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Baltimore's GiveCorps helps donors make small gifts count

Abby Ferretti, 28, is a hands-on philanthropist.

Four times a week, she volunteers with an organization called Back on My Feet, where she goes on 5:30 a.m. runs with residents of local homeless shelters. She's not the type to just write a check and then forget about it, during the holiday season or at any time of year. That's why she chose to donate through GiveCorps, a Baltimore-based business that launched in August, which connects local donors to local organizations trying to fund small projects.

"It was nice to see it in tangible terms because as a volunteer we're often asked to donate and certainly there's always ways to donate, but the [GiveCorps] project was a nice way to see a specific goal and to know that you're going to actually meet it," said Ferretti. "If it's a small goal, it's within the realm of possibility. It's not just an endless finish line."

GiveCorps project donations are parceled out in small increments, usually around $25, with clear line items that explain where the money goes. It's catching on. GiveCorps had 200 subscribers to its daily email when it launched; now it boasts 4,000. Of its 1,200 donors at givecorps.com, 55 percent are younger than 40, and the organization has raised more than $53,000, with an average gift of $34.

"GiveCorps is all about engagement, recognition and reward for small donors. We market our projects across every platform we can: our website, a daily email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and grassroots events," said GiveCorps CEO Jamie McDonald, 48. "It's also critical that they feel great about giving, no matter what amount they donate."

For donors who can't afford to make large gifts or who dislike the impersonal nature of sending a check to a general fund, GiveCorps allows them to feel that they're making a significant, particular contribution. The site also has a social media element — donors can get discounts to local businesses, such as Woodberry Kitchen and Bare Hills Racquet and Fitness Club.

"If you donate $20 on a $2,000 project, that's 1 percent of the total. If you wanted to make a 1 percent contribution to the United Way, you're donating over $100,000," said Kyle Gore, 41, a frequent GiveCorps donor. "It's the same reason why people want to eat local food. People want to see it in their community. They want to see that every dollar is impactful."

For the organizations themselves, which often don't have fundraising staff, GiveCorps provides logistical support as well as access to a network of donors ready to open their wallets.

"I loved the main mission of it, encouraging young professionals to be more civic-minded. I like that the hook is a Groupon model. I think it's a great way of thinking to encourage more people to give back to the community," said Roswell Encina, 41, director of communications for the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Here's a look at a few of the 66 projects GiveCorps is currently promoting, and how small donations can add up to something big.

SEEDing the Power of Music

Sponsor: The SEED School of Maryland (seedfoundation.com)

The Goods: Musical instruments for a band at a public boarding school

The Goal: Originally $2,250; now $3,000

Donors: 56

Average gift so far: $49 [Note: all average gifts were rounded to the nearest dollar.]

Khalek Kirkland, head of the SEED School of Maryland, wants the students at his tuition-free, college preparatory public boarding school to have everything, not just the bare necessities. And they wanted a band.

"The long-term goal was to perform at large venues and having a string and horn sections and do amazing things, but we saw that it was very costly to start off the band," said Kirkland, 40.

A few students owned instruments and a few more had the means to rent them, but they didn't have the complete sound that they want. So, through GiveCorps, they are raising money to buy two trumpets, two saxophones, three flutes, two trombones, three clarinets and music books.

"Well-rounded liberal arts students should clearly have appreciation for the arts, from everything from composers to the artists to writers and producers. And music helps study skills, because you put in hours of rehearsal times," said Kirkland. "It creates the whole child."

The response to SEED's request has been outstanding. It has already exceeded the initial fundraising goal — $2,725 raised as of Tuesday — and will be able to purchase more equipment than organizers originally hoped for. The band will play on in 2012.

Baltimore Speaks Out!

Sponsor: Wide Angle Youth Media (wideanglemedia.org)

The Goods: Supplies and expenses for an after-school program teaching media skills to middle schoolers

The Goal: $2,600

Donors: 61

Average gift so far: $30

Baltimore's streets are full of stories, but not everyone has the means to tell them.

Baltimore Speaks Out! aims to provide middle-school students equipment and instruction that allows them to create narrative videos. The project receives city funding, but this year, it had a $2,500 gap. So Wide Angle Youth Media, the nonprofit that administers Speak Out Baltimore!, set up a GiveCorps Project to make up the difference to pay for equipment, staff and supplies for family events. So far, it has raised $1,812.

