Donor Circles Offer Givers an Insider’s View

On a sunny winter morning in Mountain View, a small group of donors gathers around coffee in a bright conference room at SVCF. They are about to be introduced to four local nonprofits that seek to tackle issues from childhood cancer to reducing juvenile gang violence. Each nonprofit is working to address a problem through art, and each has applied for funding.

Meet the Donor Circle for the Arts.

Since its inception in 2008, SVCF’s Donor Circle for the Arts has granted out more than $540,000 to arts organizations in Silicon Valley. Donors in the circle gather periodically to hear directly from nonprofits and make grant decisions. Donors in circles pool their resources from their SVCF funds for a common cause. On this day, it’s art, specifically visual art. SVCF also has donor circles that focus on the environment, Africa and local safety net services, specifically housing.

The first nonprofit introduced to the donors is the Art of Yoga Project, an organization that offers creative art and yoga classes to incarcerated girls in Silicon Valley. The nonprofit provides services to over 700 girls annually and uses art to give the teens a healthy avenue of self-expression.

The purpose of this donor circle is to grant money to nonprofits that work in underserved communities. Next up is San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. Executive director Cathy Kimball posits that emerging young artists in Silicon Valley in fact represent an underserved population themselves. Knowing nods are exchanged around the table.

Two more nonprofits speak to the group. One is Sanchez Art Center, seeking funding to continue teaching art education at a Title 1 elementary school in Pacifica that would otherwise not have any art classes at all. The other is Kids and Art, an organization that brings art projects to the waiting rooms of cancer wards that treat children, allowing young patients, parents and siblings a chance to escape into creativity during long trips to the hospital. The art can be auctioned if the young artist chooses, and the proceeds go back into the program.

After each nonprofit speaks, the donors ask questions about their work and their results.

Two hours later, it’s time to decide which organizations get funding, and how much. Tobi Becerra, philanthropy advisor at SVCF, facilitates the discussion. Becerra, a former professional dancer and daughter of a working artist, has many reasons to host the discussions. Art has been present in her life in many ways; after managing a professional dance company and writing arts education curriculum for the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, she now channels her love of art into this circle, and she sees progress.

“We’ve funded organizations that have grown so much since we began supporting them that they are no longer eligible for donor circle grants because their budgets now exceed our requirements,” says Becerra. The circle funds only nonprofits with budgets of under $1 million. She adds that the donors make a greater collective impact as a circle than they would by making grants individually. Donors get an inside look at fledging local nonprofits in their interest area, and growth becomes possible for smaller organizations.

The donors discuss each nonprofit at length. Should we grant them the funding they ask for? Should we grant them more, or less? The circle ultimately decides to grant out a total $30,000 and closes the meeting. Chatting continues about where the following meeting should be held – perhaps a site visit to one of the nonprofits being supported to view some of the art?

Donor circles are just one way to bring your philanthropic dreams to life at SVCF. Circles offer an opportunity to make a greater impact along with other donors, while getting introduced to nonprofits on the ground, offering interesting new takes on serving the community. Learn more about our donor circles and projects here and explore the many ways to get involved in philanthropy with SVCF here