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‘Giving circles’ boost charitable spirit

(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / June 6, 2010

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One recent night in Needham, several dozen women stood inside Carolyn Shaughnessy’s living and dining rooms, listening intently to a woman talk about some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

Later in the evening, the women wrote checks for the Treehouse Foundation, a group that tries to improve the lives of children in foster care, and slipped them into a basket.

Money raised at one suburban party in one night: about $3,000.

Shaughnessy is one of the founders of A Step Up, a group of women who meet every few months for an informal party of drinks and snacks and to support a cause of the evening. The money raised by A Step Up this night will benefit Treehouse’s Suitcase Project, which provides suitcases, clothing, and toys for children in foster care.

Organizations like A Step Up are called giving circles, and such groups, often driven by women, are a growing trend in philanthropy, according to the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers. A study of giving circles conducted last year concluded that people who belong to them donate more money than donors who do not.

The increase in giving circles began in the 1990s and continued into this decade, said Michael Litz, president and chief executive officer of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers in Washington, D.C. These small groups make individual donors feel like their contributions can accomplish more, he said.

“Part of it is realizing, if you give with others, your dollar goes further,’’ he said. “If you give your $10 for your cause, that’s fine. If you’re able to pool together with people who care about the same issue you do, you can have a bigger impact.’’

In Roslindale recently, a group of women who call their gatherings Wish and Dish — meetings include a potluck dinner — raised money to buy children’s clothes for Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit that helps homeless and low-income children.

Massachusetts also has at least four Womenade chapters, groups that meet regularly over dinner to donate money to needy causes.

A Step Up was created in 2006 by five local women who wanted to contribute to worthwhile causes that didn’t get a lot of attention. The women have been gathering three times a year, and each party attracts dozens of women and usually raises between $4,000 and $6,000. (The suggested donation for each woman is $35.) All of the money they raise is given to the group they are supporting. The host of each party solicits donations of snacks and drinks from local businesses.

But the women who started A Step Up say the money they’ve raised at parties has been only part of their reach. Many attendees continue to individually donate time or money to a group that intrigues them. The five women behind A Step Up spend months researching local nonprofits, looking for groups that tend not to get a lot of attention, searching for projects where their donations will have an impact.

A Step Up tends to support groups that work with women and children, including Women of Means, a Wellesley-based nonprofit that sends doctors and nurses to local shelters to provide free medical care, and School on Wheels of Massachusetts, a Brockton group that provides academic support services for homeless children.

The idea of giving money to a good cause without going to a fancy fund-raiser was appealing, said Gina Saltonstall of Dover, a mother of three and one of the founding members.

“We didn’t want to buy a new outfit,’’ she said. “We didn’t want to sit at a big table.’’

The women found themselves looking for ways to challenge themselves as their children grew older and didn’t need so much daily care. “The biggest thing was how do I fix my couch, or fabric swatches,’’ Saltonstall said.

One of the founders left the group, and the women found another friend to replace her. The five women who run the group now live in Needham, Newton, and Dover.

The group also hopes to inspire women to volunteer on their own. Last fall, after they heard about More Than Words, a Waltham group that employs vulnerable youths at its bookstore cafe, several women collected books to donate to the nonprofit. Pat Carucci of Winchester attended her first A Step Up party in October and was so inspired that she decided to start her own group in her town. A Step Up Winchester launched April 29, headed by Carucci and four other women.

“I was so overwhelmed with the turnout and the energy in the room,’’ Carucci said. “I came out of there on fire.’’

For nonprofits perennially struggling to raise money, getting a cold call from a group that wants to raise money for them is often astonishing, especially in an economic climate that has made fund-raising difficult.

“We don’t usually get calls,’’ said Danielle Ferrier, chief executive officer and president of Rediscovery Inc., whose Youth Harbors Program for homeless young people was chosen as A Step Up Winchester’s first recipient. “It really actually took me a few minutes to get my head around the amazing proposal.’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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