more strategic and dedicated in their charitable giving. Working with family groups is in some ways similar to a giving circle, but there is something uniquely special about a group of unrelated people voluntarily pooling their money to make investments in their local community. 

We anticipated meeting new colleagues and reconnecting with fellow philanthropists who give through collective giving grantmaking, pooling funds for community impact. But a genuinely worthwhile conference should do more than provide a few new tools and a pile of business cards.  Our goals for traveling to Houston varied, but we both were delighted that our trip to Houston yielded an unexpected joyfulness that rejuvenated us.

What struck us the most was the level of joy and camaraderie we observed, not just within each giving circle, but among them as well. Participants gathered to share stories and best practices and to learn. Their dedication to the work and communing with a cohort of like-minded people produced a powerful aura of goodwill that was hard to ignore.

I know for Laura, the joy came from stepping back from the work and taking stock of why and how we show up for the communities to which we belong and care about in the first place. In the opening session, Linetta Gilbert, formerly of the Ford Foundation and a founding visionary of CIN, spoke meaningfully about how to blend institutional philanthropy with individual philanthropy. And of course, this is exactly what collective giving groups do – inform the individual through group experience and then elevate the impact through collective giving. Ms. Gilbert spoke about the value of a listening tour and the power of starting any foray into philanthropy by asking “Who is absent?” How can we as philanthropists elevate community by seeking out the voices of those left out of the traditional philanthropic power dynamic?  

Ms. Gilbert and her co-presenter Darryll Lester, CIN’s founder, said of the partnership between funders and grantees: "Spend time with each other to get to know one another before doing business". Too often institutions begin the relationship with a transaction – the grant or the donation. Starting that way sets the tone for it to become forever framed and dominated by that transaction. At The Ford Foundation and now in her recent work, Ms. Gilbert invests in relationships first. Doing so allows us to understand the landscape behind the issue and to better allocate our resources and energy. It became clear to us that it is only from this level of engagement that we can begin to envision how all American communities can grow and thrive equitably.

 As for me, I found a deep sense of joy simply from the conference’s theme: “We are Philanthropists”. It was empowering for me to be among African-Americans who proudly claim the mantle. While many debate whether the sector is hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, CIN’s giving circles harness all that is right with philanthropy and brings it into the Black community on their own terms. Circles represented at the conference gave to individuals (from Black men and boys mentorship groups to struggling entrepreneurs or artists) and to traditional organizations. They also came to learn about innovative programs going on nationally that they could bring back to their circles to learn from or adapt for their own community.

 The learning components tapped neatly into the spirit of the conference: community-based and Black-centered. Speakers who brought their expertise to CIN included land trust advocates from the South speaking about building land sovereignty for displaced black and indigenous people, representatives from Black community foundations talking about how and where to invest a circle’s funds, and community-owned grocery store investors on how to eliminate food deserts. I left inspired not just by the work, but by the communion of the network.

CIN’s giving circles, especially those in CIN, embody the best tenets of philanthropy. People pooling resources, sharing knowledge, and offering a hand up to those who need it brings out the best in all of us. I wish this blog could share the warmth of the hugs we received or the sounds of laughter we heard during those two days. Such a jolt of energy renewed my spirit and my commitment to helping people find joy in their giving through deep engagement and understanding. 

I hope this blog piqued your curiosity about giving circles. Feel free to contact me to learn how you can join an established circle or start one of your own. And check out Catalist’s conference PowerUP! The Spark That Ignites Change, which will be held in Seattle February 23-25, 2020. Laura Midgley is the co-chair of this conference and I will be presenting on women of color philanthropists.

The Science of Compassion

Last week I went to Plymouth Housing’s Luncheon for Hope, which raises money to house Seattle’s homeless. It was a packed house of 1600 compassionate people who collectively raised $1.3M in a mere 90 minutes for their mission. After client testimonials and The Ask, we were introduced to the keynote speaker, Shankar Vedantam,the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain. Apropos of why we were there, he spoke to us about compassion and how it is accessed and processed (or not) in our brains.

