Idea File: One City’s Guide to Giving

Year-end appeals may have ended, but it’s never too late to start planning for the next go-around.

The idea

In December, you most likely received a slew of emails from nonprofits near and far asking you to continue their support. If you’re anything like me, you probably felt overwhelmed.

Here in Portland, OR one alternative newspaper is trying to make shuffling through the noise of year-end giving easier. Willamette Week’s (WW) annual Give!Guide features 110 nonprofits in eight different categories from animals to youth to give your cash to at the end of the year.

It’s a win-win: Local organizations receive money to support all the awesome work they do, and you get incentives ranging from a free cup of Stumptown coffee to oh yes, an ice cream party for 200 of your closest friends at the best scoop in town.

While the guide is open to anyone to donate, the focus is on the 35 and under crowd.

“We have the least amount of money and most view philanthropy as something you do when you’re older or only if you’re wealthy,” says 27-year-old Nick Johnson, Give!Guide’s Executive Director. “We want to break through that barrier and make it clear to people that you are philanthropist even if you give $10.”

Recently completing its 9th year, Give!Guide has raised over seven million dollars in total, with nearly two million this past year alone. Complemented by the Skidmore Prize, which highlights four young nonprofit rockstars, and a volunteer guide one month later, WW is tapping into one of the many reasons why Portland is quickly becoming one of top cities in the U.S. to make a tangible difference.

“I can go through the list and name which groups from my life in Portland have affected and shaped me,” Nick says. “Anybody who lives here, even if they just moved, can’t avoid being influenced by one of them.”

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Makes giving easy. Instead of going to multiple websites or writing numerous checks, all the nonprofits are there on one web page for you to choose from. Nick has found that the average donor will give to three nonprofits at once.
  • Raises awareness of local nonprofits, especially smaller ones. While larger nonprofits are included, it’s the smaller nonprofits that seem to benefit the most. “We bring them in new people, they get the fundraising experience and connect with other nonprofits,” Nick says.
  • Kickstarts philanthropy in the young. The 65 and older group, which has traditionally been the biggest donor base, are increasingly less likely to increase donations. “We think that younger people need to begin stepping up,” Nick says.
  • Collective effort to help the sector as a whole. It can’t be denied that there’s power in numbers. “When you create a critical mass of 110 groups and all their marketing departments and volunteers and staff are promoting it, it becomes a bigger thing than if one group was doing their own Kickstarter thing,” Nick says.
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Give!Guide’s Executive Director Nick Johnson holding one of the lawn signs. (Photo via Willamette Week’s V.Kapoor.)

 

How you can replicate it

A version of the Give!Guide exists in some other places around the country, such as Colorado Springs, CO and Lexington, KY, but Nick would love to see the idea in even more cities. Already a handful of communities have reached out to WW for ideas.

If you’re thinking about doing something like this where you live, below are some tips from Nick on how to implement it. You don’t necessarily need newspaper backing; a group of nonprofits could easily create one.

Working with nonprofits

  • Choose the number or organizations based on capacity. Richard Meeker, the Willamette Week Publisher and Co-Owner, started the Give!Guide in 2004 with just 20 organizations, the number which has been increasing each year. Nick is now its only full-time employee, and feels 110 is a manageable number not only for him to be a dedicated resource for the organizations, but a way to keep the attention focused.
  • Have a selection committee that’s legitimate and has a wide reach in the nonprofit community. Last year,  WW’s publisher and accountant, staff from a local science museum and youth organization, and the former ED from the Nonprofit Association of Oregon chose which nonprofits appeared in the guide.
  • Include a variety of organizations. Have a balance of smaller and larger nonprofits (mammoth orgs are a good lure for the tiny ones), a range of categories, and fresh causes each year. “We want there to be some turnover so it doesn’t become a calcified thing and doesn’t shift,” says Nick, who tries to include 30% new orgs every year.
  • Encourage nonprofits to help you promote the guide. Ask them to push it on their social media channels, as well as in their community face-to-face. Give!Guide also ramps up the competitiveness by giving $500 to the nonprofits in each category who get the most individual donors under 35.
  • Pay attention to the small guys. Nick learned that nonprofits will have different expectations about what they want out of the Give!Guide. While the large orgs will usually not have a problem raising funds, the smaller ones might. So Nick put statistical reporting in place to make sure he was giving them equal attention. “If you want to manage a large group of nonprofits, you have to keep an eye on both the successes and the improvement areas,” he says. “I want these groups to walk away happy.”

Engaging the community

  • Provide incentives. Although Nick has found roughly 20% of people will opt out of receiving rewards such as discounted coupons  or a year-round show pass to local music venue or , he thinks it’s still a nice way to thank people and show appreciation. Working with businesses also helps their philanthropic image and brings in new customers, and on the flipside, introduces Give!Guide to an audience it may not have reached.
  • Consider the types of businesses you partner with. Be aware that nonprofits and businesses might have competing interests, and if the guide is part of a newspaper, keep the editorial separate.
  • Recognize local changemakers. The Skidmore Prize not only highlights the fact that many young people are involved with nonprofits, but helps the sector at large by keeping them motivated with a $4,000 prize. “If we can keep pushing them forward, that’s a huge asset for that organization and a huge asset for the city,” Nick says.
  • Be prepared for a slew of donations after the holidays. People will usually wait until the last minute to donate after they’re done with holiday shopping. This is an ideal time to encourage new donors.
  • Make donors feel they are a part of something. Whether it’s citizenship badge stickers or lawn signs, for example, having swag not only markets the guide, but helps people feel connected to a larger movement.

“People are bombarded so much. You can’t be passive,” Nick finally says. “That’s my biggest piece of advice.”

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Inspired to create your own Give!Guide? Feel free to reach out to Nick Johnson for more advice: njohnson@wweek.com.

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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