Women’s Giving Circles: How They’re Changing Philanthropy in California

Volunteer-based, donor-led giving circles seem to be the way that philanthropy is headed in many places, and California is no exception. Giving circles are generally groups of individuals that pool their resources and are sometimes referred to “philanthroactivists.” These types of funding vehicles often focus on education, women's issues, and youth causes, but they can just as well encompass a wide range of interest areas. What makes them particularly interesting is their inherently local focus.

The Women’s Foundation of California has awarded over $10.8 million to 518 nonprofits serving women and girls over the past 16 years. The main goal of this foundation is to boost the economic security of low-income women and families in California. This year, a network comprised of six giving circles committed $395,000 to 18 local organizations. Let’s learn a little more about these circles and how nonprofits can tap into these female-focused funds.

Economic Development & Justice

This giving circle network is focused on the Bay Area. The two main areas of interest are sex trafficking and child care for low-income families. In 2015, the giving circle awarded two grants: $55,000 to California Child Care Resource and Referral in San Francisco and $50,000 to Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth in Oakland.

Race, Gender & Human Rights

This giving circle focuses grantmaking on California's incarceration issues and criminal justice system. Five grants were awarded this year, ranging from $10,000 to $45,000 each. Current grantees include A New Way of Life in Los Angeles and the Center for Young Women’s Development in San Francisco.

Violet's Giving Circle

Although it doesn't look like any grants have been awarded by this giving circle yet this year, it's still worth mentioning because of its unique take on philanthropy. Violet's Giving Circle is composed of juniors and seniors at the Marlborough School in Los Angeles. Since 2008, these students have been raising money for their fund and learning about grantmaking from the foundation staff. The group is expected to meet this fall and discuss grantmaking for education programs for low-income women and women of color in Los Angeles.

Women Give San Diego

As the name suggests, this giving circle solely benefits San Diego County. It awards grants in the areas of job training, mentorships and financial education. Grant amounts this year ranged from $20,000 to $30,000 and included nonprofits in Carlsbad and Oceanside as well as San Diego.


This giving circle focuses on college access and college completion for low-income women, especially Latinas. Five nonprofits throughout the state received grants from this giving circle in East Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Pescadero, and San Jose. These grants fell into the $5,000 to $15,000 range.

Women + Girls in CA

And last, but not least, is the Women + Girls in CA Giving Circle, which was just established last year and is unique because it’s online-based. This virtual giving circle just made its very first grant of $2,000 to the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles. The exact focus of this giving circle is still being established, and it’s trying to recruit new members, too.

The Women’s Foundation of California is based in Oakland and has been making grants for over 35 years. The network doesn’t appear to welcome unsolicited grant requests, but rather identifies local needs and reaches out to nonprofits directly. Lots of local foundations you’ll recognize support the foundation, including the California Endowment, James Irvine Foundation, Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Weingart Foundation. You can find research & news, the blog, and upcoming event notices on the foundation’s website.

If you haven’t noticed, we’re big fans of giving circles at IP and hope to see more of them develop in the cities we cover. Unlike other more traditional forms of philanthropy, giving circles aim to be fun and social.

One giving circle member, Gretchen Sandler, said, “When people ask me about joining a giving circle, I tell them that the circle provides them with camaraderie. It’s a low-risk, safe place to learn about philanthropy. They’ll gain from the experience and advice of the Women’s Foundation of California. And they’ll have fun!”

Related: IP’s Profile of the Hestia Fund, a women’s giving circle in Boston

There’s a spirit of collaboration, here, that makes giving together more empowering than giving solo. They also epitomize the spirit of “involved giving” that goes beyond financial support and focuses on connections and sticking by causes for the long haul. They might not have the capacity to make headlines with million-dollar awards, but they’re more in tune with local needs than the average foundation, which can make all the difference in the world.