Back in 2002, Marsha Wallace of Greenville, SC, was bothered by the plight of women and children in Third World countries. Yet she didn't have a sizable amount of money that she believed could make much of a dent in contributing to ending poverty. But an article in a magazine changed her mind and her life.

"I read about a group of social workers that would get together occasionally and instead of eating at a restaurant, they would have a potluck dinner. They would donate the money to a needy family in their community. I thought, 'that's really a great idea,' and months later I was meditating and it hit me! It was like a bolt out of the blue that I could take that same idea and we could just expand on it and make the beneficiaries women and children in Third World countries."

By January of 2003, Dining for Women was born.

As Wallace has found, giving is one of the most spiritual acts one can make, yet many people may feel their ability to give is hindered by the lack of a sizable amount of money to part with. Thanks to a trend that's growing in popularity, that could be no further from the truth.

According to a recent report by the philanthropic organization New Ventures in Philanthropy, thousands of people across the country are donating millions of dollars to worthy causes through giving circles--small groups of friends and acquaintances who pool their money together to donate to charitable organizations of their choice.

"The most exciting thing about giving circles is that combining each individual donation into one really big donation can make such a bigger impact than any individual can do alone," says Wallace.

Wallace and a group of friends get together one Monday a month and share a meal. The participants in the giving circle then decide what charitable organizations should be the beneficiary of the funds they've saved.

"We raise an average of $400 to $700 a month," says Wallace. Since the group's first dinner in January 2003, they've raised $20,000.

Dining for Women is not alone in the endeavor to raise funds collectively for a cause. In 2004, New Ventures counted 220 circles across the country and that number has been growing steadily, particularly in the last five years, says Deputy Director Jessica Bearman.

"One of the beautiful things about giving circles is that they demystify the word `philanthropy' for a lot of people and they make people realize that they can be philanthropists even if they're just giving $200 a year to the circle," says Bearman.

Giving circles also are as unique as the people who create them. While Dining for Women primarily raises funds for various charities, Giving Circle of Hope, based in Reston, Va., has some members that donate money and others that donate time.

"Once a year we solicit grant applications and collectively vote on how to distribute that money," says Linda Strup, a founder of the circle. "Last year we gave out over $25,000 and this year we have $50,000 in our bank account."

However, while some members of Giving Circle of Hope donate a minimum of $1 per day or $365 per year, others participate in monthly service projects doing such tasks as visiting nursing homes and participating in cancer walks.

The main thing needed to start a giving circle is a group of people with the desire to serve others.

"Get together a couple of friends who are passionate about giving to form a core group that can help you think through some of the decisions you have to make," says Bearman. Among the questions that must be answered: What cause will the money go toward, and how much will each member be asked to give?

If the giving circle is small, with, say, 10 members, many of these questions can be answered in a living room meeting. However, larger giving circles often have more formal structures, with different committees being responsible for different things.

Determining which charities to support can be as simple as taking a vote or as formal as requesting that organizations fill out an application in order to be considered for funding.

One thing giving circles must be wary of is the risk of giving money to fraudulent organizations.

"I would recommend that people do research and make sure the causes they're giving to are legitimate," says Wallace. Web sites such as http://www.guidestar.org/, http://www.charitywatch.org/, and http://www.give.org/reports/index.asp all provide information on charitable organizations and where their money is spent.

There are so many organizations that do good things in the world that Wallace advises giving circle creators to come up with an area of focus and stick with it. Dining for Women chose to focus on international fundraising organizations since so many donations in the United States already go to local charities.

A lot of giving circles also focus on smaller charitable organizations, Bearman says, since those are the charities that often don't have as much support from the general public.

Giving circles may also want to document the way they are run, particularly if they are constantly soliciting new members. The Giving Circles Knowledge Center, a wealth of online information about giving circles, includes a number of templates for documents that members of giving circles may find helpful as they're planning the structure of their organizations.

Not only do giving circles provide a forum for leveraging money for a cause, but they provide their members with a sense of camaraderie as well.

"It's a little scary and a little lonely to raise money by yourself," says Bearman. A giving circle provides a safer environment where everyone can learn about different charities and the needs of the community together.

"I would say giving circles are special because they provide a way to be philanthropic but also to really learn about the community and to learn about yourself as a philanthropist," adds Bearman. "It is much more rewarding than just writing a check."

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