About once a month, a group of African-American men gathers both to honor the giving traditions of earlier generations and to better the prospects for those to come.
“Black men have been philanthropic for years, whether others have known it or not,” says Antoine Medley, a member of the Triangle-based A Legacy of Tradition giving circle, or ALOT. “Whether it’s a farmer helping another with crops, or some guys in the barber shop buying Johnny some new sneakers. We want to uphold that tradition and move it forward.”
The circle was launched in 2006 and awards grants to fulfill its mission of supporting organizations that produce positive outcomes for black men and boys.
Each of the circles’ 15 members contributes $350 a year, $300 of which goes into a grantmaking fund housed at the Triangle Community Foundation, with the remainder used for administrative costs and managed by the National Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
In its first funding cycle last year, ALOT awarded $1,000 grants to three Triangle-area nonprofits benefiting black boys and men.
The Durham Nativity School, a tuition-free middle school with a predominantly black male student body, will use the money for general operations.
Big Brothers Big Sisters used the money to purchase an electronic “smart board” for its new computer lab.
And Hip Hop Haven, a group that recruits men to read to elementary-school students, will use its grant to purchase books.
“In the early stages, we all were new to the supply side of philanthropy and we struggled with how to do this thing,” says Medley, who is a telecommunications contractor for the federal government and runs a nonprofit called Future Black Men of America, which connects young black boys in second through sixth grade with adult role models.
“Now we’re clear that we can do this however we want and be as flexible as we want,” he says. “As long as we make it effective and cause the greatest ripple effect we possibly can.”
And while volunteering their time is second-nature to the group’s members, with each bringing his own expertise to the circle’s nonprofit partners, collective giving is new to many of them.
“A lot of the guys have organizations they work with in the community,” says Medley. “Coming together in this sort of group versus just giving our time is a unique niche for us to be in.”
The giving circle model allows them to be creative, adjusting their processes to suit the specifics of a situation.
“We always think about, are we going to lead with just our money, or with our time or talent,” says Medley. “Sometimes we may lead with our money or we may give all three. The options are always there.”
And through the process of defining funding priorities and evaluating and choosing grants, members of ALOT are learning about the “supply side” of philanthropy.
Having worked on the “demand side” of the equation as vice president of partnership development for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle, ALOT member Barron Damon says he now better understands the grantmaking side.
“It’s different when you’re giving money away,” he says. “You have to be strategic or you can waste your hard-earned money. It’s a good process to know on both sides.”
For its first round of grants, the group developed and issued a formal request for proposals, receiving about 20 applications in response that it then culled down to three.
This year it will use word-of-mouth to find interesting groups that it then will invite to make a presentation to circle members.
And in ALOT’s recent retreat, the group decided to focus the next round of grantmaking, which will total about $3,000, on the growing problem of school suspensions in Wake County.
“We learned that kids are suspended more in the ninth grade than any other, and more drop out then, too,” says Medley. “We’ve done some research on our own and we’re tying to figure out which avenue we’ll use to attack this thing.”
They may choose to fund programs that prevent suspensions in the first place, or they could boost efforts supporting kids and parents after suspensions have occurred, with the ultimate goal of stemming dropouts.
While members of ALOT are united by a common passion and mission, they represent a diverse slice of the community, ranging in age from about 25 to 70 and including stay-at-home dads, information-technology professionals, consultants, business owners and nonprofit staffers.
Together, they are showing their community that philanthropy is open to more than the Bill Gates of the world, says Damon.
“We have an opportunity to redefine what philanthropy is,” he says. “It makes you feel good that you can collectively impact your community without having a billion dollars. I like being a part of that type of movement.”