One of the best donation requests I’ve ever received

I don’t know if this is how she was supposed to do it, if it was planned this way, or if she just decided to send a quick and casual email to about 60 people asking for help. But I’m telling you, it made me click on the “donate” link and send them $20. And I’m broke.

Here’s what I got:

As a supporter of the The Cipher program in the past, thank you!!! I’m emailing to encourage you to help provide the teens in the program a good, hot evening meal. They meet twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays through May and the meal gets their meetings off to a good, energetic start. My job is to help Shannon by coordinating the donation and delivery of meals on those days.

We have MANY dates open in April and May and I would encourage you to either provide the food for an evening or make a donation to The Cipher so that we can continue to provide them with a hot, nutrious meal. For several of the kids, these are about the only good, healthy meals they’ll get all week.

To make a donation, go here:

To provide & deliver food for a specific date…I have the following dates open. Please choose one and I’ll contact you with details.
APRIL 7, 9, 14, 16, 21, 23, 30
MAY 5, 7, 12. 14. 19, 21, 26, 28

Thank you in advance for considering this!

What is it about this email that made me click through?

First, it comes off as very personal – opens with a thanks, multiple exclamation points… (usually, I’m not a fan of the multiple exclamation points but they just work in this context, I think.)

Second, in the email she’s asking for something specific. “We need meals.” Not only that, she adds that sometimes it’s the only nutritious meal these kids get during the week. Wow.

Third, it’s short. Man, I can’t tell you how long those donation requests emails and letters can get. I’m a writer, folks, and I’m telling you: People don’t read. They read the New Yorker, they don’t read your emails, I don’t care who you are. It’s all scanning. Don’t take it personally; I don’t –  you’re not even reading this right now!!!!

Sure, it’s missing details. I’d like to know how many kids I might be feeding or where I might be delivering the meals and at what time. But after this email, that all seems like trivial information. This woman has asked me to help get these kids fed. I immediately think, “I’m a mom, that’s what I do. What do you need?”

It helps that I’ve seen The Cipher in action and that we’ve interviewed its founder in the magazine. But even if this weren’t the case, I’d probably donate or at least forward the email to friends. I know not every nonprofit can make requests on this small scale, not for the amount of donations they need to fulfill their missions. But making this donation was just too easy, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

What is Greenlight’s new 501 Council?

Kim Wilson, director of development for Greenlights, let me in on the scoop behind that organization’s new 501 Council. Here’s what she said.

1. What’s the goal of 501 Council?
The 501 Council is a forum for individuals who are giving back with their time, expertise and/or financial resources, or those who are looking for ways to do so to learn, engage and have a direct impact effectively.  Operative word is the last one in the sentence….
2. Why should people support Greenlights as opposed to supporting a charity? 
Well first, Greenlights IS a charity, and in order to provide the low-cost, high quality services that we do, we have to raise money from those in the community who understand that strong, high-performing nonprofits are better able to use the resources at their disposal to achieve their desired impact. 
If your question was… “Why support Greenlights rather than a charity that is providing direct service to individuals in the community?” — well, of course I have an answer to that, too. …

There is a difference between funding direct service provision (which is what I think you’re alluding to here) and investing in the underlying strength and sustainability of the organizations that provide those services. I could get really long-winded with this topic, but the core argument –
1.    Central Texas is increasingly struggling to meet the quality of life needs of its citizens as population growth continues to boom.
2.    High-performing nonprofits are critical to meeting community needs and building a strong Central Texas.
3.    In order for nonprofit staff and boards to make wise decisions about where they are headed, where to cut costs (as many are having to consider now), where to invest additional resources, etc. – they need access to expert guidance, high-quality training and tools to improve their performance and impact.
4.    If Greenlights did not exist, they would not have access to these services.  We are the only provider of high-quality, low-cost expert guidance to nonprofit leaders in Central Texas.
5.    We also strengthen the community’s relationship with, and investment in, area nonprofits through our board matching and community outreach efforts (of which the 501 Council is one), and finally
6.    And finally, we fill an important role of catalyzing systemic change by raising community awareness of, interest in and action around issues that are important to the sector.
3. What’s the value in forming this as a “council” as opposed to your traditional outreach for donations?
Couple of answers to this:
·         This is about more than generating donations from Greenlights.  It’s about training and engaging a group of young, successful business professionals effectively in the work of the nonprofit sector.
·         But on the fundraising for Greenlights side of things, it’s ALSO a way to engage a group of current and future community leaders in the work of Greenlights.  Many of the individuals who were invited have expressed interest in volunteering with us in some way.  Unlike many nonprofits, we don’t have easy ways through our current programming to use volunteers.  But the 501 Council format is a great way to engage those who are interested in our work, and down the road, when they are serving on the boards of other nonprofits… hopefully they will think of us when the organization has a training or consulting need.
4. How can someone join the council? Do they have to be a Greenlights member?
They do not need to be a Greenlights member; they just need to be interested in learning how to give back effectively, and committing time and a relatively small financial contribution ($250 / year) to doing so.  You can read more about the expectations for members here. Greenlights will kick things off with a launch party on April 8th. 

