Technology changes the nature of giving in Chattanooga and around the U.S.

Technology changes the nature of giving in Chattanooga and around the U.S.

November 29th, 2015 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

POLL: Do you contribute to charitable causes online?

Sally Morrow gives away $100 a month to charity — even though she's not rich, and she's only 25 years old.

"When I first started, I was making $23,000 a year. It was a pretty big commitment," said Morrow, who now works as an intern architect at a North Chattanooga firm. "That's the thing I splurge on."

Morrow makes the donations as a member of the UnFoundation. It's a Chattanooga charity born in 2011 at a 48Hour Launch event held by the Company Lab, a downtown nonprofit "incubator" of new businesses and organizations.

The UnFoundation currently has 18 members who each pitch in $100 a month. They meet as a group at a bar or restaurant to vote on which worthy cause should get that month's $1,800 "microgrant." The UnFoundation has funded everything from ukuleles used in a North Chattanooga children's summer music program to the finishing touches on a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. on M.L. King Boulevard.

Another example?

"This is for teachers that want to get a 3-D printer for their class," Morrow said, "but don't have the money for it."

As the season of giving gets underway, the UnFoundation is one example of the changing world of giving.

Social media, web-based crowdfunding, or Internet campaigns that raise small donations from a large number of donors, and the millennial generation's preference to give directly to causes they like have shaken up the traditional landscape of giving.

Another novel form of charity is GoFundMe.com, a San Diego, Calif.-based site that uses crowdfunding and has lots of pages that seek donations for Chattanooga-area causes.

Recent examples include paying the rent — and then some — for Oterius "Sandy" Bell, a man who sells flowers late at night in downtown Chattanooga bars and restaurants. He's suffering from a recurrence of colon cancer, and a GoFundMe page raised more than $10,000 in one day so Bell wouldn't have to worry about having a roof over his head.

Another page had raised $3,200 in just under two weeks to cover veterinarian bills for Desiree, a pit bull mix left to die in a garbage bin. The dog had a broken leg — one someone had intentionally smashed — that needed to be amputated.

"It's the first time we've done it; it's been very successful for us," said Jamie McAloon, executive director of the MacKamey Animal Center, which launched the campaign.

Why try GoFundMe.com?

"We have all these new [employees who are] millennials working for us," McAloon said. "Would we use it again? Yeah, we would. But we have to be careful not to overuse it."

Meanwhile, if it seems you can't buy groceries without being asked for a donation, you're not alone. In 2014, more than $388 million — more than $1 for every American — was raised by a group of 77 million-dollar-plus charity checkout campaigns, according to Cause Marketing Forum, a nonprofit organization based in Rye, N.Y., whose goal is to align companies with charitable causes.

Churches, noticing the plates they were passing were getting lighter, have turned to technology.

Some, like the fast-growing Venue Church in Chattanooga, have apps that allow members to tithe. Abba's House, another large Chattanooga-area church, allows text-in donations and has giving kiosks onsite to make credit and debit card donations easy.

Other longtime traditions are being upended.

The Salvation Army, for instance, has been modernizing its 120-year holiday season bell-ringing tradition, installing credit card readers at select sites to get money from nontraditionalists who are reluctant to carry cash. Technology isn't always the best route in some places. The Chattanooga Salvation Army tried credit card readers at its red kettles here a few years ago, the charity's spokeswoman Kimberly George said, but people didn't take to them. Now they are back to cash and change at bell-ringing sites.

Old school still thrives

Globally, mass online appeals — including both charitable and for-profit projects — raised $16.2 billion in 2014, according to Massolution, a research and consulting firm that releases an annual report on crowdfunding. That's a 167 percent increase over the $6.1 billion raised in 2013. The firm estimates global crowdfunding in 2015 will double, reaching $34.4 billion.

So will these changes upend traditional charities in the same way technology has disrupted just about everything else?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Traditional charities in Chattanooga and elsewhere still dwarf the newcomers in terms of dollars collected and distributed. And while millennials may be the first generation who've had the Internet at their fingertips their whole lives, they're also known for being saddled with college debt and earning less than their parents.

