Daniel Myslivecek was only 16 when he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma, a rare and highly lethal form of skin cancer. Immediately his close-knit family rallied behind him. “We decided that whatever had to happen, we would all be involved,” says his dad. And, indeed, when Daniel had to fly from their home on the East Coast to Colorado for the highly specialized procedures he required, his father, mother, and three siblings came along for support.
Between the treatment and the travel, the expenses were devastating.
Help came when a family friend, Greg Selke, a high school athlete and classmate of Daniel’s, raised the idea of a charity footrace. The event, dubbed “Daniel’s 5K,” was first run in 2006. Daniel himself participated in that first race even though the cancer had already spread to his spine, liver, and lungs. Sadly, just a few months later, the disease claimed his young life. But the race that bore his name had taken on a life of its own. After Daniel’s passing, rather than letting the race become simply a memory, his father and mother, Dean and Tammie, took over administrative duties for Daniel’s 5K. They rededicated the event to raising funds for other worthy individuals and organizations.
Since then Daniel’s 5K has raised thousands of dollars for local and national causes. For Daniel’s family, as for countless others, charity begins with neighbors helping neighbors—using innovative means to confront the tragedies that hit us where we live.
The decentralized nature of this model of charity makes it different from the kind with which most of us are familiar. Using the latest technology it is increasingly possible to take direct action to address needs close to us—whatever the scale—whether a natural disaster, a medical catastrophe, or the renovation of a community center.
This approach requires work, to be sure, but many prefer the direct approach to sending a check to a distant foundation. The person-to-person aspect was especially important to Dean. “Everyone that participates in our race gets a thank-you note telling them the specifics of where the money is being spent,” he says. “And once we get the thank-yous from the people we donated the money to, we pass those along as well.”
Now grassroots tactics can intersect with contemporary social media—from Facebook to LinkedIn and beyond. Amanda Justus, co-founder of 31 Heroes, a charity dedicated to servicemen, managed to put together a national fundraising event at locations across the country using only Facebook, WordPress (the software behind many websites), and online message boards.
A resident of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Amanda was drawn to philanthropy primarily out of concern for her community. Just this past August a helicopter crash killed 30 American servicemen, many of them members of the famous Navy SEAL Team Six, plus one dog. Seventeen of the soldiers had been based in Virginia Beach. “It hit so close to home. The whole community was reeling, asking what they could do,” says Amanda. “People were frozen, wanting to help, but having no idea how.”
Brainstorming with friends, Amanda thought to address the crisis in her hometown using her affiliation with another community, albeit a virtual one. Amanda is a CrossFit athlete, practicing an intense full-body workout program favored by firefighters and, not coincidentally, military personnel. She drew upon the loosely knit, national network of CrossFit gyms and was amazed by the speed and scale of the response. “The crash took place on Saturday, August 6th. We set up a Facebook page on Sunday morning, and by Sunday night we had almost a thousand fans. By Tuesday we were up to two thousand.”
The 31 Heroes event played out very simply. Participants paid a registration fee—$31, in fact—and gathered at their local gyms on September 3 to participate in a special workout routine. “In the end we had over 10,000 people participate,” says Amanda. “The way it spread was just viral.”
The key to her success, she believes, was the speed with which it rolled out. “After a major tragedy, everyone wants to do something immediately—but that desire tends to fade away soon after,” she says. “We wanted to right away get on top of that, so the opportunity would be right there for people who were ready to give.” Social media made that rapid response possible.
For all the success of 31 Heroes, Amanda is content to stick with her strengths. Her passion for the cause made her a natural fundraiser, but, “we don’t ever want to be responsible for saying where the funds go,” she says. Indeed, few beginners have the financial background and connections needed for effective disbursal of funds. The solution that both she and Dean found was partnering with established charitable foundations—organizations with grantmaking know-how and apparatus already in place.
When choosing and evaluating charity partners, good neighbors stay close to home, often giving to organizations with whom they have had dealings in the past. The Myslivecek family, for instance, divides the proceeds of Daniel’s 5K among organizations that assisted them during their son’s illness such as Melanoma Hope, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and Rochester’s Golisano Children’s Hospital. “During Daniel’s treatment, without these organizations, it would have been impossible for us to manage on our own,” says Dean. “So we thought, let’s give something back.”
The choice of a giving partner was not difficult for Amanda either. A military spouse herself, she was familiar with the work of the Navy SEAL Foundation long before the tragic events of August 2011. “I have good friends who are military widows who have benefited greatly from the Foundation,” she says. “I knew that they were a trustworthy organization.” She stresses the importance of due diligence when choosing a charity with which to work: “You want to be a smart consumer with who you give money to.” (For advice on how to tell good charities from bad, and for instructions on how to file a complaint against a fraudulent charity, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s Charity Fraud website.)
Before these new charity organizations could start raising funds, their journey had an unlikely first stop—the Internal Revenue Service. Although the IRS may not inspire charitable thoughts, it is at the forefront of philanthropic support in the U.S. All nonprofit organizations are required to register with tax authorities, and, in return, the IRS provides step-by-step instructions for formalizing your organization, laying out your rights and obligations under the law.
