Helping People

Grassroots, social media drive charity in modern era

DOUSED FOR A GOOD CAUSE: Miami Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel dumps a bucket of ice water on Dan Marino during the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge at Miami Dolphins training camp. People gave more than $100 million through the Challenge to the ALS Association, a 3,500-percent boost from the same period last year.
DOUSED FOR A GOOD CAUSE: Miami Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel dumps a bucket of ice water on Dan Marino during the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge at Miami Dolphins training camp. People gave more than $100 million through the Challenge to the ALS Association, a 3,500-percent boost from the same period last year. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The hottest viral movement on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram this summer didn’t revolve around Taylor Swift’s latest crush, the defection of LeBron James from the Miami Heat or Charlie Crist vs. Rick Scott in the Florida governor’s race.

Rather, the biggest buzz was the Ice Bucket Challenge, a fundraiser for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disease that was on few people’s radars until celebs like former president George W. Bush, Justin Timberlake and Mark Zuckerberg, along with your neighbor, spouse or bestie, doused themselves in ice water, captured the moment on video, and challenged others to donate to the cause.

People are giving in record numbers — some $100 million alone for the ALS Association, a 3,500-percent boost from the same period last year. Local charities are finding that tapping into fun, grassroots giving, engaging in social media and in bringing people together for elbow grease and a good cause are rewriting the rules of charitable giving.

Miami, ranked 10th on Charity Navigator’s annual list of “America’s most charity conscious cities,” mirrors the national trend. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Trust and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, nearly all high-net-worth households in the country (98.4 percent) donated to a charity last year, up from 94.4 percent in 2011, a 28 percent gain. During the last decade, the percentage of wealthy donors who gave online has grown from 15 percent to 50 percent. And more than half of the donors who gave of their time devoted more than 100 hours in volunteer activities.

Digital revolution

Giving trends include 24/7 online campaigns like The Miami Foundation’s Give Miami Day, which raised $3.2 million for local charities last year, with donors using their phones, desktops or tablets to click on the charity of their choice.

Giving is also becoming much more fun, from United Way’s poker games, to fitness events to roving craft beer pubs. And giving is becoming a great community builder, from company employees planting gardens, painting schools or building homes to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s contest challenges for the arts.

“In almost every other part of modern life, the digital revolution creates a democratizing opportunity that is unparalleled — maybe since the printing press was mechanized. I don’t want to deal in hyperbole but whether it’s Kickstarter or whether it’s the contests we run for arts journalism, you can engage and inform in much more effective ways than before,” said Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen.

The Miami Foundation, a nonprofit that connects donors with local charitable groups, has capitalized on technology and social media platforms. In particular, its Give Miami Day event, a 24-hour online campaign in its third year, has been a resounding success. The next one is set for Nov.20.

Give Miami Day 2014 will repeat last year’s successful pre-event Twitter party by going live an hour early with hashtag #GiveMiamiDay at 11 p.m. Nov. 19. Users are encouraged to tweet about why they are motivated to give and how it can impact Miami. Music videos engage millennials who were weaned on flashy, fast-paced images.

The idea behind the Twitter party and music videos, said Javier Alberto Soto, president and CEO of the Miami Foundation, is “to give it a party vibe. That’s the strategy we used last year and we had great success. As soon as midnight struck a ton of money came in.”

Indeed, the first Give Miami Day in 2012 raised $1.2million. Give Miami Day 2013 raised $3.2million. As the region continues its rebound from the 2008 recession, Soto expects this month’s event to top last year’s figure.

“For us, the next logical step in going after millennials is to go where they are now and that’s increasingly online and through digital platforms,” Soto said. “For Miami investment, and in growing the next generation of philanthropic givers, meeting them where they are and creating a buzz around a 24-hour event that’s engaging and fun has a tremendous impact on Miami.”

Tackling issues

United Way’s community engagement events like the poker games, bake sales and craft beer pubs shouldn’t overshadow its primary mission, which hasn’t changed in its 90-year history, said president and CEO Harve Mogul.

“From a mission point of view, that’s been pretty consistent — bring together groups of citizens in many different ways to tackle community issues,” Mogul said.

Finessing volunteers’ time and talents and doing a better job of tapping South Florida’s diverse communities — or a “collective impact” approach —are some of the United Way’s goals for the next 10 years, as the charitable organization approaches its centennial anniversary.

“It’s like a football game. If you had 11 people on the field and everyone is doing what everyone does best but it’s not orchestrated in some special way, you don’t win the game,” Mogul said. “We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get away from what I call ‘philanthropic anarchy.’ Raising money, by and of itself, doesn’t bring solutions.”

Instead, the group sends volunteers into public schools for reading programs and training sessions with educators and parents, components of its United Way Center for Excellence in Early Education.

There’s also a Young Leader’s group of about 1,600 people under age 40 who donate at the $1,000 or more level annually and who network, advocate and volunteer where services are needed.

Sometimes fads can backfire even when the monetary amounts raised for a cause are staggering. The Ice Bucket Challenge, which asks people to dump a bucket of ice water on their heads while filming themselves or donate $100 to the charity, annoyed as many people as it charmed this summer.

“There has been some commentary in the media about how it’s a narcissistic act to do the ice bucket thing; for people just to get media for themselves,” Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza said in a Miami Herald story in August. “But in reality, people challenging others to donate has made the difference.”

A new generation

In 2015, expect more doing of activities as opposed to simply dashing off checks for galas, which can be costly and inefficient as fund raising.

“To the extent you can do this through social media, you reduce fund-raising costs and you increase the possibilities of a broad range of people to participate,” Ibargüen said.

That’s why corporations Baptist Health South Florida employees are pitching in to help landscape a youth center in Homestead or lawyers and staff from Greenberg Traurig, the Miami law firm, bowled recently with kids from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami.

Then there’s Philanthrofest, begun by Miami native Estrella Sibilia, who has turned her real estate background into community building. The next edition of Philanthrofest, April 11 at Miami’s Museum Park, aims to bring charities and the community together in job fair fashion, matching volunteers with community needs.

Fun. High profile. Taking action.

“It’s easy to give money,” Ibargüen said, citing the innovation behind the Miami Foundation’s Give Miami Day. “If you make it easy for people to do the right thing, they tend to do it.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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