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Philanthropy, Volunteering, and Public Interest Social Impact

Improving Quality of Life

To enjoy life and help others do the same. That’s a goal most people share. We all want to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible.

Most of us want to leave the world better than we found it so future generations can enjoy the variety of pursuits life has to offer.

This document offers some insights and suggestions for effective philanthropy and public interest social impact.

Please comment below or use the contact page for any corrections or additions to this evolving document. Thanks!

Having an Impact

Volunteering, making charitable donations, and working with public interest organizations are ways to make a positive impact in the world. Helping spread the word and get the message out about causes and initiatives can be a great help.

Many people choose to donate financially to non-profit organizations because it seems like an efficient way to have a precise and effective influence in the world. Your money goes to skilled and experienced people focused full-time on public interest work.

You trust a skilled auto mechanic to care for your vehicle rather than doing your own maintenance. The mechanic has experience and tools needed to get the job done right. So, for the same reason, some people pay for public interest work to be done by those who can do it effectively.

Start Your Own Non-Profit

Some people choose to volunteer for a public interest group, but others want to start one of their own. Usually this is based on some personal passion and life experience. Parents who lose a child to a disease, may establish a foundation in their child’s name and raise funds to help find a cure for the disease. Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded in 1980 by Candace Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver. MADD now has hundreds of employees and a budget of over 30 million dollars.

For every success story like MADD, there are undoubtedly people who start a non-profit and have trouble sustaining it due to the variety of skills, connections, endorsements, and lucky opportunities needed to have an organization succeed.

Business Giving

Small business owners have an opportunity to offer services at a discount or free to local non-profit groups or individuals in need. The service may be of great value to the recipient. Having a business can give a person additional time, money, and resources to give to charity far beyond what they might be able to give if they were working a full-time job and earning an average salary.

Give to Causes That Serve Your Interests

Some people give to causes that serve their interests. While that may seem selfish, the positive outcomes are the same as someone giving to a cause that doesn’t serve their interest. For example, hunters might give to the organization Ducks Unlimited, an organization that preserves vast habitats that support wildlife. Others who have no interest in hunting may donate to preserve habitats for hiking, camping, or photography.

It’s likely that people will give more generously to a cause that supports an interest they are passionate about. It’s good to give beyond what serves your interests, but don’t overlook the opportunity to give to what serves you.

Three Areas of Giving

There are three areas of giving one can consider, and each area is equally important.

  • Reaction. Most charitable organizations seek to offer impactful responses to challenging situations like drug addiction, homelessness, poverty, mental illness, or natural disasters. The needs, responses, and outcomes are easily measured and demonstrated.
  • Prevention. Some organizations focus on prevention. For example, there is an anti-terrorism organization run by former members of the military that focuses on eradicating poverty globally as a way to eliminate the desperation and scarcity that leads to militant extremism. Some groups focus on promoting sports because numerous studies show that team sports can help build confidence in young people. Mentoring organizations are proven to have a dramatic impact on children that results in young people being less likely to have drug problems and more likely to stay in school. Inner city academies that serve at-risk youth provide guidance and opportunity to replace the school to prison pipeline.
  • Social Ecosystem. Public resources like libraries, quality education, parks, trails, nature education centers, public radio, public television, public transit, and community events help build a social ecosystem that supports an improved quality of life for everyone. These are preventative, reactive, and transcendent in their positive impact which is broad and deep. Some social impact efforts are abstract and difficult to measure. The organization The Foundation for a Better Life has been promoting positive common values for 20 years using billboards, TV, radio, and social media advertising to share messages from people like Mr. Rogers that promote kindness, respect, and civility. It’s hard to measure the specific impact of such an initiative, but we can assume it creates a better society.

It’s helpful to consider these three areas of giving and think about the impacts your giving can have to serve one or more of the above categories.

Measuring Charity Effectiveness

Perhaps your passion is protecting a specific endangered bird, or giving to support medical research to find a cure for a specific rare disease. You probably don’t have a local organization working in that area, so you’ll need to find a national organization or one in another country doing that work. If you want to give toward protecting marine habitats, but live in the midwest, you’ll probably need to find a group based in a coastal city.

There are organizations that evaluate, review, and rank non-profit groups for their effectiveness. Here are some you can use to do more research on giving to specialized or larger national organizations.

