A conversation on philanthropy and entrepreneurship with Give Corps CEO, Jamie McDonald.
Give Corps, a visionary tech startup, seeks to democratize and change popular perceptions about philanthropy. Often when we think of philanthropists we imagine affluent individuals or corporations that gift large sums of money. The notion that most individuals are incapable of having significant impact on the greater problems facing society is a common misconception that Give Corps is taking head on by empowering individuals and charitable organizations with their unique take on crowd sourced fundraising. Their vision is to “create a passionate community of givers whose collective generosity – in dollars and personal commitment – makes them the most powerful philanthropists in their cities.”
Upon my first time seeing an individual profile on the Give Crops website, I was struck by the title “Baltimore Philanthropist” under the name of someone I knew personally and hadn’t ever considered a philanthropist. It’s this mindset and approach that’s enabling individuals to claim stewardship over their own communities. It’s a powerful idea that Give Corps has packaged into a seamless user experience.
The Give Corps platform is not entirely unlike popular crowd sourcing fundraising platforms Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Projects with fundraising goals are posted and users support the projects through donations, but there are differences that set Give Corps apart. First, the projects listed at Give Corps are local to the user’s region which increases the likelihood of contributions having an impact on the immediate community. Also, giving is incentivized by rewards and discounts from local merchants. Not only does Give Corps help participating non-profits, it also helps local businesses by providing exposure to a growing and engaged Give Corps community.
Most importantly, Give Corps’ mission is its greatest differentiator. Changing the nature of philanthropy in order to engage and empower the masses is an ingenious idea whose potential to enact great change is something I look forward to witnessing them fulfill.
The young startup recently celebrated their one year anniversary at Union Mill in Baltimore City. In keeping with their mission they provided multiple price points for tickets including paying with a jar full of change. Some of Baltimore’s kindest people were be on hand, including folks from organizations that have benefited from their platform. The sold out event, and guest list filled with some of Baltimore’s most forward thinking individuals, was a testament to the great work Give Corps has done in the past year and evidence of generous support from a grateful community.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Give Corps CEO Jamie McDonald to discuss innovations in philanthropy and her personal journey as an entrepreneur. Below are some of the highlights from that discussion.
Justin: “I wanted to run through the Give Corps concept but first, I wanted to find out how you became an entrepreneur.”
Jamie: “I’ve always been an entrepreneur, though maybe not always a professional one. I started my first business when I was nine. I was a city kid from Philadelphia and my parents divorced when I was very young. My mother was a young single mother. We lived the kind of life where, if I wanted anything beyond the necessities I had to wait until she could afford it or I had to take care of it myself. So, I got it in my head that I wanted this particular pair of jeans, and I can remember to this day, for my mother there was no way. Whatever they cost at the time was outrageous so, I decided that I needed to figure out how to make my own money.
“My mother was the receptionist for the Y at the time and I would go there everyday after school if I didn’t have my own gymnastics practice. That’s where I started a group called the Tiny Tots Tumbling Program. Parents would pay me to teach their daughters gymnastics. I did it two or three days a week for a year and I got my jeans and a few other things. You know, I always just kind of just had the bug I think, partly, because I grew up… poor might be too strong a word in today’s context of poor but with no extras.
“After graduate school I was really fortunate to be hired into a very entrepreneurial position at Alex Brown, which was a big investment bank in town at the time. I was an entrepreneur within a corporate context and I was there for seventeen years. When I left I wanted to do something completely different. I’ve been lifelong sports lover, it’s one of my other passions so I went down the sports path and I started a very specialized gym that was just for athletes. It wasn’t treadmills and fitness equipment. It was a big open space with a turf football field and platforms and weights. I hired strength training coaches from colleges and started that business, ran it for five years, and then sold it in 2008.”
Justin: “What did you take away from starting, running and, eventually, selling that business?”
Jamie: “I learned a lot and that really helped guide me to what I’m doing now. Part of what I learned is that when you’re an entrepreneur you’re so intensely involved in running the business that you generally don’t spend as much time doing the things you love. I got into it because of my passion for sports and we were very successful. We worked with everyone from little kids to the Ravens but I didn’t have much exposure to that side of the business. I was just running the business.
“One thing I learned is that I didn’t enjoy the retail aspect of business. The example I always give is toilet paper on the toilet paper roll in a gym, right? That’s one of those things that has nothing to do with what we were doing which, was make athletes better. But, it had everything to do with someone’s experience. I really wanted to make sure that whatever I did next was delivering an experience that was a closed system so that we could control all aspects of the experience. It wouldn’t have these extraneous things that could impact whether people thought your business was good or bad.
“At Give Corps if someone is inspired to give they give and the process is smooth and they get their tax receipt. For most people that’s a quality experience through our site and it’s very contained. That was a really important thing for me to learn. The other thing I learned relates to this whole notion that a lot of times when you go into business to do something you love, you don’t have time to do the thing you love. I really wanted to make sure that, with this next business, I get to do what I love. Give Corps has very much allowed me to do this.”
Justin: “So how do you spend the majority of your time at Give Corps?”
Jamie: “The vast majority of what we do, and what I spend my time on, is inspiring people, telling great stories, learning about new non-profits that are doing things in unique and innovative ways, interacting in the community, being a thought leader around philanthropy. All of those things that are really in the vein of what I’m passionate about. Somebody in a recent interview asked me, “what’s your dream job?” and part of my answer is that I’m not twenty-five so I’m not really dreaming of that dream job anymore, but this is it. I couldn’t have told you that ten years ago. But it’s just funny how life has sort of brought me to this place where I’m doing that dream thing.”
