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Legacy Collective giving circle finds new strength in disaster response, diversity

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman

Christian thought-leader Jen Hatmaker was getting asked constantly by nonprofit organizations around the world to "throw my weight toward their work," she says.

The Austin-based author became known for the book "7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess," which was updated this spring into "Simple & Free," and an HGTV show called "My Big Family Renovation," which followed the renovation of an old house in Buda. 

Through the show, the books and the ministry, she built an online community of mostly women, all looking to her for leadership on common causes, including how to give to charities.

By 2015, she was taking international trips to visit different organizations as an ambassador. She would return to Austin and "bang a drum to get my community to care about this thing," she says. "My community was operating out of compassion fatigue."

Help One Now has regularly received $100,000 a year from Legacy Collective. It has helped provide school for girls in Haiti.

She and then-husband Brandon began to think about what could happen if she didn't spend so much time rallying and educating the troops about new causes. What if, instead, the troops were part of the process from the beginning?

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They took the idea of donor advice funds for people with a lot of money and brought it to people of other income levels, but with the idea that the donors would nominate which organizations to select for donations as a group.

Legacy Collective was born.

Austin Sunshine Camp has been one of the recipients of Legacy Collective funding. The camp serves kids in Austin who could not otherwise afford a camp experience.

How Legacy Collective works

Legacy Collective is a giving circle. Its donors give a set amount each month and vote as a whole each quarter on which organizations the collected funds will benefit.

Legacy Collective has four different levels. The member level is $35 a month, partner level is $100 or more a month, investor is $250 or more and founder is $1,000 or more.

All the organizations considered for a grant are nominated by partners, investors or founders, who fill out the grant applications on behalf of the organizations.

Legacy Collective staff then vets the organizations to make sure they are a 501c3 in good standing. 

Since 2015, Legacy Collective members have given more than $4 million in grants to more than 90 nonprofits across four continents. Half of the grants have gone to international causes, half to domestic. 

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Birtikan Gobeze lives in Wolaita Sodo, Ethiopia, and has been helped by the Help One Now Family Empowerment Program. Legacy Collective has supported Help One Now with $100,000 grants.

Starting something new from the ground up

Legacy Collective gives one-time grants to organizations that provide a program that is a sustainable solution to a systemic problem. It does not support general operating funds or create the expectations of repeat annual funding.

Instead it's looking for innovative programs. 

One of the first grants it gave in 2015 was to Austin-based Help One Now to establish its Family Business Program. The program helps keep families together by training them to become entrepreneurs.

Since that grant, Help One Now's Family Business Program has helped 1,000 families in Ethiopia, Haiti, Uganda, Belize, Dominican Republic, Peru and Zimbabwe with a 90 percent success rate. 

Lamar Stockton, the director of international operations at Help One Now, says that families have gone from earning $2 a day to earning $8-$12 a day. 

"The ripple effect is pretty great," he says. Help One Now continues to expand that program, hoping to reach 100,000 families in the next 10 years. 

Help One Now is one of Legacy Collective's more frequent grantees, receiving almost $400,000 in the last six years. 

"We've been a part of their story, and they've been a part of our story for a long time," Stockton says. "Legacy Collective is passionate about sustainable solutions and how can we really help. Sometimes we really need to start a program, and we need staffing for that, and that's hard to raise funds from the general public."

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He likens it to being a startup that needs funding to begin something new, but people have a healthy skepticism of international aid organizations. With Legacy Collective, they feel like someone has made sure money will go to the right place and do the most good.

"It's been a great partnership," Stockton says. "We're two different organizations, but we have the same goal: We want to see women and individuals empowered in a way that brings lasting change where they don't need us anymore."

Help One Now has provided an education for kids around the world. Legacy Collective has provided large grants to the organization for multiple years.

Building a diverse Legacy

In the past year, Legacy Collective has shifted to also require that organizations promote diversity and inclusion in their practices, including hiring. 

"That does take organizations off the table," says Legacy Collective CEO Erin Arnheim. If certain faith-based organizations don't go on to the next round, she says, "I tell organizations, we appreciate what you believe in, but it doesn't match our policy."

Legacy Collective's diversity and inclusion work is what attracted Britta Dukes to join its giving circle. Dukes is associate pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin and had begun working with the church on its own DEI issues. She also had been giving to her own church's mission partners but wanted to expand where her donations go.

Now she's involved both her mother Betty Jo and her 13-year-old daughter Atalie in the Legacy Collective voting process. It turned into conversations about where they felt they could do the most good and whether they should divide up their votes around the world or stay closer to home. Instead of feeling competitive about their choices, Dukes says, "it just gives me hope that there are so many people doing extraordinary things, especially in this year when it has been so grim." 

She has been using her first year of belonging to learn from the other Legacy Collective members and about the different organizations. Then, she says, she has a few organizations that she might nominate for grants. 

