Washington Area Women's Foundation

Where is the real power in The Power of Giving Together?

Last week, seeing the story of the African American Women’s Giving Circle gave me such a professional high.  Nothing I had been involved in to date had been deemed so newsworthy as to grace the front page of The Washington Post!  So I was thrilled to be connected to this. 

As I read the story, I was enthralled with the description of the circle gathering place, the spirit of sisterhood shared by the participants, the commitment to community, and the excitement of nurturing their own philanthropic spirits.

I was thrilled with the tone and appreciation of the article, but couldn’t help but find myself wishing that all 20 of the amazing women in the circle could have shared the spotlight.  I know that a newspaper has limited real estate and that not everyone could be pictured or quoted, but knowing all of the dynamic and wonderful women who make up this group, I really wished that we could somehow reflect that collective spirit more clearly.

Then I glanced at The Women’s Foundation logo with our tagline, The Power of Giving Together.  And it made me wonder: Where is the power in “giving together”?

In the first few months that I was at The Women’s Foundation, I saw very clearly the power of the multiplier factor in giving together.  In a flash, a single contribution of $1,000 could be turned into $1 million

That is pretty darned powerful!

But as I reflect on the African American Women’s Giving Circle and the Rainmakers Giving Circle, and indeed all giving circles, I am struck by something else. A deeper, more subtle power…the qualitative power of the collective.

In North American, there is a lot of focus on individualism.  It seems that our entire culture is built on it. So I did a little research on the subject of individualism and found this:  "Individualism stands for a society in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family only."*

Individualistic cultures like the United States (highest score = 1st rank) and France (10th rank) emphasize mostly their individual goals. People from individualistic cultures tend to think of themselves as individuals and as "I," distinctive from other people and emphasize their success/achievements in job or private wealth and aiming up to reach more and/or a better job position.

Now clearly this is not the sum total of the North American experience or values. But the basic elements are undeniable. Looking specifically in the world of philanthropy, some of the oldest and most established foundations derived from the wealth of an individual or of a single family.  When we traditionally look at donors, we tend to look at the individual.

From this perspective alone, I can understand why the draw is to identify with a single person or a few people. But a giving circle is really the antithesis to that.  It is about the collective, not the individual.

That is what makes giving circles so powerful and unique. And in fact, we can generalize that even more to say that The Women’s Foundation is really the antithesis to that with our overarching emphasis on collective giving and our inherent belief in The Power of Giving Together, whether through the giving circles, the 1K Club or Washington 100.

I think that most of us can recognize that power from a fiscal perspective, but perhaps not as much from a cultural and philosophical perspective.

Looking at the definition from the same source on the collective, or collectivism, I found this.  Collectivism "stands for a society in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong cohesive groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty."*

Collectivistic cultures have a great emphasis on groups and think more in terms of "we".

The sociologist in me is fascinated by this juxtaposition of the social pull in our culture to the individual and the increasing popularity of giving circles that exists only as a collective. But more importantly, the humanist in me is really heartened that we are redefining philanthropy in such an amazing way. There is no question that the sense of individualism is a critical part of what has made North America what it is today.

But, to me, there is always room for the “we,” and if we are to move forward, truly move forward in a way that supports the “global village” that we are creating, we are going to need to find the balance between the individual and the collective.

But for today, I am thrilled to work with women who put the “we” back in philanthropy.

Nicole Cozier is Philanthropic Education Officer at The Women’s Foundation.

Source: "Cultures and Organizations – Intercultural Cooperation and its importance for survival" Hofstede, Geert (1994)