So despite the changing charitable landscape, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga raised a record $12.7 million last year. And the United Way Worldwide still holds the top spot among U.S. charities that raise the most, at $3.87 billion last year, according to the the Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual "Philanthropy 400" ranking.

"But its annual fundraising fell by 35 percent over the last 25 years after adjusting for inflation," the Chronicle's Michael Anft wrote in a recent article that looked at the fading popularity of the United Way's on-the-job, paycheck-deduction donation drives and talked about how the charity has made adjustments to reach new donors.

That's happening here in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga's United Way teamed up with Causeway, a new Chattanooga nonprofit organization that has passed along $403,287 through crowdfunding since its inception about five years ago for local projects that range from supporting a farmer's market in Chattanooga's gentrifying Highland Park neighborhood to supplying coats for the homeless that double as sleeping bags.

The two charities got together to promote #CHAgives Day on Tuesday, Dec. 1, the local counterpart of the global movement #GIVINGTUESDAY. It is meant as a day to give back after two days of consumption: Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

"It was something that we both really wanted to do," Causeway spokeswoman Chelsea Conrad said of the collaboration between the venerable United Way and her new organization. "Chattanooga really has a very collaborative spirit. We know that we are stronger together than we are apart."

The joint effort offers the direct giving that's become more popular — the CHAgives.org website has a list of all the participating nonprofits and direct links to donate to them.

But it's "old school," too.

If participants don't see a favorite nonprofit listed, there's a donate button at the bottom of the page where they can give to a joint fund for United Way and Causeway and let the professionally run charities decide how to dole out the donations.

The United Way of Greater Chattanooga also will try MobileCause this year. It's a crowdfunding and smartphone platform from a Boulder, Colo., company that was used this summer by the United Way of Central Maryland to raise more than $572,000 for the Restore Baltimore campaign that followed rioting that destroyed parts of the city.

"We have to be able to meet [donors] where they are," said Wayne Collins, vice president of marketing and communications for the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

The United Way here also may use the MobileCause platform for "microcauses," he said, such as seeking a small donation to supply a child with a year's worth of books to promote literacy.

Scenic City gives

Chattanooga has a rich history of generosity.

The Scenic City ranks among the top 25 metropolitan areas for charitable giving, according to a study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, with the median giving rate by local residents at 7.3 percent, which is nearly 66 percent above the median of 4.4 percent for all metro areas.

Chattanooga stepped up its charity this year in response to the July 16 killing of five servicemen with the Heroes Fund, which collected more than $1 million.

Chattanooga has never failed to meet its United Way goal.

And Chattanooga once boasted the most foundation wealth of any city in Tennessee. The largest here is the Maclellan Foundation, a Christian charitable organization whose family founded Provident Life Insurance Co., which is now Unum. It gives about $20 million annually, according to The Grantsmanship Center.

Chattanooga is a religious city, and religion was the biggest recipient of U.S. charitable donations last year, receiving 32 percent of the $358 billion donated overall, according to the 2015 Giving USA report published by the Chicago-based Giving Institute.

UnFoundation partners with Community Foundation

The UnFoundation, Morrow's favorite way of giving back, is another example of a new Chattanooga charity that's teamed up with a heavyweight organization.

The UnFoundation operates as a nonprofit under the umbrella of The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, which was established in 1963 and paid out $23 million in grants during the first nine months of 2015

The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga's president, Pete Cooper, thinks his organization is well-positioned for the changing landscape of charitable giving.

"We're getting money for specific purposes, which fits into the millennials' giving pattern very well," Cooper said. "They're giving their [money] so they have a voice on where the money goes."

The Community Foundation has increased its social media presence, he said, and always has the door open for charitable-minded youth.

"I'm 67, but I'm young at heart and I love to talk to young people," Cooper said.

Cooper has seen charitable organizations grow — including his own. He was the Community Foundation's first employee in 1990, and now it's a charity with a $100 million endowment that regularly gives about $15 million annually.

Cooper said the average American donates about 2 percent of his or her income to charity, and there's room for more giving.

"I don't see any of these [new organizations] as competition," he said. "We can all work together."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu @timesfreepress.com or Facebook or Twitter @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.


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