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The City of Brotherly Love earns its reputation when it comes to supporting local communities. At the helm of this movement is the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle (PBGC), an organization devoted to cultivating and uplifting Black communities and nonprofits.
Serving the three major counties surrounding the city of Philadelphia, PBGC focuses on building relationships within the greater community. Monique Curry-Mims and Shanell Ransom, members of the Steering Committee, look at stepping up to lead the circle as a form of advocacy and standing up for their community.
“We try to focus on how to serve as an advocate for our people,” Ransom says. Today, the circle has more than 30 active members, along with a significant increase in non-member donors over the last 18 months. During their 2022 grant cycle, PBGC distributed $125,000 to five grantees: Black Girls Green Thumbs, Collective Climb, YEAH, The Evolver House, and Lift Every Voice Philly.
“There are philanthropists that support grassroot organizations, but there’s not a lot of them that are based in Philadelphia,” explains Curry-Mims. “Because of that, the smaller organizations aren’t seen or heard. And that means, when it comes to Black-led or Black-serving organizations in the city, we see a lack of money going to those organizations.”
“So, the idea [for the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle] came from realizing that there wasn’t a lot of support for smaller organizations,” Ransom says. “We wanted to be able to not only support these organizations, but connect them to the larger philanthropic community.”
It goes without saying that 2020 was a year of drastic change. Philanthropy’s racial reckoning in the wake of Black Lives Matter, economic justice issues raised by COVID-19, and the lasting impacts of the pandemic all played a role in the changing face of Philadelphia. Initially, grassroots and community organizations in the city saw an increase in giving, allowing smaller organizations to increase programming, hire more team members, acquire new services and spaces, and open new locations.
But as time went on, this influx of funding dropped off. Traditional funders returned to their regularly scheduled programming, leaving organizations as much in need as they were before the pandemic. Suddenly, the organizations that had been keeping their communities afloat were in dire straits, unable to sustain the critical programming rolled out in response to the pandemic.
And that’s where the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle comes in. At face value, the circle offers financial assistance to community organizations in the city, but Curry-Mims and Ransom also wanted to allow circle members to create a community all of their own.
“We launched an online community so people could be in a safe space to share their additional resources,” says Curry-Mims. “We want these organizations to talk and learn from each other. In this online space, they’re able to exchange goods, learn about new opportunities, offer help with grant writing, and overall be a support system for one another.”
The online community also offers a space for donors, whether they are voting members of the circle or just financial sponsors.
“We want [donors] to learn about the groups and see what is really needed so they know where their money is going,” Curry-Mims explains.
What makes things work for PBGC and their partners is this spirit of open communication and deep connection. By building those connections, the circle helps its partners become more aware of each other, as well as the opportunities and organizations available in the larger philanthropic ecosystem. And this feeling of connection goes both ways.
“Traditional philanthropists look to us to really explain what it is we’re doing here,” Ransom says. PBGC relies on grantee feedback to improve cycle over cycle. “What we do goes beyond the dollar. We give [grantees] the resources they need to become more attractive to the bigger funders. There are things that they need to be aware of, things to think about, steps to take – we’re in the trenches with them as we work out those kinks. We don’t want [our grantees] to have that ‘make ends meet’ mentality anymore – we want them to succeed.”
Curry-Mims and Ransom are used to digging in to get the job done, but one of the biggest challenges PBGC has had to face is managing its workload on a volunteer-only basis. Like so many circles and community organizations, what starts out as “pitching in” or finding a way to leverage one’s talents can quickly turn into that feeling of being pulled in every direction.
“At the end of the day this is work, but we’re all just volunteers,” Curry-Mims explains. The Steering Committee’s duties include outreach, fundraising, and setting up proposals, along with the back-end logistics of running a community organization. Delegation has been the secret to success: For example, during the 2022 grant cycle, Curry-Mims and Ransom turned the organization nomination process over to the circle members.
“When we start a new project, we know that it will take a lot of time and dedication,” Ransom says. “But it’s a labor of love, and the people involved are committed to seeing our community succeed.”
This year, PBGC has also begun outreach to other giving circles, established organizations around the country with experiences to lean on and expertise to offer. Through extensive research, conversations with volunteers and other circle leaders, and opening communications with organizations like Philanthropy Together, Curry-Mims and Ransom hope to see PBGC grow beyond its current structure.
“We knew we had to be creative, but you have to find what works for your group and your community,” says Ransom. “Find what works and let that be your strength. That’s what’s so great about giving circles.”
“The truth is that a giving circle never stops growing and changing,” Curry-Mims adds. “But as leaders, we are laying the groundwork and building a foundation, built on trust and voice.”
As to the future, PBGC has set its sights on hiring full-time staff members and reaffirming the circle’s structure within the next five years. Eventually, PBGC plans to expand beyond the annual grant cycle.
Part of the process will be handing over leadership duties and delegating tasks to those best suited for success.
“We aren’t the original leaders, but we are original members,” says Ransom.
Curry-Mims adds, “We’d love to create a structure for people to smoothly transition into leadership so that current leaders can fall back into being members – actively engaging but not leading at the helm.”
This concept of regularly passing leadership comes from PBGC’s strong ties to the community. Building relationships with members and grantee partners, understanding the language of the nonprofit world, and building a team around who is best positioned to handle the workload are all critical components of taking a giving circle to the next level. For example, attaining 501(c)3 status is a hefty amount of work, but Curry-Mims and Ransom see that process, among others, as an opportunity to learn.
And for those considering taking the leap into circle membership, Ransom says, “If you want to get involved, look for giving circles in the area. And if you can’t find one – start one! Just get involved, whether that’s donating your money or your time. It really does matter in the work that we are all doing. Be the change you want to see.”
To learn more about the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle, visit phillyblackgiving.org or follow along on social media @PhillyBlackGiving on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Hear from PBGC member Shanell Ransom at We Give Summit 2023: A Celebration of Collective Giving during the session “Good Trouble: How a New Generation of Changemakers Are Disrupting Philanthropy.”