Building community support, one campaign at a time

Entrepreneurs are creative problem solvers who are adept at spotting a need, assessing it, and finding innovative solutions.

Not-for-profit organizations are always looking for creative ways to raise money. If these opportunities don’t have an expense budget, carry no risk, and engage new and repeat donors, it’s a charity’s dream come true.

Similarly, businesses keep an eye out for effective and effortless employee engagement projects. A 2017 Gallup study showed this is key to business success in the 21st century: engaged employees are 17% more productive. Employee loyalty and retention also increase when employees find stronger ways to connect with community through workplace endeavors.

Enter The Giving Project, an enterprise created by Joe Castle that enables not-for-profits to attract hard-to-tap donors, and gives businesses a way to demonstrate positive corporate citizenship.

Castle’s family has a long history of philanthropy. In fact, the family business--The Northstar Companies receivables debt collection--cites community commitment as a core value.

“My family is very involved in philanthropy through our business,” Castle said. “My wife and I decided to continue this and do something on our own. It began as a passion project, and now it’s our full-time jobs, in addition to raising two kids.”

The Castles did their homework. As Western New Yorkers, they know that this community has plenty of worthy organizations doing very good work, particularly in education, human services, and cultural areas. They also learned that traditional means of raising funds (direct mail campaigns and big ticket galas) aren’t always appealing to nontraditional donors. Standard fundraising projects cost money to manage and don’t always deliver a return that’s commensurate with the effort. Also--and perhaps most importantly--the region’s growing millennial population doesn’t connect with charitable giving the same ways as their parents and grandparents.

That’s how The Giving Project was born. The Giving Project pairs a business with a charitable organization and creates a specific campaign that raises awareness and funds for the charity. Employees are invited to make a donation and are rewarded with an entry in a time-sensitive sweepstakes for a high-demand prize. They can also earn extra entries by sharing links on their personal social media platforms. The business is given an exclusive promotional code that serves as an employee “perk,” too.

This way of doing business is a win-win-win. “We do all the work,” Castle said, from identifying charitable recipients, seeking the high-profile prizes, coordinating the businesses, and managing the marketing which is crucial to each campaign’s success. “We incur all the costs, too, especially for the marketing.” The Giving Project doesn’t charge the business or a charity a fee for this service: it retains 20 percent of all funds raised, which is less than more professional fundraisers retain for managing direct mail or other projects.

Developing The Giving Project was a year in the making, much of it in market research, networking, and meeting the legal and ethical obligations of the State Attorney General’s Office to become an accredited professional fundraising company.

This is the right time and Buffalo is the right place for The Giving Project’s development, Castle said. “What we found through our market research is that people prefer to support local charities and to see where their money goes and how it improves to the community.” That philosophy appeals to millennials, too, who are comfortable using technology and are socially aware.

The next biggest hurdle, Castle said, was developing a website and the messaging behind The Giving Project’s mission. “It’s difficult to explain,” he said, because “it’s such a unique way of raising money.”

Next up, Castle had to face the same hurdles as any other new business: landing clients, attracting partners, establishing that legitimacy and brand identity. “Our goal is getting as many people as possible donating as much money as possible to different charities,” said Castle.

The Giving Project’s first campaign wrapped up in September, when the Project netted $2,000 for another homegrown enterprise, Music Is Art, founded by GooGoo Dolls bass player Robbie Takacs. The prize was priceless: front row seats to see the Goos live on stage at Shea’s Performing Art Center, a backstage tour, and rock star treatment. The average gift was $15, which was relatively low, but it also demonstrates that a high percentage of the donors were either younger or first-time donors. This is another positive attribute for The Giving Project: it’s an invitation to become a donor and support a cause. In other words, it’s a hook to establish a trajectory of more engagement in an appealing way. The current campaign closes Nov. 10. Proceeds will benefit the Stone’s Buddies initiative at Oishei Children’s Hospital and the prize is a biggie: a pair of tickets to see “Hamilton” at Shea’s Performing Art Center.

Castle said his biggest challenge is explaining how The Giving Project works and its benefits--direct and implied--for charities and participating businesses. “Building a base of members through our website and staying in touch with them throughout the month to tell them about our next campaign takes effort,” he said.

The plan is that this combination of traditional needs and business practices (fundraising and corporate participation) plus a kicky entrepreneurial twist (a start up that likes to give cool rewards) will attract participants and future employees, too. Castle noted that this audience--millenials who are comfortable with technology--is in the sweet spot for The Giving Project. That The Giving Project is an entrepreneurial pursuit is part of the appeal, too. “Younger people are trained to work in internet-based businesses and are up to speed in using technology,” said Castle.

The business climate is right now, too, with a fresh emphasis on entrepreneurial opportunities. “We plan on expanding aggressively and hiring a staff, and taking on office space,” Castle said. “The Buffalo market is conducive to the internet industry.”

Read more articles by Cherie Messore.

Cherie Messore is a native Buffalonian and has longtime experience in the region's vibrant not-for-profit sector with special interests in the cultural community and education. She is also a freelance writer, public relations practitioner, and volunteer docent at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House.
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