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The magic of the humble giving circle

It’s the name each organization gives to gifts at the level of $1,000, $2,500, $10,000. It usually gets trotted out on the sponsorship form for an annual event, and on the response device for solicitations. And not given any thought in between times.

But giving circles have power far beyond what those uses would suggest. They provide a framework for handling “middle level donors”: a strategy in between the mass approach you use for small donors and the one-on-one treatment major donors get. The power of giving circles is evident from three different angles.

From a staff perspective, giving circles are a gateway to major gifts. While a $1,000 gift is not going to change the trajectory of the organization, it may be the beginning of a relationship that will lead to a $50,000 gift. They make a focus on top donors concrete. And they provide a rationale for unrestricted gifts.

From a board perspective, they facilitate solicitation. Asking a friend for $1,000 may seem random. It is a lot easier to say “I am a member of the Founders’ Circle for X organization, and I would like you to join me with a gift of $1,000”.

From a donor perspective, giving circles provide prestige and a sense of belonging. A donor contemplating a first gift to a new organization could easily get overwhelmed by wondering “what is a meaningful gift?” Giving circles answer that question.

Here are three case studies showing the power of giving circles.

Organization X had two boards: a board of directors and an advisory board. The advisory board was populated with high-powered, well-connected people. They were supposed to help with fund raising, but no one knew how. A year after they came up with the “Friends of Organization X” concept, the board had generated over 40 gifts of $1,000, and a matching gift of $10,000. They also had relationships with some people who could give much, much larger gifts.

Organization Y’s is a theater that prides itself on connections with its audience members, and it has a loyal following. Its development program consisted of an annual appeal letter. Through an energetic program of personal contact and small events, they created a “Friends of CSC” program which generated over $30,000 in gifts of $1,000 – $5,000 in its first year. They are now contemplating a major capital campaign.

Organization Z, a legal advocacy organization, decided to use their once-every-five-years event to launch a major gifts program called the Champions for Justice. Board members were urged to invite their friends to come to the event as guests of the organization (ie for free). The program book for the event had a one-page ad describing the Champions program with a special logo and a list of the names of the 12 inaugural members. The executive director followed up in the months after the event with phone calls and visits inviting people to join the Champions program. Now, 1 ½ years later, the Champions page on their website boasts 33 names. And the organization has received a windfall gift of $25,000, which the director of development attributes to the fact that she now has personal relationships with the top donors.

What all of these organizations have in common is that they used a $1,000 giving circle to springboard into the exciting world of major gifts. And they did it with a development staff of between half a FTE and one.

Here are some steps to launch a robust giving circle if you don’t already have one.

  1. Create a powerful identity for your giving circle. Give it a name that reflects the values of the organization. Design a special logo. Have special letterhead printed.
  2. Forget about premiums. Your $1,000 donors probably have all of the coffee mugs and pens and mouse pads they need. The relationship you are creating is not a transactional one, but an invitation to a more meaningful life.
  3. Think about the giving circle’s benefits as ways to draw members closer. Invite them to monthly exclusive conference call with the director. Invite them (without badgering them to buy a ticket, please!) to special events that highlight the organization’s mission. Send handwritten notes on newsletters.
  4. Set the dollar amount for the giving circle at the right place. You want donors to feel that this is a significant gift. You want the board to be impressed with how much they have raised quickly. For all three organizations mentioned above, that level was $1,000. It probably doesn’t make sense to make it any lower than that. It could be much higher.
  5. Don’t make more than 3 giving circles to begin with. Isn’t life complicated enough already?

If you are ready to take some baby steps into major gifts fund raising, you may find that using your giving circles is the way to do it. And get ready to sprint!

Paul JollyPaul Jolly ( worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth. The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are outside of the philanthropic mainstream. 

Topics: Fundraising