Interested? Contact Kim Wilson at Greenlights to learn more and get an official inviation to the launch party. I’ll see you there!

“I am heartbroken over what has happened on East 11th Street. I fear that it just might be too late.”


In  GivingCity Issue #2, we interviewed three African-American social entrepreneurs to get their opinions on East Austin, gentrification, and being African American in Austin.

I was a little worried about running that interview. What worried me is that I had never heard anyone say these things before. Yes, I’m a little naive and ignorant about East Austin issues, so maybe none of it was news; but I also worried about things like fact-checking and getting the other side of their stories.

But then I figured … you know, we’ve heard the other side of their stories. I’m just going to give these guys some space and hear what they have to say. So I just had the interview transcribed and just got out of their way.

This is an excerpt from that story. To read the whole thing – and see some gorgeous portraits taken by Austin photographer (who still shoots film!) Owen Laracuente – download GC2.


Michael Lofton, Director of The African- American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation
Lofton is a community leader who has worked for many years on behalf of the African-American community in Austin, with a particular emphasis on education and mentoring.

What inspires me is the salvation of the kids. It bothers me to no end to see 56 percent of our kids dropping out. Because you have to realize that when you have 50 to 60 percent of the kids dropping out, and the stats are 6 out of 10 that don’t graduate will end up in jail, we as a community need to come together and address not only the community but address the educational systems and try and bring in whatever social service programs needed in order to turn the kids around.

Kids have lost hope in the educational system. Too often kids recognize the disparity in the disciplinary process. But that is what prompted us to start hosting the African-American Men and Boys Conferences, because we saw so much disparity in the disciplinary process in putting our kids in the juvenile system.

Now, you’ve got tons of kids that are coming out of high school with a criminal record already. And it’s sad that as big as Austin is, we only have 280 African- American males in the 12th grade right now, and how many of those are going to graduate?

So what I’m saying is the community is going to have to come together to talk to our young men, talk to our young ladies, and find out what the problem is, and give them those strategies to deal with things that they don’t have somebody at home to talk to them about.

Gator, Co-Founder of The Cipher
Gator is a hip hop and spoken word artist, community activist, and youth leader.

I’m a native of Austin, and I’ve stayed in East Austin and Northeast Austin all my life. I’m only 22, and I didn’t develop a conscience at about community until recently, you know. But I remember the Juneteenth festivals and how they used to be, and just seeing a lot of African-Americans come together; it was real positive back then. You had more adults involved in that process.

When you fast-forward to today, it’s just not what it used to be. I see the gentrification and the effect that it’s having on the people. A lot of youth, when they see it happening they don’t really know what’s going on and don’t realize that it’s going to have an effect on their lives.

But there are a lot of community organizations involved in educating the youth, for example Michael’s organization and our organization. We try to get Eastside kids involved, because they don’t feel like school is that important anymore.

On the other side of I-35 it’s totally different, and at those schools they have more to work with. In our schools, some of them, it’s different. Like Reagan, for example, that’s the school that I went to; I remember a time where Reagan was full of pride, and it was just the school to be at. And now it comes to a point to where it’s almost sad.

It’s like what Michael was saying about the dropout rate—they just don’t feel like school is that important anymore. You have to question that and why do they think that.

Harold McMillan, Founder/Director of DiverseArts Production Group
McMillan is a nonprofit producer of multidisciplinary art and culture projects and programs, and has been involved and active in Austin’s art and music community for the past 20 years.

The black community has to do a lot of that. And like I said, I hate to be cynical and jaded, but my area of interest and expertise is cultural history and cultural preservation, that piece of a community’s life. And I am heartbroken over what has happened on East 11th Street and what’s not happening on East 12th Street at Rosewood. And I fear that it just might be too late—it just might be gone.

