Washington Area Women's Foundation

Grantmaking through a giving circle: inspiring, intense, and lively!

Last Monday, I met with 12 other women for three hours and discussed our shared goal: improving the lives of young women in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

This might sound like wishful thinking, but it was much more than that.  We are members of The Women’s Foundation’s Rainmakers Giving Circle and have pooled our charitable contributions in order to make a bigger impact than we would by writing individual checks.

Our task on Monday was to review and sort through 34 proposals from nonprofit organizations seeking funding from our circle and narrow the field to those we want to consider further and visit.  It was daunting, but we were up for the challenge.

I left the meeting feeling overwhelmed by the vast needs of so many at-risk populations in this area but, at the same time, exhilarated by the circle’s collective energy and humbled and inspired by the good work of the 34 organizations we reviewed.

This is my fourth year as a Rainmaker, and the proposal review meeting is my favorite part of the grantmaking process.  I love the free flowing sharing of ideas, as well as the dynamic and organic nature of the discussion. The conversations take unexpected twists and turns, are always lively and sometimes intense, but never contentious.

Many questions are raised, discussed, partially resolved, discussed again and sometimes even left unanswered.

Do we want to find the “diamond in the rough” where our money will help a program get off the ground?  Or should we support an established organization with a strong track record and add our name to a reputable list of funders?  Should we decline a prior grantee organization that seems to be having managerial problems?  Or stick with it so as not to abandon the organization at a fragile time?  Does a particular issue push our buttons, tug at our heartstrings and compel us to say, "Yes!…Let’s keep that organization on our list"?  Or, should we ignore our emotions and just look at the statistics?

These questions and many others make the review process exciting, frustrating and, ultimately, rewarding.

The Rainmakers have a few requirements for the proposals, such as the age of the target population and a specific geographic focus, but we have a lot of discretion in reaching our decisions—and that discretion generates rich debate.  I have learned that grantmaking is an art,  not a science, and the life experiences of each member as well as the “pulse” of the circle as a whole make a tremendous impact on the decisions that we reach.

By the close of our meeting, we had narrowed our 34 organizations to eight that will remain on the docket and receive site visits in the next phase of our grantmaking process.

We didn’t raise our hands to vote or record our preferences on pieces of paper that were tallied.  Instead, we reached our decisions by consensus, ultimately selecting a slate of organizations that likely does not match any one individual member’s dream list of organizations, but represents the collective thinking of our giving circle.

Since we have joined together to leverage our charitable giving, I can’t think of a more fitting or satisfying result.

Debbi Lindenberg is co-chair of the Rainmakers Giving Circle.  In her professional life, she is an attorney working as a grantmaking consultant to foundations.

  • Melissa Urofsky

    Well done!