When Paige Cottingham-Streater joined the African-American Women's Giving Circle in the Washington, D.C., area, she expected to donate money and make contacts with other women. What she didn't expect was that she'd also make a lot of really good friends.
"I knew that I would enjoy working with the group of women who had been invited to the dinner I went to initially," Cottingham-Streater says. "But I didn't realize how much I would enjoy seeing them on a regular basis and the fellowship that we share at the meetings."
Giving circles -- groups of not necessarily wealthy people who pool their money to make substantial contributions to charities they care about -- are a hot trend in the world of philanthropy.
"More Giving Together," a report published last year by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, identified 400 circles in the U.S., up from 200 in 2005. Collectively, they have given away almost $100 million in the past four years.
The report's author, Jessica Bearman, says there are probably many more giving circles than those identified in the study.
About half of all reported giving circles are women-only. Several are limited to African-American women. At least one, Girls Giving Grants in Texas, is made up of high school students. It's a spinoff of the 500-adult-member Impact Austin giving circle. The girls in the circle contribute $100 each and make their own decisions about where the money should go.
What makes giving circles so popular, especially among women?
It's the notion of giving collectively, says Colleen Willoughby, the founder of the Washington Women's Foundation giving circle in Seattle. Her appearance in People magazine in 1998 inspired many women to start their own circles, earning her the unofficial title of "the grandmother of giving circles."
"We have changed the paradigm from philanthropy being something only wealthy people do," Willoughby says, "especially wealthy old men."
Talking to members of giving circles, the sense of empowerment is palpable.
"It's one thing to give away $1,000 a year," says Sondra Shaw-Hardy, the founder of the Three Generations Circle of Women Givers, based in Michigan. "It's another to see it translated into $65,000 -- and to see the impact."
Giving circles come in all shapes and sizes, but they share two basic principles: Members pool their money and then decide as a group where it will go.