Justin: “Right, because you have to go through it to learn what that dream thing actually is.”
Jamie: “That’s right.”
Justin: “I understand where you’re coming from. This is going to be the first thing I’ve written in a long time because I don’t get to write anymore.”
Jamie: “If you love to write then it’s probably hard.”
Justin: “It is hard. Now that What Weekly is growing most of my time is spent doing business development but, hopefully I can get back to the place where I’m doing the things that I love. And I might be wrong about this but, I don’t know exactly where this path is leading me, I know I just have to see it through so I can get to the other side of it.”
Jamie: “I think that’s an important part of the entrepreneurial experience. There were so many things that I learned from my first experience that make me more effective now, but also helped me to find out what I’m not good at and how to leverage myself optimally. It’s a real evolutionary process to become an entrepreneur. You can be successful even while you’re evolving; you can make a lot of mistakes and still be successful or you can do almost everything right and be unsuccessful. It’s one of the most challenging paradoxes of entrepreneurship. I think that the whole concept of optimizing yourself is really challenging but it’s important and at some point you have to figure out what you don’t like or what you don’t do optimally and keep sort of weaving that tighter fabric while you figure out what type of path you want to be on. It’s a real process.”
Justin: “So with this business, Give Corps, how did you arrive at philanthropy as the focus?”
Jamie: “I’ve been involved as a giver and on many boards over time so I’ve lived in the philanthropy world as a passionate supporter for quite a while. For many years now I’ve been involved with an organization called the Center for Urban Families, it’s run by a visionary named Joe Jones. By happenstance, I helped Joe form this organization in 1999 and I’ve on the board ever since. Initially, they were in a city owned building that was literally falling down around them and I’m not exaggerating. Imagine fifty men sitting in a training session and having the roof collapse during a snow storm. Nobody got hurt but, the place was a mess. They looked everywhere in Baltimore for a place to move and eventually bought the old Colosseum building where the Baltimore Bullets used to play. We realized that after we bought the building, at one point it had been a bus depot and it had become a brown field. The building couldn’t be saved because they literally had tear it up from underneath.
“I stepped into the role of raising money for a new building and we raised eight million dollars over the next two years. That process really awakened my interest in individual donor philanthropy and also ignited my interest in new ways of doing it. Because in Baltimore, the vast majority of organizations are talking to the same fifty foundations, twenty corporations, and five hundred wealthy people, and that’s it. You can go around to any non-profit in town and ask to see their target list and everybody’s showing you the same stuff. And there’s no question you have to build from the top and that you need major donors, but you also really have got to start thinking about how to go from the bottom because the world is changing rapidly. That was the thing that became very interesting to me.
“Moving into Give Corps, some time in 2010, I was thinking about what I wanted to do next and I got very curious about millennial giving – younger people giving. In parallel to that I was thinking about the whole concept of democratizing philanthropy.“
Justin: “So why is Give Corps a for-profit company and not a non-profit?”
Jamie: “Give Corps has both. There’s a foundation and the for-profit side is the website. The foundation is much more about promoting the mission. We want to be in the national conversation about young people and giving and democratizing philanthropy. We want to be leading that conversation over time. But there’s a couple of things that are really important about why we’re a social enterprise on the website.
“I think one of the real problems with non-profits, and I have to tread lightly as I talk about this because I’m not saying this with judgement. I’m not judging that they’re making an error. I think that it’s the way that non-profits have evolved; I think that the measurement structure and the pay structure in non-profits makes it very challenging to keep really good motivated people over a long period of time. What ends up happening, if you look at non-profit tenure; if you look at people who have been around for a long time, there are two types of people. They end up being those people who are truly passionate about the mission and could go been an executive somewhere and make way more money. It’s not that non-profit senior executives don’t make a living. They make a decent amount of money but they could make more money if they took those talents some place else. If you look at the next tier down, they’re almost across the board people in partnership where the combination of their income and their spouses income allow them to stay in the field of philanthropy and I think that’s a shame.
“Really, all non-profit means is tax exempt because they have a social purpose. We’re not tax exempt and we have a social purpose because I’d like to have the ability to keep really good people over time. I don’t mean necessarily pay them a high salary, but provide a way for them to have equity in our mission. When we do well, they benefit. So, I very deliberately wanted to say we’re all about doing good but we want to provide a shared benefit to our people so that they benefit from our success.
“Beyond the question of our people and our team and wanting to be able to share, the other thing that we recognized pretty early on is that we were building a software product. We’re a software company. We’re a software company that helps non-profits raise money and obviously we’re a very mission driven software company. We think first and foremost about our mission. But we have a private label part of our business too. The software, that’s been developed around best practices of generating large numbers of small donations from all givers, but with a branding and a focus on motivating younger givers, is allowing us to sell to universities, churches, synagogues, mosques, hospitals, and other institutional non-profits where it won’t appear to be Give Corps but it will appear to be their giving platform. This is an entirely different outlet for selling our software product that will yield a much higher margin than our consumer business but, over time, it creates this nice cycle that supports the lower margin consumer business where our passion is. Our first deployment will be at UMBC in October.”
If you’ve ever been interested in becoming a philanthropist and didn’t know where to start, Give Corps has made it easier than ever. SIgn up for a profile at givecorps.com and start supporting causes that you’re passionate about. It’s just that easy.
The Give Corps Team