As the population declines, as the African- American population inside the city of Austin declines and that money goes in this wave, two waves ago many of the foundation bedrock families of central East Austin that actually do and did have money, they moved out, too.

Part of my disappointment is that many of those people that really do or I think should have an emotional stake in the community took their money with them, too. We can blame the gentry for coming in and developing on East 11th Street. But we can also blame moneyed black folks whose families grew up in that neighborhood who walked away a long time ago and never brought their money back. You know, that’s really disappointing to me.

Langston Hughes has a poem that has a line in it: “Lord have mercy, they done stole my blues.” Sometimes you give your blues away. And I am disheartened by the high rate that people are cashing out and just getting out of the community. It will never be the same, we know that—we can’t stop progress. But there’s a legacy of a rich culture there that’s being trampled on right there that hurts me.

We’re lucky to think of this as an adventure

A friend of mine sent me an email this morning.

He’s trying to get his PhD while working full-time, one of his sons might be gay, and his wife just had her job at the local high school elminated. “They decided to use the stimulus money for slip ‘n slides at the middle school,” he said.  

“That’s the digest from Maine! What’s the scoop? Still got your job?”

First of all, I love this man. Whether he’s worried or not, he doesn’t show it. He writes this as if it’s all just one big adventure.

It’s going to be fun to write him back and tell him that, no, in fact, I don’t still have my job. And full-time work also eludes my part-time work husband. And daycare for my two children costs $1800 a month, but if I pull them out and then get a job, I’ll have a hard time getting them in another school, and it took them a month to be able to walk into this one. Oh, also that one of us is about to be one of the 1-in-4 currently without health insurance in the state of Texas because that costs our family $1600 a month. Oh, and the minivan is making a weird noise.

“That’s the digest from Austin!”

And yet… we are both so damn lucky. Don’t think I don’t know it. Somehow we’ll make it through all of this. Some of it, in fact, has been fun. And the best part of it all is receiving all the help from friends and family. They feel great because they can finally show us in a tangible way how much they care, we feel great because we get to see it.

I wish more people got to experience this. Okay, that sounds weird. What I mean is, for those people who live closer to disaster than we do, who live there more often, I wish them the support, love, and patience from their friends and family.

The ones who don’t have it or have worn it out turn to strangers. Charities, agencies, donations, a helping hand, you, us. Wouldn’t it feel good to help?

Giving and volunteering – easy. Caring – not so much.

In learning about Austin philanthropy, there are good days and there are bad days.

Good days are when I find out from Laurie Loew of Give Realty that one of her clients wrote a big check to a local charity. “They didn’t expect it, but they told me it was such a great feeling. Like it was the best part of the whole experience.”

Bad days are when I talk Pamela Benson-Owens about her tireless and sometimes frustrating efforts to motivate people to give. And I won’t even say “give,” I think I really mean “care.”

Pamela is a force. I met her at the first See Jane Give event hosted by I Live Here, I Give Here  last year, and she was one of the table hostesses who shared what most of us would consider personal information about their finances and giving decisions. She, like Myndi Garrett who was the main speaker at that event, were the women who exposed me to the idea that giving has to hurt a little. Pamela, for example, takes her lunch to work almost every day. I know this doesn’t sound like a huge sacrifice, and maybe it’s not. But little choices like that, she says, allow her to give at the level she wants to give.

We talked for a while about how to motivate people to take an action. This is something that everybody is trying to figure out, of course. There are many board members and fundraisers out there who do a great job of getting people to write checks and show up to volunteer… but caring… how do you get people to care?

Here are some indicators, I think, of people who care:
1. They show up even when they’re not asked to show up
2. They genuinely listen and want to learn more
3. They don’t think of their needs first
4. They look for ways to help

There are probably other indicators, but the thing is I don’t think you see this from a lot of gala attendees. (Oh man, there I go with my gala diss again, sorry.)

And maybe caring isn’t what nonprofits really want. I mean, care all day but you need resources, right? You can’t stock the food pantry shelves with caring. You can’t paint the daycare with a bunch of carers, you need volunteers to pick up the paint brushes. (Caring is the first step toward volunteering, yes, but you can volunteer without caring.)

Maybe you can’t get people to care. Should we just give up? Focus on the action and less on the emotion?

