Common Funds for the Common Good
Money makes the world go round. Or at least, that’s what we’re told. But what if we could make it do more? In this blog, Matt Wilson explores the role of money in the building of the Common Good and how new ways of bringing together charitable donations can have a greater impact on the way communities access, share and use resources locally.
Lloyds Bank recently launched a campaign to get more people to talk openly about money. YouGov research commissioned by the bank found that half of UK adults believe ‘talking about personal money matters is taboo in everyday conversation’. This is higher than sex (42%), religion (26%) or politics (14%). The thing that affects our lives everyday is seen as harder to talk openly about than deeply personal beliefs and views on the world. The impact can be profound and all-consuming. Lloyds’ campaign, devised in partnership with the charity Relate, is particularly aimed at families because ‘not talking about money is a source of stress, anxiety, and unnecessary problems for many families.’ How have we ended up in a position where one of the greatest causes of social angst and distress, a symbol of disparity between different groups of people in our communities, isn’t even being discussed?
The message of the Lloyds campaign this Lent echoes the one given by Justin Welby in his 2017 Lenten book Dethroning Mammon. The Archbishop explores how ‘it is typical for Christians to take a generally negative attitude towards money. We say, believing that we’re quoting Scripture, that it is the root of all evil.’ Taken as a whole Dethroning Mammon captures very well the aura of darkness that can surround money, the fears that its seductive temptations might catch us in its grasp. But can money not impact positively on the building of a Common Good society too?
Could it be the case that the net effect of our cultural sense of awkwardness around the topic of money, combined with a foreboding spiritual atmosphere, stifles the positive possibilities that money presents to those seeking to build social and human capital across different groups of people? After all, there are famous examples of financial pragmatism, such as Salvation Army founder General Booth who, when accused of taking “tainted money”, reputedly replied: “Tain’t enough.” Certainly, there is a clear role for money to play within the historic mission to build the Common Good. If everyone has a duty to take responsibility for shaping the Common Good, those with the greatest resources surely need to use those tools to work together in solidarity with others to empower their communities.
In his book Sacred Economics  Charles Eisenstein argues that money is not intrinsically evil, rather its character has become corrupted by the bad company it has been keeping. Indeed, he believes that money can, under the right circumstances, be transformed into a means of achieving abundance rather than scarcity, and fairness rather than injustice. An exciting way that this is being demonstrated can be found in the emerging Collective movement.
Collective Giving and Giving Circles
In Britain Collective Giving is just a tiny blip on the economic radar. Most people have never heard of it, even those working full time in the charity sector. What we do know about it is largely from the research undertaken by Beth Breeze of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent and Angie Eikenberry of the University of Nebraska.  Their work has located a growing scene with around 100 Giving Circles based in the UK and Ireland. Whilst the numbers may seem small, their significance shouldn’t be underestimated. Data from the USA shows how quickly Giving Circles can multiply once they begin to capture the public imagination: the first ‘landscape study’ of Giving Circles in the USA in 2004 found 220 Giving Circles. By 2016 this number had risen to over 1800 groups, raising and distributing an estimated $1.29 billion. 
Giving Circles are the basic organisational unit that power the Collective Giving movement. A Giving Circle is a small group of compassionate individuals (typically 5-20 people) who form a group in order to pool some of their money into a common fund. Essentially, they are taking some of what was previously in a pot labelled mine and moving it into a pot labelled ours. The beauty of the common fund is that it exists exclusively for the benefit of others beyond its membership – it is set aside for the building of the Common Good. Groups have frank and open conversations about the money in the pot, sharing responsibility and ownership of the way the money is used. They consider how best to use their shared funds to bring about positive change in the world around them, with a particular focus on practical expressions of solidarity with the poor and disadvantaged.
The pragmatic rationale of pooling donated money so that it goes further is not the only driver for members joining Giving Circles. There is strong evidence that membership is at least in part driven by a collectively felt desire to do charity differently. Beth Breeze notes that people are joining Giving Circles ‘to make their giving more meaningful and personal, to make better giving decisions, to network and socialise, and to achieve social change’. This resonates with the African wisdom often heard in the Collective Giving scene that “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
For those interested in getting involved there are three main expressions of Collective Giving in Britain. Firstly, there are independent Giving Circles, groups of friends that have simply got together with a collective desire to put their money to work for the Common Good. These groups are generally quite local in expression, built around common passions. Anyone reading this blog could get together with friends and family members to start a Giving Circle.
There are however, some potential advantages to becoming affiliated to one of the growing number of network organisations that Beth Breeze refers to as hosts. This second way of becoming involved is well suited to those looking to be a little more organised and accountable. Host organisations offer financial administration of their common fund, including secure banking, as well as Gift Aid benefits. A number of the regional Community Foundations  are now hosting Giving Circles and the American network Common Change  has commenced a UK operation.
Thirdly, there are ‘mentored’ Circles, which have more explicit aims around the education and personal formation of group members. Probably the best expression of a mentored circle is BeyondMe , an initiative aimed at young professionals. One of its interesting features is that group members commit to give their time as well as their money, in a conscious effort to make the movement about more than just financial giving. Bringing the donors closer to the causes that they care about and engaging with the rest of their community through participation is key to building the relationships and true solidarity that underpins the Common Good.
The Collective Giving movement offers a practical way towards overcoming our embarrassment and anxiety around the M-word and can be the key to unlocking the Common Good in our communities.
Matt Wilson is Managing Director of GoodLabs, a consultancy that helps charitable and commercial organisations enhance their social impact and amplify their social value. He has previously served as as a senior charity executive with Eden Network, Safe Families for Children and TLG. Matt is a fellow of The RSA and a William Leech Research Fellow based at St John’s College, Durham University.
 Archbishop Justin Welby (2016) Dethroning Mammon: making money serve grace
 Charles Eisenstein, (2011) Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition
 The most comprehensive and up-to-date British study is by Angela Eikenberry and Beth Breeze, Growing Philanthropy through Giving Circles: Collective Giving and the Logic of Charity (2017)
 Collective Giving Research Group (2016) The Landscape of Giving Circles/ Collective Giving Groups in the U.S.