 As someone who for over 20 years has relied upon and tapped into the compassion of many in order to do my part in making our society more livable and equitable, I was captivated by his words. I know that when we help others, we experience a greater happiness than if we had done something for ourselves. Now science has weighed in and has offered proof that it’s true. 

 One well-cited study shows this clearly. Two groups were given varying sums of money. One group was told it must give the money away, whereas the other group was instructed to spend it on themselves. Consistently and across variables, persons in the first group had greater neural activity in key areas of the brain and were seen as happier than their self-indulgent counterparts. And this neural activity was present even in the mere anticipation of giving money away to help others. In other words, we are hard wired to do good. So why don’t we do it all the time?

 Vedantam explained that just as there are predictable triggers in our brain for generosity and happiness, there are barriers to them as well. He shared three with us, and I noticed that the first two address an issue that we talk about all the time in philanthropy: the quest for impact. 

The first barrier is distance. It’s much easier to help someone right in front of us than someone who is miles away. Responding to the immediacy of someone’s needs is a knee-jerk response for most of us. However, when someone far away is in crisis, the time it takes to learn of the problem and then to get your relief delivered, causes many of us to lose interest or become more apathetic than we’d like to be. The reason, Vedantam says, is because we don’t get that immediate rush of happiness that comes from having done well by someone. Helping close by is evolutionary.  

The second barrier is scale. For many of us, when confronted with massive problems that we can’t readily solve, we tend to shut down or simply just ignore it--think about homelessness, climate change, etc. You are not alone if the sheer scope and magnitude of the world’s most intractable problems leave you feeling exhausted. It turns out that we are genetically and neurologically predisposed to being overwhelmed in these situations. When we don’t feel we are having, or can have, an positive impact on a negative situation, we are less inclined to help.

 The final barrier is what’s called “the bootstrap narrative.” We have all heard it said that if a person is in trouble, they should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and fix their own problems. It’s a widely held notion, but research debunks the idea that the first person who should help someone in crisis is that very same person. Vedantam cited a famous study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which showed that a person’s mind becomes entirely captured by the thing they lack (especially if that thing is essential, like food, housing, or even a drug). In fact, they can think of little else. Scientists have learned that scarcity captures the mind and the afflicted are in fact the least ableto solve their own problems. They lose the ability to think rationally and instead do the things that may manage the scarcity today, but do nothing to address the root cause of their problems. Watching people make what we can clearly see to be “poor choices” makes our compassion for their plight go out the window. But our expectations are unreasonable. Boot strapping while in distress simply doesn’t work.

 So what can we do to override or outwit our brain’s wiring so that we can be compassionate all the time? Well, apparently it takes very little—and you don’t have to be a martyr either. We just need to remember that: 

  1. Compassion is contagious. When we are working at something with others or if we even see another person toiling away at something good, we tend to be more eager to join in and to help. 

  2. Break it down. Instead of thinking you must rescue all stray animals in world, find one. When we can more readily see our impact by breaking off a small piece of the problem and we “solve it,” we’re more apt to do it again, and so will others. (See point #1.)

  3. Compassion lives everywhere. There are many ways to exhibit compassion, so don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all about money. Making a call to check in on a grandparent or mentoring a teen, goes a long way toward making a difference in the world. And when we do it, we give something more valuable than money—time.

 Being compassionate is a part of what makes us human. As we get strategic with our philanthropy, let us not complicate what it’s all about in the end.

Giving Profile: Disaster Philanthropy


Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are known for our rainy winters and springs. The persistent dampness and temperate climate are what give Washington State, where I live, its name, The Evergreen State. But in the past two years, I’ve witnessed the emergence of a new time of year, wildfire season. 

 Epic drought for the past several years has left the entire west coast parched and on the verge of ignition. Of all the horrible fires last summer, nothing was as devasting to human life as the Camp Fire which killed at least 85 people. The 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest on record. 

 Though wildfires are prominent in the West, the summer months are also known for hurricanes in the South and tornadoes in the Midwest. But not all disasters are due to weather. They also include mass shootings, the refugee crisis and other man-made atrocities. All are horrible to witness and tug at our heartstrings. Calls for action are urgent and our instinct is to lend a hand. We want to help victims. We want to support first responders. So, we give.

