“When you think of the big gala events, you have to scratch your head and say, ‘why do people go to all that effort?’ I mean, those can be effective fundraisers, if done responsibly. But when they net very little or fail to break even, doing nothing but raising awareness, I don’t buy into that.”
These are the words of Jacqueline Caster, founder and president of the Everychild Foundation, from a recent interview with me. Caster is a master of the art of creating women’s giving circles, an effective and increasingly popular way to raise money. The model Caster pioneered has had a significant impact, and not just locally. It has been replicated by over 15 organizations, including two in London, some in other states, and many throughout California.
The Everychild Foundation makes one grant every year to a Los Angeles-area nonprofit agency serving children and youth. This year, the foundation made its seventeenth consecutive grant, bringing the total dollars granted to $15 million, with an estimated one million children served.
Caster’s model is partly a response to the confining nature of other approaches, especially galas. Big, fancy fundraisers are a common way for women to engage in philanthropy, but Caster did not find them to be the best use of her time, treasure or talent.
Caster writes eloquently of the different nature of her philanthropy in an essay in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. “For a growing number of contemporary women, particularly the highly educated, arranging fundraising events is often not, in fact, fulfilling or stimulating. For many, it under-utilizes their intellect, talent, education, professional skills, and general life experience.”
So what’s a highly educated contemporary woman to do? She might consider starting or joining a giving circle.
“Giving circles can be created at any price point, for any cause, and with any demographic as the membership,” Caster said. “You can do it with no paid staff and a tiny percentage of operational costs, compared to bigger foundations.”
Giving circles have been on the rise for several years now, and are branching out in new ways to serve local or sometimes global needs. The model capitalizes on the strengths of women as networkers and collaborators, and offers a way for smaller donors to be part of something larger, but not so large that they have no meaningful voice. Caster developed her alternative approach for giving in Los Angeles in 1999, and incorporated Everychild Foundation as a 501(c)(3) the following year.
The model is relatively simple. The foundation’s mission is to ease suffering of Los Angeles-area children whether due to disease, disability, abuse, neglect or poverty. Each member makes an annual $5,000 tax-deductible donation. The money is then pooled to fund a single, targeted $1 million grant to a local organization with a dream project. The project ideally involves an innovative prototype that can be replicated, thereby leveraging the dollars even further.
Less than 10 percent of the funds collected are used to operate the organization. There is no rent or salaried staff. Caster and all the other members donate all of their hours. There are some accounting, bookkeeping and a few other miscellaneous costs, plus the services of a professional grant consultant who advises the grant board.
Starting with 56 members in 2000, Everychild has now grown to its target of 225 members. It has made a $1 million grant each year since 2006.
One of Everychild’s earliest grants tells an interesting story about impact. The foundation made a 2001 grant to Queenscare to fund a mobile dental clinic staffed by the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. When dentists started serving large numbers of low-income children in the early months, they uncovered such a huge unmet health need in the community that Queenscare sought out funding from other major local foundations. Three more dental clinics were added, for a total of four clinics, all still operating today.
Each member of the Everychild Foundation donates the same amount and is permitted one vote on the million-dollar grantee for the year, so there is no inequality between the donors. “Members have frequently expressed how refreshing it is to participate in a charity without the typical hierarchy of donors who are treated differently according to their gift size,” Caster said.
The Everychild Foundation begins soliciting proposals at the end of each calendar year. From January through May, the grant screening board narrows that pool of proposals down from roughly 25 to about six or eight. The board then evaluates items such as their financials, success handling other large grants and sustaining new projects. Next come site visits to each group in this final pool in May.
“We meet the board, see the facility. We send questions before and after the site visit,” Caster said. “We eventually vote on two finalists who spend the summer putting together a full proposal. The presentation to our membership takes place in October. About half the members attend the hearing every year.”
Members then mail in their ballots in the following two weeks. “Some discuss the choice in online chat groups. They talk it over at the dinner table with their families and partners,” Caster said. “It becomes a really interesting period as the final proposals are discussed.”
The model affords a great deal of latitude for participation, from not much at all to active involvement in the grantee review process or grant monitoring after the grants have been awarded. Some members don’t even vote for which grantee is chosen, trusting that the group has done its due diligence. Interested Everychild members also have the opportunity to advocate for a variety of children’s issues at the county, state and federal levels as part of the Public Policy Committee.
The Everychild Foundation’s level of due diligence in selecting the finalists has become legendary in the Los Angeles community. “Directors at other prestigious local foundations have said that if a project can survive Everychild’s rigorous review process, it must have merit,” Caster said.
Consequently, not only do Everychild’s chosen grantees receive $1 million, but the runners-up in Everychild’s process often see significant dollar support, either from Everychild members, or other foundations.
This year’s grant winner is Richstone Family Center, which will be creating a new healing arts center with the $1 million grant. “Richstone serves the areas of Los Angeles County experiencing the highest concentration of gang violence, child trafficking, drug-related crime, prostitution, and poverty,” Caster said, in a press release about the winner. “The Everychild Foundation Healing Center has the ability to change the life trajectories of at-risk and abused children and their families.”
The runner-up this year is also providing vital services in the community, and is ripe for scaling up with additional funding. Jovenes, of Boyle Heights, helps homeless and at-risk children and families. The project it pitched will provide housing and other supportive services for hundreds of homeless community college students, many of whom are aged-out former foster youth.
Caster acknowledged the difficult letdown of not getting the Everychild grant, but sometimes being the runner-up can actually surpass winning the Everychild Foundation’s grant. “One year, the runner-up received $2 million from another funder,” she said.
This year, after announcing the winner, Caster said she sent out an email about the runner-up, and already heard back from one funder who wanted to provide a five-figure grant and another who might be interested in funding the whole project.