Todd Wright and Janeen Dednam-Wright hoped to bring Bellevue the same Medicare-friendly dental care that her father offers in St. Louis, but finding money to start the new clinic has been tough.
Enter the Omaha Venture Group, one of the city's dozen or more “giving circles,” with a check for $4,250 to buy computer equipment and software for the Wright Care Dentistry clinic.
“Without this, we wouldn't be able to open up,” Wright said. “Finally, a dream comes true,” Dednam-Wright said.
When the clinic opens in August, it will be a visible example of how giving circles benefit communities by pooling individual donations to nonprofit groups. The clinic was one of nine nonprofits recently receiving a total of $37,500 in grants from the Venture Group.
Giving circles are not new but are gaining traction in a world where more people want involvement beyond writing a check or clicking on a charitable website.
“The big trend in our society is a feeling of fragmentation, people who feel like they can't really be engaged and make a difference,” said Angela Eikenberry, a University of Nebraska at Omaha associate professor who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on giving circles.
“The giving circles make them feel like they're able to connect with people, to learn about issues and to make a difference in a way that can fit into their busy and hectic lives,” she said. “That is attractive to all different kinds of people.”
Most giving circles are informal gatherings of friends and friends-of-friends who put money into a kitty and donate to worthy recipients.
Nationally, the number of giving circles more than doubled between 2004 and 2009 to more than 500 and likely has grown since, Eikenberry said. Researchers estimate the groups' 12,000 members have donated more than $100 million in recent years.
“By pooling the research that's needed, thinking through and discussing the issues, it tends to lead to better giving and to more giving,” said Michael Litz, president and CEO of the Forum of Regional Associations or Grantmakers in Arlington, Va.
Some groups focus on specific causes, such as women's health, a natural disaster or international development. More are becoming formally associated with foundations or larger nonprofit groups, he said.
The Omaha Venture Group, formed in 2002, is affiliated with the Omaha Community Foundation. Last week's donations, during an informal, festive “grant night” over food and beverages at the Benson Pizza Cooperative, featured check presentations to a dance club, a private school, a group that records people during their last days and a north Omaha food program, among others.
Anne Trumble is director of Emerging Terrain, the nonprofit group that helped decorate a set of grain elevators near Interstate 80 with giant posters. Money from the Venture Group will fund more posters and other projects, she said, including one slated for a now-vacant department store.
“This is making it happen,” she said of the group's $4,800 donation.
Hillary Nather-Detisch, one of the group's founding members, said members benefit, too. The group, she said, “is a jumping-off point for people who are interested in the community.”
Other founders include Nancy Mammel, daughter of philanthropist Carl Mammel. The Mammel Family Foundation matches the group's contributions, along with the Todd D. Simon Charitable Fund and a third unnamed family foundation.
The Omaha Venture Group is patterned after the Chicago Young Leaders Fund, one of the early formal giving circles in the latest revival of the concept. It's aimed at young professionals, who focus their giving on start-up nonprofits.
Grant Mussman, a member for four years, said the matching grant money means his dollars go further, and the group's goals fit his personal values. The insurance agent was president of a service fraternity at Creighton University. “Service has always been something that appeals to me.”
The group meets half a dozen or more times during the school year, with each member putting in $300 at the start of the year to donate and $100 toward food and other expenses. The money goes into an account at the Omaha Community Foundation, and members can get a tax deduction for their $300 contribution.
At the first few meetings, members describe charitable groups they have heard about, using their contacts to find new or small groups that could make good use of one-time grants of $5,000 or less. Nonprofits with annual budgets of more than $100,000 are not eligible.
In between meetings, members talk with potential recipients, first over the phone and then in person, and report back to the group. They narrow the list to nine organizations. At the April meeting, members voted on how much to give, up to $5,000 each.
“I truly feel that there's not a more American way, when we sit down and decide how much each one is going to get,” Mussman said. “That's just true fun.”
Co-chairman of the group is Sarah Gilbert, director of philanthropic services for the Omaha Community Foundation. It's part of her job to encourage a new generation of philanthropists. The Venture Group gives young professionals a hands-on experience with nonprofit grant-making.
“There's safety in numbers and a camaraderie and all that, but there's also a seriousness that comes with that responsibility,” she said. As the group members' careers advance, she said, “we would hope that they would still like that hands-on experience, getting to know the nonprofits.”
Nonprofit groups qualifying for Venture Group grants generally are too small to be considered for United Way's annual fundraising campaign, she said, but may grow into major nonprofit groups. Some Venture Group members end up serving on the boards of the nonprofits they support.
Eikenberry, the UNO professor, said her research showed that giving circles complement more formal charitable fundraising groups such as the United Way.
“People who are in the giving circles are giving more, and in particular, the longer they're in a giving circle and the more engaged they are, the more they're giving,” she said. “It does seem to be expanding their portfolio, if you will.”
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