Volunteers Carmela Pinzone, left, and Melinda Kendall sort clothes for Austin Disaster Relief Network, which continued to help more than 300 families that were impacted by the winter storm a month later. Austin Disaster Relief Network was one of the recipients of Legacy Collective's Texas Relief Fund.

An education in giving

Georgia Thomsen became involved in Legacy Collective as the chief executive officer of Philanthropitch, a nonprofit that allows other nonprofit organizations to pitch their programs to judges for prizes. Legacy Collective is one of its sponsors. 

Thomsen became a member of Legacy Collective herself. "As a donor, I felt like they were exposing me to new organizations that I might not know about," she says. "For someone who wants to be involved in nonprofits, it's like an education. ... I don't have time, you don't have time to do the research."

As Philanthropitch CEO, she's reached out to organizations chosen by Legacy Collective because she knows they are well vetted. 

She likes the diversity of the organizations run by diverse people, and she loves the impact she can have with not a lot of money through the power of a collective.

Sometimes it's disappointing when her choice doesn't get picked, "but you know that going in," Thomsen says. "It's going to a deserving nonprofit that is innovative and sustainable." 

Even Hatmaker doesn't always get her choice. In fact, when potential grantees are presented, you do not know who nominated them. "The agony of defeat is real for all of us," Hatmaker says.

Rebuilding around the Legacy values

Jen Hatmaker learned a lot by going back to her book ,"7," to write an updated version called "Simple & Free" a decade later.

One focus for Legacy has been its own diversity.  "The team looked very homogenous," Hatmaker says. "We began to rebuild around our values." That meant increasing the diversity among the advisory board, and now it's been a focus on finding more diversity in its donors. 

"That is an area of growth that we have all identified," she says.

The majority of donors, Hatmaker says, have come from the online community she has built, whose members look a lot like her. They are mostly women between ages 30 and 50 who are white and middle- to upper-middle-class. 

Legacy Collective has recently increased its staff to try to reach different audiences and started a podcast profiling projects it gives to and the people who give. 

Becoming more nimble

Austin Sunshine Camp has been one of the recipients of Legacy Collective funding. The camp serves kids in Austin who could not otherwise afford a camp experience.

Diversity also has come in the types of giving from Legacy Collective. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it created a COVID-19 relief fund and was able to fund two $25,000 grants: one to feed 350 children three meals a day in Nashville and one to provide childcare for first responders' children in Detroit. 

The collective also has addressed the emotional and economic impacts of COVID-19 by creating the 100 x 100 campaign. It's hoping for 100 new donors helping 100 families rebuild by giving $100 a month for a year. So far, it has given $11,200 to two organizations providing mental health care to Black communities in Chicago and Charlotte, North Carolina. 

This year, as Texas got hit by a weeklong winter freeze and failing power and water systems, Legacy Collective put out a call on a Thursday for a Texas Disaster Relief Fund and raised $500,000 that weekend. Those funds went to five organizations: Feeding Texas, Austin Disaster Relief Network, Rebuilding Together Houston, Rebuilding Together Austin and Sustainable Food Center

"The world was watching and they cared," Hatmaker says. "The scope of it was so large, and it was so urgent." 

The Serve NWA New Beginnings community in Northwest Arkansas received a 2019 Legacy Collective grant of $25,000 to add 10 new transitional microshelters to the community for homeless people.

Finding a new community

The storm effort became a turning point for the organization because it went beyond Hatmaker's community. People shared a Legacy Collective Facebook post with their friends who then shared it. It brought in more than 5,000 new donors, some who turned into regular giving circle donors.

Hatmaker says she hopes that it is the beginning of partnerships with these new donors, who can tell the story of where their dollars were spent and what they were able to do. 

"Tons of people are interested in giving, and we want to do more with our dollars, but we're not sure whom to trust, we are not sure if they are going to be wasted," Hatmaker says. "We have receipts of being a trustworthy front door."  

Legacy Collective also just launched corporative giving circles. Employees can give directly to Legacy, which will chose the causes that are supported. Legacy can create a portfolio of nonprofits based on an employer's preferences and employees can give to that portfolio. Or Legacy will provide a giving platform and vet nonprofits for an employer; employees then can have their own giving circle and choose which nonprofit will get their pooled funds. In all three scenarios, the employer can match employee giving at a rate set by the employer.

It's also working on a giving circle for college students that will have a $5 entry level. 

Dreaming big in the future

With new programs like the college collective and the employee giving circles, and continuing to focus on expanding and diversifying its donor base, Hatmaker sets the organization's sights on being a $20 million-giving organization. 

She'd like to see the diversity of the donors increase and to widen the diversity of the grantees to include even more causes, such as climate change, which it hasn't ventured into.

"We're always looking for sustainable solutions to systemic problems and going at the root of injustice, wherever it lives," Hatmaker says. 

These are our generation's problems to answer, she says. 

Legacy Collective

To find out more about Legacy Collective, go to