Widening the circle

Nonprofit veteran works to create new philanthropists through giving circles.

By Ret Boney

Darryl Lester grew up in a rural South Carolina community, one he now realizes was rich with philanthropy, although he says he didn’t know it at the time.

“When I think about giving and philanthropy, I saw it alive and well,” he says. “In our case, it helped folks get up and out.”

It was alive in Ida Mae Godbolt, the elderly lady who kept Lester and all the kids on Strawberry Street, free of charge, while their parents worked, and in his father, who drove a cab in Marion after he retired from the Air Force, and regularly helped people in crisis.

“As I got older, I saw it as philanthropy,” he says.  “I saw different forms of giving, and it became clear when my dad passed and I heard stories around his real level of giving.”

Today, Lester is working to connect communities to organized philanthropy, a field traditionally dominated by wealthy white men, through a concept known as “giving circles,” which he defines as a way for individuals to pool resources to make a difference in their communities.

“It’s always been around,” he says.  “Back in the day, people raised money to take care of a family.  In traditions that aren’t currently at the table, whether they are familiar with the term or not, they’ve been doing it.”

With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Lester’s firm, HindSight Consulting, began looking at how philanthropy could deal with issues of race and equity, and after conducting a listening tour among young African-American professionals, decided to explore giving circles in Birmingham, Ala., and the Triangle area of North Carolina that includes Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Darryl Lester

Job: Founder, HindSight Consulting, Raleigh, N.C.

Born: 1963, Marion, S.C

Family: Wife, Dionne; daughter, Danielle, age 3

Education: B.A., economics, finance, Wofford College; M.Ed., counseling, psychology, N.C. State University

Currently reading: “Burden of Freedom,” by Myles Munroe

Hobbies: Running, playing with daughter, networking

Favorite Book:
 “The Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time,” by Paul Rogat Loeb

Inspiration: Birth of daughter “It has taught me that my thinking about the world might be different than how my daughter sees it.  That drives a lot of who I am.”

The Birmingham circle, called the Birmingham Change Fund, has about 22 members and is preparing to make its first round of grants in March.

The Next Generation of African American Philanthropists Fund, or NGAAP Fund, has about 18 members, most from the Triangle, who each made annual donations of $150 in 2004 and $250 this year.

NGAAP completed it first grant cycle in January, awarding a total of $11,500 to seven local groups led by African Americans that address the root causes of social problems, not just the effects, what Lester calls “in-the-trenches work.”

To date, NGAAP has made grants to groups like the Southern Anti-Racism Network, supporting a program that helps parents become better advocates for their children in the school systems, and Glory to Glory House of Refuge, which provides transitional housing for women living with HIV/AIDS.

The support from Ford paid for the research necessary to start the groups and pays for circle members to attend educational conferences, but Ford funds are not used as part of the grant pool.

“We don’t want to re-grant someone else’s money,” says Lester.  “It’s a different feeling when you’re giving away something of your own.”

In the mid-1980s, Lester began his career with a brief stint in banking, then returned to school for a graduate degree in counseling and psychology and served as an advocate for students on the campuses of N.C. State University and Shaw University, both in Raleigh, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He then became one of the first staffers of North Carolina Public Allies, a nonprofit that works to engage young adults from diverse backgrounds in community-based service.

“That put me on the grant-seeking side of the work,” he says.  “I decided, wouldn’t it be nice to give away money?”

That led him to the Triangle Community Foundation in 1998 where, as a program director, he spent time in the community working with grantseekers and later matched donors with projects in the community.

While at the foundation, he and his wife, Dionne, started the Zawadi Education Fund, which initially supported efforts like book scholarships for first-year college students, then expanded to include children with special needs after his daughter was born with cerebral palsy in 2001.

“When you’re talking to people about their money,” he says of his current work in bringing people to philanthropy, “it helps to have walked the path you’re talking about.”

Lester left the foundation the year his daughter was born, and with the help of his wife, who had just left Nortel, started HindSight Consulting from his home, with the hope of bringing more non-traditional groups into organized giving.

“I noticed there were only a certain type of folks coming to the foundation, when it comes to the donor side,” he says.  “I saw very few African Americans being connected to organized philanthropy.”

He’s been working to change that ever since, in large part by trying to demystify philanthropy in the African-American community, and is seeing some success, he says, as members of NGAAP begin to extend their philanthropic efforts outside the giving circle.

“It has created a ripple effect among our members,” he says.  They’ve gone out and done other stuff.  Some have created their own charitable funds.  Some have taken that information and explored how to engage a younger generation.”

Next, Lester hopes members of the new giving circles will put their substantial “know how” to work for the groups they support, by volunteering, serving on boards or helping nonprofit directors broaden their networks within the community.

“When we think of a philanthropist, the vision that pops into our minds is white and male,” he says of the current view of philanthropy.  “Hopefully that will include a variety of faces.”

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