Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Creating circles of generosity

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Last Sunday over 120 Ely women gathered together to donate thousands of dollars to benefit a local non-profit, and I was privileged to be one of them. This truly imaginative approach to fundraising, 100(+) Women Who Care, was started in 2006 by Karen Dunigan of Jackson, Mich., to raise money quickly and efficiently for local charities. She put out the word, and 100 women brought their donations and collected $12,000 in an hour to buy 300 new baby cribs and bedding for a hospital in Jackson.

Karen Dunigan was described as a dogged fighter for her community in many ways. She served as mayor and on multiple non-profit boards, chaired major fundraising efforts, and received many prestigious awards, including the Susan B. Anthony Award. She was a busy woman who knew who to get things done, and she knew a lot of other caring, busy women who wanted to make a difference, so she put out the original appeal, which is followed by groups all over now: if you have limited time but want to make an immediate, direct and positive impact on our community, if you want 100 percent of your donations to go directly to a local charitable organization, if you want to learn about our local non-profits, and if you want to meet other caring women, then come join us.

Then she structured the process: She asked everyone to contribute $100 and nominate a favorite non-profit. (People can also team up to pool their contributions, but the team only gets one nomination and one vote.) The nominations are collected, and three are chosen at random. Whoever submitted each nomination has five minutes to present the organization’s purpose, projects and needs, followed by five minutes of questions. After all three presentations are made, everyone votes, and the winner receives 100 percent of the donations. All this happens in an hour, although most groups start with a social hour with snacks and beverages, as well as some recruiting for favorite causes. The local group decides how often to meet, often quarterly. The Ely group meets twice a year. This last Sunday was the third event, and so far over $20,000 has been raised. The Northern Lakes Arts Association, Ely Community Resources, and Northwoods Partners have been the recipients.

The brilliant simplicity of this takes your breath away. Have you ever worked on a fundraising event? How many hours did people contribute to put it together to raise a few hundred or a few thousand dollars? Have you every felt your cash donation is just too small to make a difference? The power of coming together is palpable. Additionally, although everyone wants their own group to win, the randomness of the drawing helps reduce competitiveness, and there is enthusiastic applause for all the presenters and for the final winner. Everyone values all the worthwhile organizations and recognizes the cumulative power of volunteerism and community support represented in the room. Giving the unexpected lump sum to one organization means the recipient can fund a project or need not covered in the budget. Some people write checks for all three organizations, just because they can.

Karen Jackson died in 2014 at the age of 61 and left an amazing legacy. Her local group had already given away $475,000, and today there are over 400 Women Who Care chapters in the United States and Canada. Not wanting to be left out, there are now Men Who Care, Kids Who Care, and People Who Care groups, as well. I couldn’t even find an estimate of donations collected since 2006, but with 400 chapters, the totals would be quite staggering.

Curious about other stories of generosity, I went exploring. I had heard the term “circle of generosity,” and I found a foundation with that name, a group started by Michael Clinton, skilled organizer in many charitable efforts, who said, “I’ve learned over the years that the most gratifying way to give back is to be anonymous and to be selfless.” The organization’s mission is to deliver random acts of kindness to individuals and families in need, to give a one-time, anonymous financial gift to an individual or family for basic living, education or medical needs during a period of struggle. It has helped people all over the world, from helping rebuild homes after Hurricane Sandy, assisting Sherpas’ widows after a Mt. Everest disaster, providing a needed oven, or a check after surgery. The only thing Circle of Generosity asks its gift recipients in return is that the recipient perform their own random act of kindness in the future, to complete the circle of giving.

I found a story about an entrepreneurial couple in Australia who were comfortably well-off and wanted their three children to recognize that they had more than enough and to learn generosity and compassion. With the help of a friend, Catriona Wallace, who founded Kids in Philanthropy, they identified a project which they and nine other families could work on together, building relationships with kids the same age as their own but from different socio-economic levels. They each pledged $5,000 a year to seed after-school classes in four primary schools, and the families participated personally.

I also found Common Change, another inspirational form of collaborative giving, formed by a group of friends who decided to contribute to a common fund and collectively meet the needs of people around them, providing friendship and support or giving money. “We started with a simple question, what is poverty? That led us to ask how might we create a culture that reflects the reality that there is enough for all of us?”

They found they could change lives. In nine years, they have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to help friends, family, coworkers and neighbors, and helped personally, opening their homes to the homeless, assisting disadvantaged teens, giving people a leg up to start over. Common Change invested in a web-based platform so others could set up a fund of their own and manage the donations, requests and assistance. Their website states, “Common Change is built around genuine relationships, with the hope to connect people and their resources with people in their life. This is more than charity or benevolence; this is about a call to friendship.”

They recognized that the act of sharing can be extremely powerful and identified these benefits: Pooling money, skills and time, and other resources reveals an economy of abundance and opens up possibilities about how we might help; collaborating with others can lead to better decisions about giving and reminds us we’re not alone; advocating for what we value increases engagement and empathy in our lives.

Jack Kornfield, revered Buddhist teacher, says generosity is the first of the Ten Perfections of the Heart, that it offers freedom by letting go of what is really not ours anyway, and fills us with the joy of giving. He asks, “Have you ever met a truly generous person who is unhappy?” He tells the story of when a wealthy man died, and someone asked, “How much did he leave?” The answer: “Why, everything, of course.”

Thank you, Chris Chandler, for importing the Women Who Care concept to Ely. We all benefit.

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