Perhaps one of the neighborhood’s best-kept secrets, the Beacon Hill Circle for Charity got its start 57 years ago when a group of neighborhood women first opened their homes to visitors as a way to raise money to support local organizations that serve women and children in need.
“This business model has worked ever since the Circle’s founding because people tend to enjoy seeing how others live,” said Suzanne Besser, the group’s president. “And here on Beacon Hill they are naturally curious to see how residents in the 21st century live between walls that were built 150 years ago.”
The Circle has about 45 active members who take turns conducting walking historic tours for visitors in groups of 20 or more. Each tour lasts about two hours and includes visits inside three of their homes. Visitors are interested in the homes’ interior decorations, Besser said, as well as its use of fabrics, furniture, art and accessories. Some come seeking ideas for decorating their own homes, and others are art or furniture connoisseurs who love to see the private collections. Some tour-goers ask questions about the homes’ architecture and history while others are interested in the homes’ livability – such as how a garden is watered, where cars are parked, where children attend school and, most frequently, where former Secretary of State John Kerry lives.
The Circle has hosted tours for groups coming from all over the nation and abroad. Business is generated through its own marketing efforts to event planners and tour operators, on its website beaconhillcircletours.org, and more recently through its participation in the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Virtually all proceeds from the historic walking tours, as well as dues and donations contributed by members, are distributed in the community. Most recently, that averages about $35,000 to $40,000 annually.
Each year, a committee conducts considerable research into the mission and needs of many nonprofits in Greater Boston. Several are then invited to talk about their organization’s work and financial needs at a meeting of the Circle’s full membership. Twice a year, the full membership votes on which ones will receive funding.
“This way every Circle member feels a part of the process to select which charities we give to and how much we donate to each one,” Besser said. “Since 2007, we have awarded grants to 47 nonprofits, and since May of last year, the Circle has distributed a total of $52,450 in grants to 16 Boston organizations that provide critical services to women and children. This is believed to be the largest amount of money donated by the Circle in one year during its 57-year history.”
In 2019, for example, spring grants of $5,000 each were awarded to Hearth, Inc., Crossroads, Project Place and Boston Healthcare for the Homeless. Fall grants of $5,000 each were given to College Bound Dorchester, Boston Medical Center Grow Clinic for Children and the CATALYST program, also based at Boston Medical Center. A special holiday gift was given to Nurtury (formerly Associated Early Care and Education), which supports Greater Boston’s youngest children in need.
Because of the hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Circle recently awarded an additional round of grants. “Our scheduled tours were cancelled due to the pandemic, so we dug pretty deep into our accounts and a lot of members donated extra money so we could continue to help those who needed it,” Besser said.
Using these monies and dipping into a reserve fund, the Circle donated $5,000 to Boston Bridge Charter School in Roxbury to help with package meals for its needy families and $5,000 to Casa Myrna, which offers services to victims of domestic abuse. In May, the Circle issued additional emergency grants to institutions providing food and shelter. Specifically, members voted to provide $2,800 each to the Boston Medical Center Preventive Food Pantry; Boston Medical Center Grow Clinic; Casa Nueva Vida, which provides temporary housing for homeless families; Julie’s Family Learning, a South Boston-based organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty; St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children, which provides comprehensive social services to needy through shelter, care, treatment, teaching programs, education and training; The Elizabeth Stone House, a Jamaica Plain-based organization that works with survivors of domestic violence achieve safety, stability and overall wellbeing; and Zumix, an East Boston organization that helps foster youth and community development through music and the arts.
Besser described Circle members as philanthropic and caring individuals who will keep an eye on the needs in the community this summer. While the tours scheduled for the fall are now cancelled, members will discuss ways to continue grant-giving, perhaps supporting organizations that will offer job training in the post-pandemic economy.