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Collective Giving from Uganda to Brooklyn

October 24, 2017

When I arrived at the meeting, held in a mud and straw hut in a small Ugandan village, there were about 40 women sitting on the floor.  After opening prayers and introductions, they began a systematic process for collecting, saving, and loaning their funds to one another. They collected money from each woman, marked it and gave a tally, and announced the group's total, which would go toward providing the women with loans on a rotating basis. They even designated emergency funds that they could allocate to members who needed them in a pinch.    

Growing up in the United States, I had never encountered a savings and loans group before. But in 2014, I spent seven months in Uganda. Through my work with Fount of Mercy, I was introduced to this highly successful savings and loans group.  

In a savings and loans group, members meet weekly and contribute to a collective pot of money. Each member can apply for a loan, agreeing to pay it back at a 10% interest rate.  The interest gets funneled back into the collective pot to create even more savings and loans for the women.  

After a few years of meeting weekly, this group of women had saved over $10,000, an enormous amount of money in Uganda, made up of many donations, some as little as 100 UGS (4¢ US).  This all happens in an area where many people don’t have bank accounts, survive on subsistence farming, and have very small amounts of cash, a country where $4 a day USD is considered a good wage.  It was beautiful to see how so many small donations could add up to a significant pool of funds and make such a positive impact, not just on individual lives but a whole community.  

After learning exactly how savings and loans groups functioned and how simple they could be,  I decided I wanted to do something similar at home. The more I thought about it, the more I was determined to start my own group, but with the end goal being to give our money away to charitable causes.  I thought about how if my parents had started something like this 20 years ago with their friends and donated little bits of money at a time, it would add up to thousands and thousands of dollars.  I thought about how my friends and I could create a college scholarship fund for a local school in my community of Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn or other possibilities.  I loved the idea of a group being able to give more than the individual would or could and was intrigued by the process of deciding where to give together.

When I returned to New York, I shared my idea with others and started to come up with a basic concept. I soon heard about Amplifier, a network of giving circles, and realized that my idea was actually a starting point for a giving circle.

To launch my giving circle, I joined the 2016-2017 Amplifier Incubator cohort.  With the help of my awesome coach, Amanda Winer, giving circle leader at Challah for Hunger, I had a great experience meeting others starting their own giving circles and learning about best giving practices and diverse giving circle models.  In the end, I led two giving circles.  One focused on education in Bed-Stuy and met four times.  We learned about fantastic local organizations like NYC Justice Corps, Bed-Stuy Restoration Plaza and Reconnect Brooklyn. The other was a pop-up giving circle on New Year’s Eve which was a great introduction for many of my friends that couldn’t commit to a longer collective giving experience.  

I learned that whether in Uganda or Brooklyn, we can make a bigger impact by pooling our resources as a community. Collective giving may be an old idea but by reinventing it, we can work together to uplift our communities and transform giving for a new generation.

Rebecca Israel

 About the author: Rebecca Israel is a documentary filmmaker, most                 
recently completing, Paper View: a day in the life of cardboard, a short           
documentary for
 BRIC’s Brooklyn Free Speech channel.  She spent the           
past decade 
working in all phases of production for HBO, PBS,                       
Sundance Channel, 
Comedy Central, and NBCU. In 2014, Rebecca spent     
seven months in 
Uganda filming for Vocativ, USAID, among other                   
organizations.  She is 
currently developing a non-fiction children’s series         
about multicultural