 In May, I attended the Advisors in Philanthropy Conference in Washington, D.C. where I went to a plenary session on giving in the wake of disasters, and it was an eye-opening experience. Robert Ottenhoff, CEO of Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), gave an impassioned presentation to the advisors in the audience about what is truly helpful in natural and man-made disasters. He told of how emergency responders classify emergencies as Sudden Onset (Hurricane Harvey, Pulse Shooting), Slow Onset (Ethiopian famine), or Complex (Syrian refugee or Southern border crisis), and how the nature of response is different for each. Developing intentionality around funding disasters is getting greater attention after a seemingly incessant spate of epic events due to the climate crisis and gun violence.

He spoke about how funders are (re)considering their role in preparation for and in response to disasters, what we have learned from some of the recent, large events, and finally, how we can best respond in ways that are proven to be beneficial, both in the short- and long-term. This month’s post will share useful tips and approaches for donors about how best to incorporate disaster giving in their charitable portfolio.

 He began with the numbers of how we currently give. In the US, disaster giving is quick off the mark and reactive:

  • 1-4 weeks following a disaster: Over a third of private giving is complete 

  • 1-2 months following a disaster: Two-thirds of private giving is complete 

  • After 6 months: All giving stops, yet full recovery often takes YEARS.

 About a third of all US households gave to disasters giving an average of $81, but the vast majority of that giving is in the immediate days of the tragedy. What we don’t often hear in the media is the still dire needs of a community once the tragedy has moved out of the news cycle. Consider this from CDP:

 When disaster drives people from their community, it can result in: 

  • Increased taxes

  • Loss of school revenue and teachers

  • Greater public debt shared by fewer taxpayers

  • Increased utility costs

  • Homelessness

  • Loss of workforce and business development opportunities 

And for those who stay, they often face:

  • Mental health issues (e.g., loss of hope, increased despair, PTSD, etc.)

  • Increased suicides, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, early death 

  • Lack of community trust 

 As these events become more regular, it’s crucial that individual donors, and especially corporations and foundations, be more thoughtful and strategic in their giving. But the challenge in doing so is obvious. When disaster hits, the flurry of urgent appeals on social and traditional media can be overwhelming, leading many to donating the wrong things to the wrong non-profits at the wrong time. One striking anecdote that Mr. Ottenhoff shared was the number of coats and jackets sent to Hurricane Harvey victims (in Texas), which not only could they not use, but they also had to spend precious resources finding a way to store, then donating them elsewhere. 

 The CDP is a specialist in the area and they play an important role in helping funders go from being reactive to strategic. He concluded by reminding us that all funders are disaster funders and that catastrophic events tend to fall outside of normal grantmaking guidelines for the average donor. With that said, the aftermath of emergencies extends far and wide affecting housing, vulnerable populations (low income, seniors, people of color), education, health, and more. It is crucial that all donors consider the full arc of disasters and the full scope of their needs for an effective recovery.

 While it is common to think of them as discrete events with fixed beginnings and ends, emergency first responders generally think of disasters in "lifecycles" that happen before, during, and after a devastating event: mitigationpreparednessresponse, and recovery. Understanding what is needed in each phase can help the donor decide where they can provide the greatest need by the strategic deployment of their time and treasure. 

 In summary, for disaster philanthropy to be effective, follow these rules: Give cash. Fund local. Fund long-term. Fund medium-to long-term recovery efforts. Learn from others. 

Additional Resources:

Basic Tips for Disaster Giving, Center for Disaster Philanthropy

Tips for Giving in Times of Crisis, Charity Navigator

The Disaster Recovery Network, Global Giving





A Life-Changing Journey of Faith and Learning

by Selene Poulsen


During my time at the University of Washington, I wanted to expand my knowledge in new areas. Looking through the internships on my university’s job board, I saw the Phila Engaged Giving philanthropy internship posting and felt compelled to apply. I was concerned that being new to the philanthropy industry would limit my ability to contribute. Nevertheless, I soon found that my business skills and passion for community engagement complimented the job’s tasks. I felt privileged to have the opportunity and began absorbing as much as I could about consulting and philanthropy.

