When Sarah Feinberg started business school at Boston University two years ago, she was looking for a way to connect with both her classmates and the larger community.
She was studying the nonprofit sector, and became interested in philanthropy. But she was also, as she puts it, "working off negative income."
In the end, she decided to form a "giving circle." Once a month, she and about 10 of her classmates would meet at a member's home. (The group later expanded to include a few people from a Boston nonprofit center.)
Over a series of meetings, they picked an issue on which to focus (domestic violence), listened to an expert speak on the topic, and visited local nonprofits.
And every month, they each donated $10 to a steadily growing pool kept in one member's underwear drawer. At the end of that year their circle, the "Tzedakah Collective" - a Hebrew term they translate as "righteous giving" - donated $500 to a shelter for domestic-violence victims.
Last year, the circle focused on "economic justice." The donation grew to $1,200 and went to Suited for Success, a Boston-area group that gives women in entry-level jobs business clothes and mentors them on succeeding in the corporate world.
"The beauty of a giving circle is we're all able to give so much more than we could as individuals," says Ms. Feinberg.
The Tzedakah Collective is just one incarnation of a growing model for philanthropy. Some giving circles, like Feinberg's, are small and informal. Others may include 200 members and run a donor-advised fund.
Many are made up only of women, and most tend to focus their giving locally.
Donations range from several hundred dollars to several hundred thousand dollars, but these groups all share a commitment to giving and learning about philanthropy.
Siobhán O'Riordan, director of Giving New England, a Boston-based nonprofit that promotes philanthropy, compares the circles to book groups and investment clubs - collective learning with an added social element. In addition, she says, "they go beyond the reaction of giving to the thinking of giving."
Most circles, like the Tzedakah Collective, take up to a year to decide where they'll donate. They educate themselves about whatever topic they choose, speak with nonprofit leaders, visit organizations, and sometimes volunteer their time as well. This learning process, they generally agree, is as important as the grants they ultimately pay out.
Ultimately, "the giving circle model is about the democratization of philanthropy," says Tracy Gary, a philanthropic adviser and co-author of "Inspired Philanthropy."
"It's spreading like wildfire," she says, "because we're very isolated as a nation.... Philanthropy is what keeps peoples' hearts and spirits feeling hopeful."
The logistics, and missions, of such circles very widely:
The Boston-based Hestia Fund, now in its second year, has grown from 20 to 40 members, each of whom contributes $5,000 annually.
They've hired a graduate student part time to help with the group's administration.
A smaller "grants committee" makes the final recommendations of recipients.
Betsey Andersen, a financial consultant in Portland, Maine, is starting an intergenerational group this year. Her own teenage daughters will attend - possibly giving more in the way of volunteer work than dollars. Ideally, she says, she'd like the 30-person group to represent every age group from 15-year-olds to 80-year-olds.
While she hopes the money her group raises will help the organization receiving it, her deeper goal is to foster learning.
"Our idea is really to raise awareness with the hope that this group will spawn other groups," she says. "It's very grass-roots - and that's what Mainers like."
The "Friday Night Shoe Box" in California's Bay area, doesn't meet on Friday nights, nor does it use a shoe box. Mila Visser 't Hooft, a potter and nonprofitprofessional, started the giving circle with two others.
They had a wide array of friends, with varying amounts of income, who they asked to give up their social plans one Friday every two months and, instead, to donatewhat they would have spent on the symphony, a movie, or a restaurant meal to a donor-advised fund.
The 15 or so members, which include doctors, lawyers, a librarian, a priest, and a poet, meet on Sunday mornings to discuss philanthropy and where to give their grants.
The giving is anonymous, and the $1,000 grants the circle gives several times a year have helped groups ranging from a local organization that helps women get off welfare to an Afghani girls' education fund.
Historically, most cultures have seen people form groups in order to give. The only difference with the most recent model may be its focus on giving to nonprofits rather than to specific individuals in need.
Regardless of the recipient, what's attractive for many giving-circle members are its social aspects and the positive communal feel that develops.
"When you give by yourself, it's a pretty lonely feeling," Feinberg says. "When you give with others ... you're collectively trying to make the world better."
For more information, visit www.givingnewengland.org, which offers a tool kit for those interested in starting a giving circle.
Another resource: The Women's Philanthropy Institute at www.women-philanthropy.org.