Brooklyn Boro

How a Brooklyn giving circle sets a trend in charity

ALLINBKLYN, a local philanthropy composed of 60 women, has given away nearly $1 million since its recent founding

September 19, 2018 By Arden Phillips The Bridge
The giving circle's leaders. Top row: Rachel Hines and Eliza Winans Rossman. Bottom row: Whitney Hunter-Thomson, Lisa Melmed Cohen and Gwenn Cagann. Photos courtesy of ALLINBKLYN

ALLINBKLYN, a women’s philanthropic initiative, doesn’t just write checks and wish people well. Its 60 members get to know their borough and their subjects intimately. Father Jim O’Shea, a priest and social worker who runs a non-profit in Bedford-Stuyvesant, saw their immersive approach firsthand. “They’re very hands-on in terms of coming and visiting,” says O’Shea. “They always send different teams. Three or four women will come, they’ll see what’s happening.”

O’Shea’s organization, Reconnect Brooklyn, helps young men who are disconnected from traditional support systems. The project employs the youths at businesses that have included a bakery, a cafe, and an apparel business, which the women of ALLINBKLYN have supported with grants. “They’ll come into the cafe, they’ll drink coffee and talk to the guys,” he recalls. “They’re just very engaging. It’s Brooklyn neighbors helping Brooklyn neighbors. And they’ve come upon a very powerful way to do that.”

ALLINBKLYN is modeled on the traditional giving circle, a form of philanthropy in which a group of people pools its individual donations–as well as its ideas and research–in order to have a larger impact. Nationally, women-led giving circles, often focused on social causes, are a growing form of philanthropy. Since ALLINBKLYN’s founding in 2014, it has made 61 grants to 35 Brooklyn non-profits, giving away nearly $1 million. 

The group was founded by Eliza Winans Rossman, who has worked as a social worker–she earned her MSW at Hunter College–as well as an editor and foundation director. Rossman had earlier philanthropic experience as a member of WellMet, a Manhattan giving circle. When she got the idea to start something similar, she went back to WellMet’s leaders and “got the nitty gritty details on how they ran their circle. And then I brought the model to Brooklyn and tweaked it to fit our community,” she says.

ALLINBKLYN’s system gives members a chance to get to know one another as well as the groups they choose to support. Each member is allowed to nominate one nonprofit group for consideration each funding year, which starts in October and ends in May. In a series of four meetings, members meet and review proposals for submitted nonprofits. Afterwards, they make site visits to the ones that they feel would benefit most from funding.

“We support both big and small, longstanding Brooklyn nonprofits as well as very new, early-stage ones,” says Rossman. “And we’re always looking to help non-profits that don’t have access to traditional funding streams. Because we don’t answer to a board, we can afford to take more chances with nonprofits that may not meet specific standards that other funders are looking for.”

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ALLINBKLYN’s members also get involved with their nonprofits in ways other than traditional grant-making. “Many of our members possess skills and relevant work experience that they are willing to share. For instance, several of our members have joined boards, while others have helped nonprofits with strategic planning, proposal writing, and access to other funding opportunities,” says Rossman. “And some of our members make regular monetary contributions to nonprofits that they’ve been exposed to through ALLINBKLYN.”

Even so, the group wants to foster an independent and self-reliant spirit among its grantees. “After all, they’re the experts at their work. We hope to support them however we can in what they do best,” says Rossman. All nonprofits must step away from ALLINBKLYN’S funding cycle after three consecutive years of support, but are able to re-apply after a two-year break.

In ALLINBKLYN’s first year of grantmaking, 41 women made grants totaling $201,000 to 13 nonprofits. In the current cycle, the group of 60 women made made grants totaling $300,000 to 18 non-profits. Among the three dozen organizations that have received funding: Read 718, a non-profit dedicated to teaching literacy; Emma’s Torch, which provides culinary training and apprenticeships for refugees; and the Alex House Project, a Red-Hook based organization that provides support for young mothers.

Looking ahead, the group plans to maintain its philosophy of funding a wide range of non-profits, as well as filling in the gaps left by changes in funding patterns outside the group. “We fund nonprofits working in the aging sector, the environment, social justice, arts, kids and education, to name a few,” says Rossman.

“We maintain this broad portfolio for several reasons, but a big one is because other grant-makers are changing their existing funding priorities,” she says, because of changes in federal spending and tax laws and other trends. “That means that some sectors are losing funding they had thought was secure. We want to make sure that ALLINBKLYN can do both: be nimble in our response to emerging community needs in Brooklyn while also continuing to support our traditional nonprofit mainstays.”

The group, with Rossman as its leader and spokesperson, has a five-member executive committee to steer its operations, but made a recent decision to cap the membership at 60, in the belief that anything bigger risks taking away from the personal feel of the organization. For administrative support, ALLINBKLYN operates in partnership with the Brooklyn Community Foundation, which was relaunched in 2009 to boost the borough’s share of charitable giving.

Cecilia Clarke, the foundation’s CEO, describes the partnership as a “match made in heaven.” She continues: “Eliza has been exceedingly successful. I should add that we now have five giving circles and Eliza was the first. I think she had a hand in bringing some of them directly to us. So that’s been a delight. She’s been a model in that regard.”

The Bridge is dedicated to reporting on business in Brooklyn. Its focus is on the breakthrough companies, entrepreneurs and trends that have made Brooklyn a worldwide brand and a growing economic center.

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