‘Giving circle magic’: The gift that grew and grew from a group of Melbourne women

Philanthropy Australia Fri, 8 Mar 2024 Estimated reading times: 6 minutes

This is a story of a giving circle and the impact of one of its gifts that grew beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. The initial $60,000 grant came from the Melbourne Women’s Fund to help an inner-city community organisation provide early intervention support for women in contact with the criminal justice system. A few years on, it has led to outstanding results and millions of dollars in government backing to expand the program across the city.

This story was first published in the hardcopy edition of Inspiring Stories of Giving volume 1 in October 2023. Since then, the Melbourne Women’s Fund giving circle has also grown – and has now transitioned to Foundation status.

The Women and Mentoring (WAM) program was established in 2009 in Collingwood as a pilot project of concerned citizens who saw that women were being unnecessarily criminalised, primarily through disadvantage and family violence. WAM provides early intervention support for female offenders by matching them with trained mentors who work alongside other services to prevent re-offending and support rebuilding their lives.

By 2014, WAM had become an independent charity and received the transformative $60,000 grant from the Melbourne Women’s Fund (MWF), a giving circle that launched the same year to support disadvantaged women and families in greater metropolitan Melbourne. The money had come from 60 of the giving circle’s donors, who each contributed $1,000.

Giving circles are the antithesis of any notion that philanthropy can be the reserve of the rich. A giving circle brings together people with shared values, concerns or backgrounds to support causes that matter to them. The members donate a set amount of money periodically to a funding pool, then collaboratively decide which not-for-profit and good causes will receive their collective gift or grant.

This distinctly community-led style of giving is steadily growing in Australia, modelled on American examples, where the growth of giving circles has tripled in just a decade to more than 1,600 active groups. Members can also volunteer their leadership and in-kind expertise to grant recipients – or their “time, talent, ties and testimony”. Giving circles create the opportunity for members to learn more about issues underpinning a cause too, and many provide an educational element through in-person or online events.

When WAM received the support from MWF, it was operating its mentorship program in the City of Yarra with $74,000 annual revenue. The new grant enabled WAM to replicate its mentorship program to benefit disadvantaged women through the Sunshine Magistrate’s Court in Melbourne’s growing west. The grant also raised WAM’s profile and credibility to obtain an additional $764,000 worth of funding within just one year.

WAM has since expanded into five courts, increasing its beneficiaries by 800% with 80% not re-offending and 95% avoiding a custodial sentence. 

The program’s success has attracted attention and stunningly in 2022, the Victorian Government granted WAM $3.6 million over four years to expand its program across Melbourne and into specified areas. It’s an incredible story of growth and reach in less than 10 years.

Mary Latham, former WAM Operations Manager

MWF members have also introduced WAM to beneficial relationships and additional network contacts that have opened doors to more funding and in-kind support, including website and IT, speaking opportunities for their CEO to share their stories and even leadership assistance from a MWF board member.

Mary Latham, WAM Operations Manager and former CEO*, said: “It wasn’t just the grant funds from MWF that put us on a path to success. Their money was multiplied almost 13 times that first year and gave us access to more funding, making us more credible.

“Plus the donated website. Plus one of their donors hosting a lunch for us at the Western Bulldogs to introduce us to more donors. Plus a skilled board member. Plus more. MWF has been ‘the gift that keeps on giving’,” she said.

The generosity hasn’t stopped there. Mary gave back to MWF by providing annual pitch training for the giving circle’s grants finalists for five years to improve their presentation skills and increase their chances of securing funding.

It’s a complete circle of giving – from the donors to the recipients and back again – with new ties and friendships formed and all to benefit the community. Some even call it “giving circle magic”.

*Mary Latham has retired from this position since the time of publication.