Giving Sum: Participatory philanthropy

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Marty Posch didn’t set out to start a nonprofit. Eight years ago, he and friends Darrin Brooks and Ryan Brady were just informally and independently connecting friends to volunteer opportunities in the city.

What they quickly realized was that by working together, they could have a collective impact. The trio, together with Lindsay Doucette, began meeting weekly, and the nonprofit Giving Sum was launched. Their idea, a giving circle for 100-plus young professionals, would pool members” resources — time, talent, and finances. The result would be to multiply the effect on the community and on each other.

Five-year member and this year’s Giving Sum president, Christina Lear has witnessed the power.

“It’s very rare that people get to marry their philanthropy giving and volunteer hours. Often you’re doing one or the other,” said Lear. “We make one-time grants and are not really strong at filling in a nonprofit’s operating budget. We’re only going to be with the organization for a year. So what we do is give a nonprofit this surge of money and excitement and energy, and then it can start something big that can last beyond our time.”

That surge from this local all-volunteer organization can be up to $50,000. Last year, 42 nonprofits applied for the grant and for members’ volunteer efforts. Besides sharing what the money will be used for, each application must explain how volunteers would be used during the grant’s duration.

The circle’s guidelines are simple: Members of the group – either individually or couples – donate $500 annually. Each $500 equals a vote. All members read the proposals, and in the process learn about area nonprofits.

Indianapolis’ Giving Sum is part of a growing effort. When the first national survey was conducted 10 years ago, 220 giving circles were identified, including Indy’s Impact 100, which just celebrated its 10th year of giving.

Researcher Angela Eikenberry published a book in 2009, about this new wave of philanthropy and its size and scope. The reasons often cited by participants for involvement — more engagement in the giving process, a desire to connect to a larger effort or the community and an appetite to learn more about nonprofit organizations and issues in the community. Her findings mirrored the Indy founders’ reasons starting the nonprofit.

But Bryan Roesler, vice president, said the founders had a secondary goal — building future leaders. Roesler, a six-year member, has served as president and grants committee chair, and believes having no paid staff is an asset.

Past recipients

2014: Indy Urban Acres, a partnership with Indy Parks Foundation, was an eight-acre abandoned plot. Now a farm, it donates 100 percent of its produce with food pantries. The grant was to expand its production of flowers, which generate revenue for the farm.

2013: Paws & Think, an advocacy group that teams therapy dogs and schools for therapeutic work with children to improve literacy at IPS School 34. Giving Sum members held a book drive and book fair for families and set up the therapy room.

2012: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana to implement youth philanthropy initiatives and opportunities in its mentoring program.

2011: Indy Reads to help launch Indy Reads Books, a new-and-used bookstore located on Mass Ave. The grant helped secure the location and open the store, while volunteers helped prepare the store for its opening. Giving Sum members also contributed books to the store with a book drive and some continue to volunteer.

2010: Noble of Indiana to fund the Noble Giving Sum Community Garden. Located at the 21st Street, Noble of Indiana facility, this garden provides opportunities for clients to plant, weed and harvest a wide variety of plants. Plants are used in Noble classes and produce is donated to the Good Shepherd food pantry.

2009: Starfish Initiative to fund a leadership camp for 100 Starfish scholars. Giving Sum members served on the camp committee, securing resources and setting curriculum. Designed around the “7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” members served as teachers throughout the weekend, as well as camp counselors. Many Giving Sum alumni and current members continue to serve as mentors.

2008: Coburn Place to build a playground for the resident’s children. Members designed the playground, and helped with the landscaping of the installed playground, but left installation to the professionals for safety reasons.

“We want to engage people in a way so that they have leadership experiences, particularly at a younger age, and have experiences that they might not otherwise get until later in life,” said Roesler. “So the fact it is that all-volunteer run leads to a lot of amazing leadership experiences. Members get engaged and they can really take some ownership in the process.”

