Giving Circles amplify individuals’ power to make a difference

Giving Circles amplify individuals’ power to make a difference

It’s an old aphorism that no raindrop feels responsible for the flood—but what if we flipped that?

What if a group of individuals recognized their own potential and combined each of their humble efforts? Could it form a mighty current capable of knocking down barriers, cutting new paths and transforming a landscape?

For more than a decade and gaining momentum every year, the Giving Circles of the Rochester Area Community Foundation (RACF) have functioned on this principle—together, all of us can do better than each of us.

Jennifer Leonard
Jennifer Leonard

“Giving Circles are like investment clubs, but for charity,” said Jennifer Leonard, president and CEO of Rochester Area Community Foundation. “You research together, you give together, and you celebrate the impact together. Your own gift is magnified many times over. What a great way to engage in community philanthropy.”

It’s a simple concept that has taken root and bloomed in the Flower City, with each offshoot dedicated to growing and nurturing a certain population or underserved area. With a low point of entry, Giving Circles are a way to engage a donor base that may not be able to, for example, single-handedly fund a university building.

Since 2007, Giving Circles have raised and distributed a collective $1.7 million within the six-to-eight county greater Rochester area, according to RACF officials.

Giving Circles are a way to offer a different type of social, educational and engagement opportunity and each of the RACF’s five Giving Circles operate based on the input, consent and will of its members.

The RACF makes applying for grants easy through Giving Circles with its online grant portal and application, as well as instituting dynamic, innovative events like NextGen’s “Shark Tank”-style finals at Geva Theatre.

The individual nature of Giving Circles allows for a rigorous, personalized application and award process, circle leaders said, letting members see exactly where their money is going and what for.

Melinda Andolina
Melinda Andolina

“We want to work best practices, be more of a strategic collaborator than just a grantmaker and have a deeper understanding of the customer’s voice,” said Melinda Andolina, co-chair of the Rochester Women’s Giving Circle (RWGC).

The RWGC was formed in 2007 with the mission of providing support and opportunities for women and girls in the Rochester area, which Andolina calls the group’s “shared passion.”

“We want our money at work in the community getting women and girls in Monroe County out of poverty and to be self-sustaining,” Andolina said. “If you strengthen women, you strengthen the community as a whole.”

Giving Circles allow individuals to follow those shared passions. For Leslie Anne Hulbert of the Developmental Disability Giving Circle, that started from the barriers encountered by her son, Andrew, who is challenged by autism and epilepsy.

“It was a concept that could bring together parents of people with developmental disabilities to join together to fund innovative programs that are going to make a difference in their lives,” Hulbert said.

Leslie Anne Hulbert
Leslie Anne Hulbert

The Developmental Disability Giving Circle focuses on three areas for “helping create the life [individuals] want to have,” Hulbert said. Those three areas are employment, community inclusion and increased independence.

“A common refrain we hear as parents is ‘oh, that’s a great idea, but we can’t do that.” said Hulbert. “We wanted to be able to be that source of saying, ‘you have a great idea; we think this is worth investing in.’”

Since beginning in 2015, the Developmental Disability Giving Circle has invested in technology grants to help individuals with their schedule and independence, as well as employment assessment software and LinkUp, a career vocation program with one-on-one support for individuals with autism.

Hulbert says awareness of individuals with disabilities and “how we’re more alike than different” has contributed to a community appreciation and led to the growth and success of her Giving Circle.

“That awareness has led people to understand that we all have talents, all have the right to have a self-directed meaningful life,” Hulbert said.

The African-American Giving Initiative (AAGI), founded in 2011, is tackling some of the toughest problems in its community through targeted giving and an overarching mission to raise $1 million to establish a permanent endowment.

After a 2013 study commissioned by the AAGI through the RACF that examined the state of black Rochester through the lens of education, economics, employment and housing, among many other aspects, leaders were “able to get of a focus” and commenced awarding grants that year.

Carol Adams
Carol Adams

“[The AAGI] is another avenue for people to get involved and have a collective impact by coming together and strategizing and evaluating various ways to fund organizations that are seeking a little help,” said AAGI’s Carol Adams.

Adams said that in recent years, the group has begun to zero in on “providing a positive, enriching environment for our youth.” The concentration on programs to uplift young people has produced some notable outcomes, like the Conkey Cruisers neighborhood bicycling program to promote exercise.

The AAGI also supports the Gateway Music Festival, which in 2017 hosted a contingent of internationally renowned musicians of African descent to perform and hold workshops, all in conjunction with the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.

“While they’re not big grants, they’re meaningful grants,” Adams said. “They add to the good quality work that’s going on to uplift African-American youth.”

With Rochester’s long history of supporting progressive and social justice causes all the way back to legendary Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, it’s no wonder the LGBT Giving Circle has found success, based around a “give where you live” philosophy.

“The people who are donating collectively appreciate this power, of many gifts rather than a single gift, to make our presence known with philanthropic support for our community,” said John Williams of the LGBT Giving Circle, noting the organization counts roughly 100 households among its membership.

After starting out with “just a handful” of supporters, Williams said, the LGBT Giving Circle has grown to include both people who identify as LGBT and “allies who believe in our mission.”

The LGBT Giving Circle, founded in 2011, awards its grants to any organization that is LGBT supportive, Williams said, and is not limited to organizations for which LGBT issues are the primary focus.

“Rochester has supported the LGBT community and been at the forefront of LGBT equality and it’s important—you can’t do it on your own, so to have allies, that means you can get the job done,” Williams said.

Some giving circles have particularly creative ways to solicit both donations and grant applicants.

Each year, NextGen, the Giving Circle dedicated to engaging young professionals, packs Geva Theatre for its Community Showcase, where finalists from organizations who have applied for grants make their case before a live audience.

NextGen's Tim Ryan, right, and Andrew Brady. (Provided)
NextGen’s Tim Ryan, right, and Andrew Brady. (Provided)

“It’s my favorite event of the year,” said NextGen’s Tim Ryan. “The energy in the air is so tangible; it’s the reason we exist.”

The Community Showcase is the culmination of NextGen leaders and membership considering that year’s applicants and winnowing down the choices until they’re ready for primetime.

In a “crowd-sourced, hands-on” night at Geva, grant aspirants take the stage and beseech the audience—who participate in the process—to fund their dream.

With a low buy-in to appeal to young men and women who may be otherwise saving for retirement, or to buy a house, Ryan said NextGen was trying to harness a resource that exists in Rochester but often goes untapped.

“A lot of people don’t even know it’s a thing,” Ryan said, but with its innovative events and broad scope, NextGen hopes this year to surpass the $100,000 mark of grant awards.

For more information on the Rochester Area Community Foundation or Giving Circles, visit