The beauty of it is that you don’t need to know much to get started. “I had helped out with charity events when Daniel was first diagnosed,” says Dean. “I was behind the scenes with auditing and such, but that was the only time I’d ever been involved in anything like that. For the most part, the knowledge I’ve picked up has come from the person who does our taxes.”
Daniel’s 5K made the transition from a one-time, ad hoc event to an annual institution. 31 Heroes is still a work in progress. “We raised about $300,000 this year, which was fantastic,” says Amanda. “With that kind of response, everyone was asking if this was going to be an annual thing.” She and her team would like it to be, but the long-term prospects for either organization are far from certain. Studies show that approximately half of all nonprofits close up shop within their first 10 years of operation. One hurdle is unexpected overhead expenses, including permit fees and liability insurance.
Fundraisers usually take the form of athletic contests, games of chance, or auctions—all highly-regulated activities. “There are a lot of hoops to jump through, especially for a 5k race,” notes Dean. There can also be incidental expenses involved in helping participants get the most out of the event. The Mysliveceks, for example, employ an organization affiliated with U.S. Track and Field to ensure that the course for Daniel’s 5K is properly accredited and that race results are accurately timed and official.
Despite these high operating costs, charities can still thrive, even in the midst of a recession. “With the state of the economy right now, you’d think that more people would say no,” says Dean. “But I feel there’s some higher purpose at play. Because some people don’t really know exactly who Daniel was; they don’t know us all that well; they have no idea how a 5k can support melanoma. But they don’t say no.”
The most effective charities make it easy to say yes by finding ways to use donations of all types—not just cash, but goods, services, and the time and talent of volunteers.
“After the first year, we stopped buying trophies and started giving gift baskets as prizes,” says Dean. The baskets are stocked with donated merchandise and gift cards from area merchants. “People don’t just say yes for the exposure, or the advertising,” he says. “They do it because they think it’s a good idea.”
Donor partners are rewarded with advertising and exposure, of course—and it is this cycle of goodwill, of doing well by doing good, that keeps donors coming back. Even 31 Heroes, which came together quickly and on the cheap, offered a simple premium to entice participants—although Amanda groans remembering it. “That was the toughest part of doing it this year—handling 10,000 T-shirt orders!” she says, laughing. “It was brutal, because it was just the three of us, and we weren’t about to pay someone else to handle the disbursing of shirts.”
The tale of the T-shirts points to perhaps the most important lesson for any budding nonprofit: Be aware of your limitations. Keeping the organization’s goals realistic helps to avoid burnout and frustration and may be the best way to ensure sustainability. “The great thing about Daniel’s 5K is that the committee is kind of laid-back.” says Dean. “We don’t have outrageous expectations for what this is and what we can accomplish.”
Amanda agrees, adding that the same wisdom applies when an event succeeds beyond expectations. “When we put together 31 Heroes, I thought we might possibly get 2,000 participants,” she remembers. “But we quickly outgrew the capabilities of our registration software!” Despite the unanticipated work, the team never seriously considered capping participation at a manageable number. “People want to help, and it’s better to apologize for our slowness in processing the registrations than to cut off the potential money we could be raising.”
The community of participants, bound by a common cause, found it easy to forgive her; and that sense of fellowship, she says, is the greatest reward of her experience. “Just when you think that everything’s gone to hell, it’s very cool to see people come together, amidst tragedy,” she says. “Watching how people have been willing to rally together—I feel very blessed to be in the center of it, and watch it all around me.”
From Idea to Action: How to launch your own charity
So you’re a concerned citizen, and you’ve identified an untapped opportunity to do good. How do you translate your desire to help into an effective charitable effort?
Define your mission
The law defines charitable institutions as those organized for the public benefit. That’s rather broad, to be sure, encompassing everything from relief of the poor to the advancement of science to the maintenance of public monuments. You’ll need to define your cause in a written mission statement. Sum up the aims of your proposed nonprofit in a sentence or two, answering the questions: What do we hope to achieve? What means will we use? Who will benefit?
Do the paperwork
Next, you’ll need to file Articles of Incorporation with your state authorities, including the name and purpose of your charity along with its organizational makeup and the names of the officers. (The relevant forms can usually be found on your state government’s website.) While you’re at it, draft the bylaws of your organization, formalizing your decision-making process, governing structure, and conflict-resolution procedures.
Make it legal
To formally separate your charity’s finances from your own, you’ll want to incorporate. To do this, file a non-profit application with the Secretary of State’s office of your state. After your Articles of Incorporation and bylaws are accepted by your state, apply to the federal government for recognition as a charitable organization and get yourself an Employee Identification Number from the IRS.
Create your team
Now it’s time to think about staffing. Your charity will need a board of directors. These are volunteers, usually respected members of the community, who serve in an advisory capacity, but have legal authority and responsibility for the charity’s mission. You’ll also need to bring on a registered agent, who will be your point person when dealing with official communications from the state.