While students love the chance to play with cool video cameras and share their opinions on topics ranging from gang violence to recycling, Wide Angle Media executive director Susan Malone believes that creating movies and telling stories is more than just a fun after-school activity.

"It's not an extracurricular," said Malone, 36. "Being literate today isn't just reading and writing in words. There's a huge digital divide, and we're really building workforce skills."

Ferretti has donated to several GiveCorps projects, including Baltimore Speaks Out! As a graphic designer for Johns Hopkins Medicine, she knows the importance of media literacy for the 21st century.

"I was born in Baltimore and my parents moved us to Anne Arundel County for better school options. So the idea of bringing that kind of program to Baltimore City, there's a great need. It makes more sense than people trying to get out of the city," said Ferretti.

Help the Pratt Lend Books AND Nooks

Sponsor: Enoch Pratt Free Library (prattlibrary.org)

The Goods: 15 Nooks pre-loaded with 22 e-books

The Goal: $2,565

Donors: 34

Average gift so far: $28

As director of communications for the Enoch Pratt Free Libraries, Encina faces one question over and over again: What is the future of the library?

"We try to think outside the box and adapt to changes. We decided we're not going to shy away from what's happening in the electronic age," he said.

The library's e-book borrowing program was incredibly popular with patrons who already owned e-readers. So the Pratt wanted to take it to the next level — lending the e-readers themselves to patrons. The Herring Run and Reisterstown Road branches already lend Nooks to patrons, but with more than 60 people on the waiting list, the library wanted to expand the program. With a partnership from Barnes & Noble, the library is able to buy Nooks pre-loaded with bestsellers for $177. Total raised so far: $945.

The e-readers are popular with young technophiles, but they've developed an unexpected following among the library's older patrons, who can view more books in large print without the hassle of hauling around a heavy dead-tree tome.

"We're hoping that some day, all the branches are offering these things and we're hoping we'll have docking stations and down load the books here," said Encina. "That's a long-term goal."

Providing Hope Through Meals

Sponsor: Moveable Feast (mfeast.org)

The Goods: 777 meals for low-income people with critical illnesses

The Goal: $1,400

Donors: 21

Average gift so far: $45

Moveable Feast, an organization that provides house-bound Marylanders with food and nutrition counseling, tried GiveCorps for the first time on Oct. 19. It set a goal of raising $1,000, enough to buy 555 meals for clients.

"There was an overwhelming response. We were glued to our computer screen, refreshing the page and watching the number go up," said Hanna Mast, 24, a development associate. "We really wanted to engage the $25 philanthropist."

Moveable Feast hit its first goal in a day. One of those Oct. 19 donors was Encina, who has an interest in hunger and poverty issues.

"There was a big push leading up to Thanksgiving, and I like it on a personal level, where I can browse these projects I had no idea even existed," said Encina.

For the holiday season, Moveable Feast is upping the ante to $1,400, or 777 meals. And it is already close, again. As of Tuesday, it has raised $1,210.

Attire 4 Hire

Sponsor: Baltimore Fashion Alliance (baltimorefashionalliance.com)

The Goods: Alterations on suits for men seeking employment or starting new jobs

The Goal: $1,500

Donors: 27

Average gift so far: $44

It's tough to get — or keep — a job when you don't look the part. Simply not having the right clothes can be a huge barrier for men trying to enter the workforce, especially when positions are scarce.

That's where Attire 4 Hire comes in. Based at the Franciscan Center in Station North, Attire 4 Hire is a vast closet of men's business wear. While the clothing is donated, a suit doesn't do much good when it doesn't fit properly.

"When you look good and the clothes fit properly, it's not a distraction when you go to an interview," said Baltimore Fashion Alliance founder Chris Schafer, 39, a local tailor. "On a suit for a guy, to alter the waist and length of a pant, it's $25. Then sleeves are $25, so $50 could do a whole suit. If we broke it down like that, it's a way for people to say if I donate this I know it will do that."

Attire 4 Hire's $1,500 goal will outfit 240 men, and $1,200 has been raised. Besides helping them to meet the basic standards of professionalism, Attire 4 Hire gives the men a self-esteem boost.

"We try to create a place of respect and dignity for people who don't get that on a daily basis. It's like a men's boutique. It's neat, clean and respectful. It's something of value," said Christian Metzger, 35, director of development and marketing for the Franciscan Center. "They can leaf through shirts, shoes and ties. Just to be able to do that, it's such a good feeling and it gives them confidence to go out and get the job."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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