After a few weeks of working closely with my mentor, Stephanie Ellis-Smith, I saw numerous similarities between philanthropy and my life experiences. I reflected on my work in communities, connections with non-profit organizations, jobs I’ve had in the past, and my world travels. One part of my role with Phila has been to connect current events with philanthropy for content in our e-newsletter, Insights into the World of Philanthropy.  With Ramadan approaching I was inspired to write about the correlations between the holiday and philanthropy.

In 2016, I took part in a study abroad program in Morocco. We traveled to six cities, participated in a three-day trek through the High Atlas Mountains, and experienced a hands-on approach in researching the impact of global warming, all while engaging with an Islamic country.

As the trip unfolded, I began to realize how westernized I was in my understanding of Islamic culture. Prior to this trip my knowledge on the subject was limited to what I saw from the U.S. news. I knew that women covered their hair and that their Bible was called the Quran. It was a shameful realization that I did not know more than these superficial bits of information.

Upon my arrival, I saw that people indeed did dress modestly. Not all women had their hair covered, however, as I originally assumed. In fact, many women were wearing shorts and a tank top. I quickly learned that Morocco is considered a liberal Islamic country compared to others. This, of course, varied as we traveled to more rural spaces. Like here in my home country, the rural places tended to have more conservative views, while the cities were the opposite.

I became immersed in Moroccan culture through its food, language, and history. We were fortunate to study Islam at the Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane. There we learned the entire history of Islam, including its origins, and how the culture has evolved into its modern-day components. When I reflect on my exploration of Ramadan, I now make meaningful connections to the philanthropy sector where I currently work.

Ramadan is observed by Muslims all over the world and was established in the 7th century when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. It is based on a lunar calendar and therefore, does not start on the same day each year. This year it will begin at sundown on May 5th and will conclude on June 4th.

During this religious month, Muslims are expected to fast from sunup to sundown. When I learned about these dietary restrictions, I remember one student asking our guide, “but what if you’re pregnant?”  I assume that most of us on the trip had never really practiced fasting other than the few Catholics who do mild fasting during Lent. I also was thinking “no food ALL day?” Our guide handled our ignorance with grace and answered our questions. He said, “pregnant women, young children, sick, or elderly are not expected to fast during Ramadan.” I was relieved to know that there were meaningful exceptions and then began to ponder, “why fasting?” It was at this point that I learned about the beautiful meaning of Ramadan.

During the month of Ramadan, not only do Muslims fast, but they are expected to stop all behavior that may be considered immoral. This may include smoking, drinking, and sexual activity--depending on how strictly you practice. Additionally, they are supposed to avoid having impure thoughts or using unclean words. These actions are meant to cleanse the soul of impurities, as well as empathize with the poor and hungry.

Although philanthropy can be found in many religions, what is interesting about Islam is that Zakat (alms giving) is the third pillar of the five that the religion is founded on. The meaning of giving is a crucial foundation of Islam. To practice Zakat means that if you make enough, an annual payment of 2.5 percent of your wealth will be given to the poor. Zakat is an important religious component of Ramadan. If one cannot fast during Ramadan, they are expected to practice Zakat and give food to the poor regularly. In fact, during Ramadan, every Muslim is expected to give to the poor more frequently.

Another aspect of Ramadan is self-reflection. Muslims are expected to practice self-reflection more frequently during Ramadan, including visiting mosques more regularly for prayer. During the holiday, they practice special prayers and some Muslims take this time to read the Quran in its entirety.  

After learning about this, I began to think about when I take the time to do this in-depth reflection and self-care. I began to understand the importance of Ramadan in which people are encouraged to get outside of themselves and their busy lives. The truth of the matter is that I really don’t do this often. I volunteer regularly. I fight for equality. I maintain to do what I believe is right daily. But on a spiritual level, I have not done anything as meaningful as Ramadan’s annual teachings.  

It is for all these reasons that I encourage you to please take some time during the month of May to learn more about Islam, Ramadan, and philanthropy. Discover how these three components are intertwined. There is always a way to connect by exploring our differences. You may be pleasantly surprised with what you find out and how the lessons can apply to your daily life. I know I was.