Every other month, Karlene Grabner joins about 20 women for a pot luck supper that may seem like a social gathering but actually has a much more serious purpose.
Grabner is part of a group that calls itself the GEMS, an acronym for Giving Empowers My Sisters. Formed more than a year ago, the GEMS pool their money to donate to charitable causes in their community, Oshkosh, Wis.
The GEMS are part of a growing cadre of charitable giving circles that gather people interested in philanthropy and enable them to pool their money and time so they can have a bigger impact than they would by donating individually.
''We've funded the symphony,'' Grabner said. ''We funded a sports complex going in at the university we bought a couple of bricks. ... We're looking at an environmental project.''
The group isn't limited to institutional philanthropy. Touched by the plight of a single mother whose three children were badly burned in a house fire, the GEMS voted their $250 collection from one recent meeting to the family's care.
Scott Simpson, a program associate with the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, a charitable network based in Washington, D.C., said the forum has identified some 390 giving circles so far, but believes there are far more across the country.
''Many are small and operating under the radar,'' Simpson said. ''It's truly grass roots philanthropy.''
Still, a few things are known about giving circles from the list the forum has compiled, he said. Most have been formed since 2000 and they're located in almost every state. Often they're made up exclusively of women. And while some are church connected, most often the circles are nonsectarian and focused on community activities.
Most concentrate on pooling small donations, Simpson said, but others have gathered hundreds of members who give of their time or sponsor major fundraising activities. ''The giving circles have given at least $37 million to charities that we know of and we think that's just the tip of the iceberg,'' he said.
Members of the GEMS, who try to donate $20 at each meeting, are organized much like an investment or book club. Meetings rotate among members' houses, and the women take turns bringing appetizers, wine and other food.
''Generally, five people are asked to bring forward a cause that they feel some money should go to, and we all talk about it,'' Grabner said.
Many of the giving circles form spontaneously, but others are brought together by major charities. Among these are women's programs under the wing of the United Way of Central Maryland in Baltimore.
Elise Lee, director of the group's major gifts division, said one circle, the Women's Leadership Council, is made up of more than 100 women who each donate $10,000 a year or more. Another circle, WINGs, or Women's Initiative Next Generations, is for those committed to giving $1,000 a year each; it now has some 3,000 members.
''Both provide opportunities for women to come together,'' Lee said. ''And it gives us a chance to educate them to opportunities to get more involved in philanthropy.''
She said that in September, for example, members of the leadership council were invited to a reception to look at United Way programs supporting child care and preschools that promote school readiness.
In addition to raising money, many of the women also participate in volunteer activities.
Some of the giving circles are part of national groupings, such as Dining for Women, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and children in developing countries. Others have an ethnic bent, such as the Latino Giving Circle in Chicago and the Asian Women Giving Circle of New York City.
Some, like the Cleveland Colectivo, try to break new ground close to home.
In its first grant-making year, Cleveland Colectivo raised more than $7,000 that went to an internship that creates neighborhood murals, a community program for refugees, a car-sharing service to provide a transportation alternative, and a ''learning'' garden to be planted and maintained by neighborhood youth.
The Cleveland circle was founded in 2004 by Walter Wright, who works for the nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc., and his wife Judy, who works with Planned Parenthood of Greater Cleveland. They had attended a number of local events focused on community development but didn't feel connected to any of them.
''So we thought, what if we got together with friends and pooled our money and did something with concrete focus to it,'' Walter Wright said. ''The idea was, let's stop talking and do something.''
The Cleveland Colectivo's several dozen members mostly young professionals meet monthly. Each participant donates about $400 a year.
''We want to keep this as a small network because it allows us to really discuss ideas really learn about initiatives in our community,'' Wright said.
One goal of the circle, Wright said, was to get people started on a lifetime of philanthropy.
''We hope people learn about giving at an earlier age and in a more direct way than simply writing a check,'' Wright said. ''And as people move up through their career, this experience will be value to them as they become leaders in their professions.''
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