Giving Circles: New Model or New Name?

Two months before the holy month of Ramadan begins, my mailbox, inbox, and messaging groups swell with invitations to fundraising dinners from all across the metro. Typically, a well renowned speaker flies in, gives a keynote at a semi-formal dinner, and a familiar face challenges us to dig deeper into our pockets with a starting bid to donate $25,000! Most of the time, we are led to believe that the money is going to a worthy cause or purpose. Unfortunately, I’ve attended dinners where the same slides with the same numbers were presented 3 years in a row.

Most of our 501 (c)3 organizations are required by law to provide a Form 990. This form allows the IRS and the general public to evaluate a nonprofit’s operations; it includes information on the nonprofit’s mission, programs, and finances. And as a best practice an annual report is created. However, I rarely see this offered by our Islamic organizations. Only a handful might have access, while most are irrationally secretive and hide their finances. Plausible, but skeptical, the mind is boggled by the lack of transparency, accountability, even questioning the sustainability of the organization.

Confused by what my donations actually accomplish, I started to explore what it means to give. What is a gift? How do I donate my time, talent and treasure?

This led me to uncover different ways of giving -- community foundations, donor advised funds, and giving circles. And I found that giving circles have been around in our traditions long before they were termed “giving circle.”


Asiya Mohamed, the Operations Manager of RISE, shared with me the concept of Afusha in her Oromo community. The Afusha builds economic strength through sisterhood. It’s a pay it forward model. ‘Who will help me when I need it?’ Women come together on a monthly basis, use a notebook to sign in, “register.” The membership fee can be $30- $200 per person per month. It’s an intimate setting, usually at someone’s home. The women bring cash and give it to the “treasurer.” The women decide where the greatest need is in their network. A wedding, a funeral,, the birth of a child, a mosque, an illness, or an emergency back home. But, the Afusha is more than a giving circle of emergency funding. It’s a true model of time, talent and treasure. These women volunteer their time to cook for a wedding, set up for an event, bring food to a sick neighbor, checking up on that sick person. They are known to partake in the festivities of the wedding by dressing up in the same color, attending, dancing/singing and celebrating. I found the Afusha model to hold a sense of agency and autonomy. And as the elders of the Afusha continue, the younger women, fresh college grads and new moms, are stepping up and evolving the Afusha to meet the needs of their generation.

Ayaan Dahir, of the Young Muslim Collective, introduced me to Ayuuto, a savings model found in the Somali community. Ayuuto predates but addresses the injustices that Muslims are facing in banking because of false terrorism charges and narratives. Often, members of the Somali community are unable to get loans from banks, open up accounts or transfer money because of false allegations of funding terrorists. Even if they do qualify for loans, the interest rates are exorbitantly high and clash with Islamic principles. And let’s not ignore the problematic concept of credit that forces poor people to pay higher rates of interest, disqualify on home or auto loans, and exacerbates the cycle of poverty.  So, Somali women, between 10-15, will pool a significant amount of money, around $1,000/month for about a year.

Each month, one woman from the group receives the entire amount in that pool to apply towards the purchase of a car or start a new business. An alternative, culturally sensitive saving model to create economic stability.

The Ayuuto concept is familiar to me in the Indian culture, known as Chiti. Chiti was something I saw my mom and her siblings participate in. 10 of them would pool money together every month. A name would be written on a small slip of paper, Chiti, and placed in the circle. The names would be drawn one by one, and recorded, who will receive the money, which month. Each month, one sibling would anticipate receiving the funds to use towards whatever major expense they had but continue to pay back into the pool over the year.

Kaltun Karani, founder and Executive Director of Hikmah Academy, helped me understand Hagbad. The Somali community is tribal based, which often times can be complicated and controversial. But during times of emergencies and giving, the tribes come together. Hagbad is a form of responsive philanthropy. A few years back, a brother was falsely arrested and his mother and brother needed to raise $100,000 in legal fees. So, they traveled from city to city, tribe to tribe, clan to clan, requesting support. When they received funds from Tribe A, they were able to share, inspire other tribes to support. In a positive notion, the tribes were competing to support and united for a real cause and need for this family and for their brother. The family was able to raise money to cover the legal fees for their brother.

Economic empowerment is not a new concept in our community. Perhaps the framework and the vernacular is, but we’ve been giving in circles for a while.

Finally, I learned about the co-op model of Qubi. It’s also a payback model, usually for an urgent need but is usually invests in a new business, with the intention of a return on that investment. And ROI. The Qubi participants are like shareholders of the new business. They help the new entrepreneur get going and then the entrepreneur has a responsibility of succeeding and accountability to her shareholders.

If we make a more conscious effort in giving where we can see the most impact, perhaps we can make a bigger change in our communities on issues that directly affect us. As RISE steps into this space, we invite you to join us in creating a culturally relevant, economically empowering, and meaningful gift giving program for our sisters and for our community.