There's strength in numbers… that's what more and more Americans who want to 'give back' to their communities are discovering. They're forming what are known as giving circles, and as VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, these circles are changing the face of philanthropy in America.

Timothy McIntosh is a barber in Durham, North Carolina. He's in his early 30s and makes a decent living cutting people's hair, but he is by no means wealthy. Nevertheless, he has come to think of himself as a philanthropist.

For me, it's been a journey of really valuing what I have to give. The popular notion is 'if I have a million dollars, then I can give.' But if you have two dollars, you can give, and it all makes a difference to someone.

Timothy McIntosh is one of sixteen people who belong to the Next Generation of African-American Philanthropists. Founded a little more than a year ago, N-GAAP is a giving circle. Each member of the group makes a minimum contribution of 150 dollars a year to join, and many give much more than that. They get together twice a month to investigate various charities in the area and determine which ones they want to make collective donations to. So far, the sixteen N-GAAP members have handed out grants totaling more than 11-thousand dollars to organizations that provide housing for women with H-I-V… and computer literacy classes for families who can't afford computers. Founding member Athan (rhymes with Nathan) Lindsay says the experience of collective giving is a powerful one.

We're a group of African-American philanthropists, and often times, philanthropy -- when you hear that term, you don't think of African-American folks. Traditionally, if you look at the history of it, it's been associated with (Andrew) Carnegie, what have you. It has to do with the amount. And I think we're just starting to whittle away at this notion of 'are black people able to give'? And often times, the people who are considered able to give are the people who are given the privilege of determining what our society looks like, and shape it.

Giving circles have become the latest philanthropic trend. According to a study conducted by the New Ventures in Philanthropy Project, there are now more than 300 giving circles in the United States, most of them founded in the last four years. Project deputy-director Jessica Bearman (BARE-man) says these circles have donated more than 44 million dollars… almost all to local charities.

People are increasingly excited about being engaged in their communities in hands-on ways. So sitting at home and writing a check yourself doesn't inspire the same level of excitement and passion as does getting together with 20 people, where you can really leverage your money.

The idea of collective giving isn't new. For generations, neighbors have been coming together to help each other out in times of crisis. What makes giving circles different is that they aren't just responding to a crisis. As Athan Lindsay says, they're trying to reshape their communities. And they're doing it by drawing upon a personal understanding of the needs in those communities - something Mr. Lindsay says big, bureaucratic charitable foundations can't always do.

Most foundations might not typically make a grant, say, for someone who has to appear before a court. We're working with families, and they might need a bus pass, or something to get to that job. I think that's something that we all can understand in our shared experience.

But does that mean a giving circle has to remain small, in order to maintain its personal impact on the community? Most giving circles are made up of fewer than 50 people, and N-GAAP member Beverley Francis says the 16 people in her group don't have an answer to the size question yet.

But I think it's something that we have started to ask as a group, when we were looking at, you know, whether or not to expand, what our recruitment efforts would look like this year, how many more members we wanted to add. But I think on the other hand, we also don't want to exclude anyone that wants to be at the table and to be a part of this experience.

It's that democratic approach to charity that experts say is responsible for the rising popularity of giving circles. They also say these circles strengthen communities through more than just their financial donations. According to Jessica Bearman of the New Ventures in Philanthropy Project, the shared experience of researching a community's needs and developing a plan of charitable action builds friendships that are the foundation of any thriving community.