Joe Rayburn came out as gay to his parents at age 16. His announcement was met with love and support, but Rayburn said he knows too many LGBTQ teens are shown the door and left struggling to find a safe place to lay their heads at night.

That’s why he joined Arise Project, one of Greater Twin Cities United Way’s “giving communities” focused on issues near and dear to members — in his case, charities that help homeless LGBTQ youth.

“This is about giving where your heart is,” Rayburn said. “These are programs that resonate with me as a person.”

United Way hosts four giving communities, including one focused on women’s financial stability and another catering to young professionals who want to dive deeper into philanthropy.

Officials with the nonprofit, which has struggled with declining donations in recent years, believe these groups that meld philanthropy, personal passions and networking opportunities are a critical part of its future. They have helped United Way create connections with individuals that transcend its traditional workplace giving.

“People want to unite around something,” said Carrie Chang, United Way vice president of donor engagement. “Now, giving communities are so timely and relevant and make so much sense.”

The concept is gaining popularity nationwide. The number of organizations that host giving groups — defined as “highly flexible, democratic, do-it-yourself vehicles for giving — has more than tripled since 2007, according to a 2016 study by the Collective Giving Research Group.

Nearly 60 percent are formed around a particular identity, and giving circle members tend to be highly engaged in volunteering, donating and helping to lead the group.

The giving communities also provide donors with more control by allowing like-minded people to pool their donations, research charities and make grants.

Throughout the year, the groups host cocktail hours and other social events. Arise hosts an annual Twin Cities Pride Parade viewing fundraising party.

United Way staff helps with research, event planning and other logistics.

“I am doing good by giving to those causes, but there is something for me too,” said Aimee Norasingh, a manager in financial services and a member of Women United. “I’ve built some long-lasting relationships. It’s nice to broaden my network of moms and women in general.”

More than 100 professional women filled a party room at Crave American Kitchen & Sushi Bar in St. Louis Park for a recent Women United meeting. They sipped wine and cocktails and nibbled on appetizers while hearing from the latest speaker in the group’s executive leadership series. They also discussed the group’s giving and other business.

‘It’s so inspiring’

Each United Way giving group sets its own membership guidelines and giving priorities. They review applications for grants and tour the nonprofits receiving those dollars.

Women United asks each member to give at least $1,000 a year, which equals about $80 a month. Women United has about 200 members and gives away between $250,000 and $300,000 in grants a year. Arise, which has 100 members, requires a $500 annual contribution.

Sheri McGrath, a bank vice president, said she grew up in a family where money was a near constant worry. That’s what compelled her to join Women United, which jump-started her philanthropy.

“I grew up with a single mom, so financial stability for women really resonated with me. I am personally passionate about it,” McGrath said.

One year, the group supported the International Institute of Minnesota, which is focused on helping immigrant and refugee women who have traditionally worked in housekeeping become supervisors in the hospitality industry. Women United also supports scholarships for Montessori teachers.

“When you can see and meet people that have been impacted, it’s not a faceless thing any more. It’s people you walk next to every day,” McGrath said. “It’s so inspiring. ”

Chang, who is also a member of Women United, said many giving community members share that sentiment and appreciate the focused giving.

“It opens their eyes. They tend to give at higher levels because there is a compelling reason to step up,” Chang said. “There is a higher likelihood they will stay a donor.”