The concept of a giving circle — a group of individuals coming together to pool their money or time and collectively decide what causes to support — isn’t new. Mutual aid or benefit societies, the modern-day giving circle’s predecessor, have existed across the world and throughout the centuries. Here in the U.S., similar traditions come from groups like the Free African Society, an organization established in Philadelphia in 1787 by two Black ministers with a goal of providing aid to newly freed Blacks.
The modern giving circle has had a resurgence though. According to a 2016 national study by the Collective Giving Research Group, the number of giving circles in the United States has more than tripled since 2007. And the number of dollars given has surpassed $1.2 billion.
One group adding to those numbers is a collective of Colorado College alumni from the classes of 2011, 2012, and 2013.
In March 2017, Dan Marion ’12 emailed 12 of his CC classmates, asking if they would join him in each giving $50 a month in order to collectively pool the funds and donate to causes they care about. They all agreed.
The idea for him, Marion says, was conceptualized while reading the book “Poor Economics,” by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. In it, the authors suggest practical solutions to fighting global poverty, one of which discussed the importance of taking advantage of pre-existing groups when it came to implementing programs such as health insurance. Marion wasn’t implementing that type of program, but he still had an a-ha moment. “When I thought about important groups in my life, my CC friends immediately came to mind. Without them, none of this would have happened.”
Marion named the group Mitzvoters, a combination of the Jewish word mitzvot, which is plural for good deeds, and voters. “I’ve always held on to this notion that in a capitalistic society, where we spend our money determines what survives, thrives or dies, so that you actually end up ‘voting’ for things much more often than during election years,” says Marion, director of operations at Fenway High School in Boston. “So part of the concept was that we can cast a vote with our money for the things that we think really matter in the world.”
What’s mattered to this group has ranged from donating to education nonprofits and helping a family struggling to pay their rent to supporting multiple CC alumni causes. One involved purchasing a recumbent tandem bicycle so an alumnus could return to his love of the outdoors after severe injuries from a car accident; a second helped pay for an alumna’s cancer treatments. Most recently Mitzvoters gave $1,000 to Bryce Rafferty ’12, who, while on a semester abroad in Switzerland his junior year, sustained a C5/6 spinal cord injury during an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Their contribution supported his Help Hope Live Birthday Fund, to assist with medical fees that insurance will not cover while he pursues his dream of a law degree at the University of Denver.
“From a systems-wide and systemic perspective, I realize that the issues that come across the radar of 13 men from Colorado College are not going to be representative of everything that exists,” Marion says. “So I think about how we can expand our understanding of the myriad needs and challenges in the world while also keeping donations personal to the group.”
Another project that was personal to the group was using their funds to honor a classmate, Reuben Mitrani ’14, who died in 2013. But they didn’t just write a few checks. They first went to Facebook to crowdsource the five values people who had known Mitrani felt he had lived by. Then they took those five values — valiant, loyal, empowering, playful, and passionate — and gave five $100 awards to individuals they felt exemplified those values.
“It was a nice opportunity to keep his memory alive while also recognizing people who are doing good work in our communities today,” Marion says.
The 13 original members — Marion, Nathanael Burt ’12, Daniel Fuwa ’12, Jake Heine ’12, Mike Jin ’11, Jeremy Kazanjian-Amory ’12, Charlie Lovering ’12, Jack Ordway ’13, Russ Pagan ’12, Luke Urban ’12, Jeremiah Waters ’12, Michael Wolff ’12, and William Zuke ’12 — are spread across the country, so they don’t meet in person but utilize a group texting app and video conferencing for their communication. Marion says those conversations include “everything from recommending donations to talking trash when sports teams are in the finals. … Having people from New York and Boston, it ends up probably being at least 50-50 with legitimate conversation and sports trash-talking.”
Red Sox and Yankees aside, to date, Mitzvoters has raised almost $24,000 and given more than $16,000 of that to 29 different recipients. (As they continue to pool funds each month, they are also trying to decide how to make the most impact with their current savings of $6,000.) And it’s worth noting, that while Marion wishes their group was more diverse in gender and race, Mitzvoters is an outlier when it comes to giving circles. According to the Collective Giving national study, about 70% of groups report that women make up more than half of their membership. And unlike Mitzvoters, where most members are in their late 20s, the majority of giving circle members are age 45 to 65.
“What we do isn’t difficult,” Marion says, “it just requires commitment. I’d love to see other groups like ours pop up.”