The truth behind “Contact your congressman!”

One of the best, most informative parts of Turk Pipkin’s new film, “One Peace at a Time,” is his interview with U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who represents part of Austin and seven counties southeast of Austin.

After traveling the world to see the true impact of organizations like Austin-based charities, The Miracle Foundation and A Glimmer of Hope, Pipkin sat down with Congressman Doggett to ask about the often-heard call-to-action, “Contact your congressman.” He wanted to know if that was actually effective.

I don’t remember Doggett’s exact words, but the impression I got was that Doggett finds these absolutely effective – but only if your communication is sincere and meaningful.  Doggett said the reality of those “Contact your congressman” mass emails he receives from auto-generating forms don’t have the impact of well-written email or letter from an individual. And even then, it takes a large number of those more sincere emails for the message to get through.

I liked that he was honest. We can all guess that our congressmen receive a lot of emails, letters, and phone calls from people wanting them to vote a certain way or support a certain bill, and that it’s impossible to heed each of their requests. I also liked that Doggett seemed to put the responsibility on us to make that meaningful connection with our representatives.

Because it is our responsibility. Nonprofits cannot do it all. I’ve heard that a lot lately, from the nonprofit and the government agency communities. Both say that our efforts to change the world have to come through both channels. And it’s important to note that both communities have said this – not in critical ways – but in empowering ways.

I met with the leaders of the Texas  State Employee Charitable Campaign last week about their communication needs for the fall 2009 campaign. The campaign consists of 10,000+ state employees from 10 agencies (like Texas Youth Commission, Comptroller of Public Accounts, Workforce Commission, and others) from all over Texas who gave almost $10 million to charity in 2007. (The Capital Area employees alone gave more than $2 million.) What’s remarkable is that these are people who have chosen civil service to work for the people of Texas and who also choose to support the people of Texas through regular deductions from their paychecks.

I think it was Reuben Leslie of Texas Health and Human Services Commission, who’s been part of the campaign since 2005, who told me, “Nonprofits can’t do it alone. Government can’t do it alone. We have to work together. And we need the people of Texas to support that work.”

We ask a lot from our state agencies and our nonprofit charities and our foundations, and we expect them to read our minds and/or do the caring for us. Whether we write an email to our representative, make a donation, or learn about an important issue in our community, we can show our support for their efforts. Remember, we have the easy part.

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SUN APRIL 5: Peace, Love & Happiness Charity Motorcycle Ride is right up my alley

My husband got T-boned on his Harley a few years ago. He got severely bumped up and the FXR was totaled. I’m grateful Norwood was able to call me from the emergency room to explain why he was late going home, but I’m sad for him and his Harley.

Norwood had rebuilt it by hand, and it had taken him years and thousands of dollars to repair. The guy who hit Norwood didn’t have insurance, so he’s out driving around happy and we’re out a motorcycle, a healthy back and pair of legs, and thousands of dollars in medical bills.

But what goes around, comes around, right? If Norwood DID still have his Harley still, we’d be all over this ride. Because it’s so cool.

Peace Love Happiness Ride & Concert
April 5, 2009

It’s Springtime and that means its the best time of the year to ride a motorcycle in Central Texas. This year, the Charity Ride is FREE!

Join us on April 5th for the 7th annual Peace Love Happiness Ride for a ride in the nearby Texas Hill Country. The ride on Sunday is followed by a final concert at The Backyard with Guy Forsythe. Tickets to the concert are $20 and benefit the charities. It’s always a blast and the ride is escorted by local law enforcement.

Led by Paul Mitchell CEO John Paul DeJoria and his celebrity friends, this ride benefits Austin Children’s Shelter and The 100 Club of Central Texas — 100% of the proceeds go directly to the charities!
Charity Ride — FREE
Sunday, April 5th
Be part of the escorted Charity Ride and then join us for a concert.  The hour-long ride starting at Cowboy Harley-Davidson is free!  We finish the ride at The Backyard for a final concert. Riders must register for the ride.  Get the details here.

Concert at The Backyard with Guy Forsythe
Sunday April 5th — $20 per person
Enjoy live music with Guy Forsythe for a final concert at The Backyard.  Doors open at 1:00 p.m. You don’t have to ride a motorcyle to enjoy the great music!

Purchase Concert Tickets Online!

PS: The April 4th VIP ride – at $1000 a bike – has sold out. But you can still ride with the cool kids on April 5th.

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