There are social gatherings, too, and opportunities to learn more about the city. Recently, Mark Miles and John Mutz who talked about the City Committee of the 1970s energized the group. Both shared stories young professionals spearheading ideas for the city’s downtown, including Military Park and White River State Park. Lear said she has been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to connect with city leaders.

While the founders have passed the torch, Lear sees it as an opportunity to think critically about the organization and ensure that it reflects members’ desires and needs. During this calendar year, the board has put everything on the table from the contribution amounts, to recruiting, to its work with partners. Using focus groups and surveys, the leadership team is learning from its members, alumni and partners how operations might be enhanced.

Lear assumed the helm in January, and Roesler stayed on as vice president to provide institutional memory and support.

“When you have a startup that’s a certain phase in the life of an organization that actually cannot last forever,” said Lear. “A startup is founded on relationships and a core group of people. Once those people start to age out of it, then you have to rethink how it’s sustainable.”

So what are some of the changes that are being considered or already implemented?

Although a grant was awarded last year to Indy Urban Acres, the giving circle is not making a grant this calendar year. An organization will now receive grant money in January and applications are due in the fall. This will better align with incoming members and their desire to jump right in.

“We bumped it best online casino back for a couple of reasons. One is that we wanted the grant cycle to better represent the membership cycle. In the past, people would join in January and would be very excited about participating and volunteering, but grant applications weren’t due until May. So they had to wait six months before they actually got to participate in the grant cycle,” said Roesler.

“We’re not going to miss a year of giving money because we gave away money this year and we’ll give away money next year,” said Roesler, adding that there will be a solid structure in place in the next months.

Lear believes that the changes will help existing members be more active and help recruit new members. She said the group wants to expand its reach beyond who members know and represent different careers and sectors. The giving circle is open to men and women of all ages.

“Indianapolis has always been very inclusive and very welcoming, and we want to get the word out to more people that they’re all welcome. Even people who don’t think that they’re the right fit for Giving Sum because of their age or their finances or whatever the reasons might be, we would love it if they could tell other people,” said Lear.

Under consideration for change is the amount of the annual individual contribution. The group has entertained $317 to reflect the city’s area code or $365 to emphasize that it is just $1 daily.

“When you’re thinking about it for the first time, and you’re not someone who considers yourself a philanthropist, $500 sounds huge. So we feel like it’s time to re-evaluate that number so we can engage more people. We do think that once they start giving, they will feel like ‘Oh, maybe I do have the capacity to give even more.’”

Members want the opportunity to interact with the people who are benefitting from their financial contribution. In the past, Giving Sum would volunteer lots of different places, and not just for its grant recipient wanting to help a lot of organizations. But Lear wants to strengthen and focus the volunteer’s experience and expand it to offer an individual’s professional talents to benefit the nonprofit.

“We’re seeing value in ‘OK, all of our members are busy let’s focus on this one partner, so we can really give them the impact,’” said Lear. “People who are early in their careers are really excited about the skills they’re developing in their workplace, and they want to be able to offer that to nonprofits in need. It also can help our members refine their own skills and advance their career,” said Lear.

Having given away over $350,000, the group has educated younger professionals about philanthropy, getting them excited and making giving fun.

“I could never give away $50,000,” said Roesler. “Maybe one day, but for the near future, I don’t see myself being able to personally give away $50,000. So it’s really exciting for me to have that voice in that process. There are 100 votes and you’re an important part of that process.”

Roesler says it’s helped him to realize that it doesn’t take a lot to have a huge impact.

“I realize that to have an impact on the community, the only thing that you have to do, is stand up and raise your hand, and say, ‘I’m willing to help. I’m willing to take some of my personal time and make a difference in the community.’ That’s all it took for me to get engaged in Giving Sum. I just feel like a much better, stronger member of the community now than I was when I first joined five years ago.”

Watch for announcements of Giving Sum’s changes on its new website, which launches soon.

Photo submitted by Keri Jeter  |  Caption: Giving Sum members, Shawn Mendenhall and Christina Lear at Indy Urban Acres on the city’s Eastside

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