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Worldchanging Interview: Shana Dressler on Global Giving Circles
Jon Lebkowsky, 22 Dec 09
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Shana Dressler is a New York-based documentary journalist and producer, founder of Swimming Elephant Productions as a framework for creating multimedia projects that advance multicultural awareness and understanding. More recently she's formed Global Giving Circle to create innovative solutions to global poverty.

We look for AND find the ingeniously simple solutions to problems that drastically change a life for the better. Consider the elegant thinking behind VisionSpring: They provide affordable glasses to the working poor (tailors, electricians, goldsmiths, mechanics) while training local women to be lay-opticians. This simultaneously addresses the rehabilitation of breadwinners and the creation of a successful female work force. This is just one example of the for-profit and non-profit entities we support. Our goal is real, hands-on results. To this end, we also support projects such as digging wells, building schools, providing shots to a village, etc.

At a time of the year when we think more about giving and helping, but in a context where commercial culture and accelerated spending create a mix of greed and desperation that subverts and confuses the fundamental altruism we associate with the season, we asked Shana to explain how giving circles can provide an alternative.

Worldchanging: Can you explain the concept of giving circles, and how you're implementing that concept with your organization?

Dressler: According to the Forum of Regional Association of Grantmakers,

“A giving circle is a type of pooled fund where members make grants together; sometimes called a ‘social investment club.’ Giving circles are very flexible and allow members to express their creativity. Giving circle members organize around a common interest, such as environmental conservation or education reform. Giving circles allow for a wide range of giving styles, philosophies and politics, sizes, and focus areas. Each circle member contributes money to the fund. Members combine their resources for a bigger sum of charitable dollars.” [Link]

The idea of the Global Giving Circle came to me as a result of my consultant work with the nationwide satellite channel Link TV. The channel shows eye-opening documentaries about the problems facing humanity, and the people who are doing great things to redress them. In the course of my work at Link, I was privy to myriad emails from people who wrote in from everywhere, asking how they might help in some way.

It became clear to me that there are a lot of people who really want to do something to make the world a better place, but they simply don’t know how to go about it. Others don’t make charitable donations because they don’t think the money they have available to give is enough to make a significant impact.

I decided to investigate how to connect this energy to the causes Link’s viewers felt so strongly about. I did a great deal of research on some of the brilliant alternative thinking in the field of humanitarian problem solving. I realized that if I could find grassroots projects that had a beginning, middle and an end — for $10,000 and under then we could get a group of people together, pool funds and then make a group contribution. By the time I was ready to launch this initiative I wasn’t working at Link TV anymore.

In February 2009, the Global Giving Circle (GGC) launched with a chocolate tasting fundraising event on Valentine’s Day in New York City to benefit Project Hope & Fairness. Fifteen chocolatiers and bakeries from New York including Jacques Torres, Marie Belle, Vere, Theo and the renowned bakery Baked participated. The event raised $5,500 for PH&F, mostly from $25 donations. PH&F used the money to support cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast by digging a well in Broguhe and purchasing three scales for neighboring villages: Abekro, Broguhe, and Pezoan.

Worldchanging: Can you say more about how people with very little money can connect in a meaningful way?

Dressler: I worked for Link TV for two years and read viewer comments weekly. People would write us to tell us about a particular documentary film moved them and asked us how they could make a difference even though they didn't have a lot of money. I left Link TV to pursue how to find projects where $25 donations could make a significant impact. After a lot of research I started to put together grassroots initiatives around $5,000 so that almost everyone could get in on the game of giving.

Here are a list of projects we've raised funds for where no donation was higher than $100 and most were $25. No money was donated for the last project, but what was significant about the program we put together was that what started as a pilot project ended up in the organization's budget.

  • Raised $5,500 for Project Hope & Fairness, which supports cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast. With the money GGC raised, Project Hope & Fairness built a well and purchased 3 scales, which put an end to middlemen cheating the farmers when they weighed the cocoa off site
  • Raised $5,000 for VisionSpring (formally Scojo Foundation), which provides affordable eye care to third world citizens, while training local women in lay-optical work. The money GGC raised funded an initiative in India.
  • Raised $800 to Gone Rural boMake, a Swaziland collective of women artisans. The money GGC raised was used to purchase 10 Q-Drums (water transportation systems) so that the women of the collective could focus more time producing income-generating handicrafts, rather than spending their days collecting water.
  • Raised $1,000 for the Girls Gone Green program at the Lower East Side Girls Club. Girls Gone Green provides green collar job skills and professional development for at-risk youth.
  • Developed a 5-week professional training program for the GREENteens, a pilot of the New York Restoration Project. Six girls from New York City’s High School for Environmental Studies created GREENteens to inspire other teens to get involved in the green movement.

Worldchanging: We're having this conversation as the Christmas holiday approaches, with its focus on giving. How can a Giving Circle be relevant in the context?

Dressler: I can answer that question as it relates to what inspired us to put together Global Gifts That Matter and our December 16 holiday party.

Early in the fall I learned from an eBay survey that 83% of American
adults said they received unwanted gifts during the holidays.* Then we
found a statistic from the 2009 National Retail Federation that Americans spend over 400 billion dollars* on holiday gifts.

Those statistics got us thinking: what kinds of gifts really represent the spirit of the holidays and help people to feel connected to each other? Would it be possible to find gifts that show that you care, show the thought you have put into your gift, and at the same time, help improve someone else’s life?

We began to search for interesting, useful, and inspired gifts that would delight the recipient, endowed with a spirit that gets back to the true intent of holiday gift giving. What we found were a number of organizations doing amazing work that provided exactly the kinds of gifts we were looking for – jewelry, handicrafts, organic chocolates, bags, purses, eco-conscious gifts from recycled materials – gifts any of us would be buying anyway!

We put together Global Gifts That Matter which launched as an online store right before Thanksgiving and on Wednesday we had a party in New York City where collectively over $5,000 was raised through the purchase of gifts and gift donations. The money will help to support high impact non-profits working in the areas of education, AIDS, health, the water crisis and social enterprises which help to create jobs for indigenous peoples living at the poverty line so that they can radically improve their standard of living.

A group of people who form a giving circle can decide that, in lieu of or in addition to gifts, they pool their money and pick a cause that everyone feels connected to, and make a joint donation. Below is a list of organizations we supported for the Global Gifts That Matter campaign and others we’ve worked with that are doing incredible work both internationally and in New York City.

Organizations Working Internationally

Cards from Africa – Cheeky Living - Development in Gardening - Eco Africa Social Ventures - Gone Rural boMake - GreenSoul Shoes - L.E.A.D Uganda - Project Hope and Fairness - The Andean Collection - VisionSpring – Women's Peace Collection - XSProject Group -

New York

Lower East Side Girls Club – New York Restoration Project – Urban Arts Partnership –
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That's an inspiring article. I'm going to check out some of the links you've posted in it.

Posted by: Shoestring Traveler on 26 Dec 09

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