  • BBB Wise Giving Alliance – “BBB Wise Giving Alliance (BBB’s Give.org) is a standards-based charity evaluator that seeks to verify the trustworthiness of publicly-soliciting charities by completing rigorous evaluations based on 20 BBB Standards for Charity Accountability. BBB Standards for Charity Accountability address four areas of charity accountability: governance, results reporting, finances, and truthful transparent communications. BBB Wise Giving Alliance along with its predecessor organizations have been reporting on charities for more than 100 years. [More…]
  • Blackbaud Institute – “Tracking over $36 billion in U.S.-based charitable giving from the Blackbaud Institute Index, the 2019 Charitable Giving Report looks at philanthropy in 2019, offers guidance on how to benchmark your organization, and shares best practices you need to boost your organization’s fundraising performance.” [More… | PDF]
  • Candid / GuideStar – “For a combined 88 years, Foundation Center and GuideStar each helped change the world by giving people the information they needed to do good. But the world faces growing challenges: polarization, climate change, technological revolution, and poverty and inequality. That’s why we combined our talent, technology, data, and leadership to become a new organization, Candid. Now, it’s easier than ever to get the information you need to create change.” [More…]
  • Charity Navigator – “Founded in 2001, Charity Navigator has become the nation’s largest and most-utilized evaluator of charities. In our quest to help donors, our team of professional analysts has examined tens of thousands of non-profit financial documents. We’ve used this knowledge to develop an unbiased, objective, numbers-based rating system to assess over 9,000 of America’s best-known and some lesser known, but worthy, charities.” [More…]
  • Charity Watch – “CharityWatch—founded 25 years ago as the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP)—is America’s most independent, assertive charity watchdog. CharityWatch does not merely repeat what a charity reports using simplistic or automated formulas. We dive deep to let you know how efficiently a charity will use your donation to fund the programs you want to support. CharityWatch exposes nonprofit abuses and advocates for your interests as a donor.” [More…]
  • Consumer Reports – “During the holidays, many consumers receive a multitude of donation requests from charitable organizations, as well as crowdfunding sites and other online giving platforms. A charity’s name may signal worthy a cause, such as feeding the hungry or supporting veterans. But you need to look carefully at the organization to make sure you are sending your money to the right place.” [More…]
  • GiveWell – “GiveWell is a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give. Unlike charity evaluators that focus solely on financials, assessing administrative or fundraising costs, we conduct in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent. Rather than try to rate as many charities as possible, we focus on the few charities that stand out most (by our criteria) in order to find and confidently recommend high-impact giving opportunities (our list of top charities).” [More…]

Give Locally — Iowa City

Giving locally usually offers the ability to know the staff and leadership of the organization you are giving to. There may even be volunteer opportunities to give you a hands on experience to see more directly the impact of the organization. There is a greater likelihood that you’ll hear first hand stories from those served by the organization. You’ll see the land preserved by local conservation groups.

Iowa City offers some excellent opportunities to improve the world. Because of its size, and the influence of the University of Iowa, the city has an abundance of creative, educated, innovative, and energized people. The University’s academic and medical campuses are home to students, visitors, and residents from around the world. If you’re able to positively influence people’s lives, they go off into the world and cary the impact further. For this reason, college towns are a great place to be for philanthropists. Also, the tradition of academic research is grounded in data driven strategies and outcomes focused pursuits. This generally produces well defined goals, measured results, and a passion for continuous improvement.

Below are some organizations I have supported over the years that I will likely give to again. I’ve offered a brief description of each organization. The list is in alphabetical order.

  • CommUnity Crisis Center – “A crisis can be anything – problems with family or friends, lack of food, financial emergency, divorce, serious illness, roommate trouble, school-related stress, substance abuse struggles, suicidal feelings… the list is endless. Or it could be a series of small problems that together have become overwhelming. When any situation has become too difficult for you to cope with alone, we can help. Everyone at CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank, formerly The Crisis Center, is passionate about treating those in crisis as valuable human beings. CommUnity provides immediate support through our Crisis Services, Food Bank, and Basic Needs programs.” [More…]
  • Community Foundation of Johnson County – “The Community Foundation of Johnson County was founded in 2000 by visionary community leaders such as Willard L. ‘Sandy’ Boyd, Dick Schwab, Joan Benson, and others who believed that by bringing together passionate, generous people from all walks of life to meet the needs of the community, all of our residents would benefit. This belief still holds true as we work to continue our founders’ legacy of giving by connecting those who care with those who need. From an initial gift of $400,000 made by Dick Schwab and Katherine Burford on December 1, 2000, the Community Foundation has grown to oversee nearly $36 million in charitable assets and has distributed more than $16 million in grants to nonprofit organizations. We also support more than 200 nonprofit organizations, family and business charitable giving funds, community endowment funds, and charitable giving circles benefitting all of Johnson County.” [More…]
  • Backyard Abundance – “Backyard Abundance is a leading educational nonprofit residing in Johnson County, Iowa. We help people create beautiful, environmentally-beneficial landscapes that provide healthy food and habitat. Since 2006, we have directly reached thousands of people through fun classes, landscape tours and design consultations. We envision the growth of resilient communities that meet everyone’s basic needs of survival today and in the future. Landscapes grow healthy food and natural materials to nourish our bodies and support our local economy. The land supports healthy ecosystems by providing habitat, creating clean water and emulating nature’s resiliency. This community focus creates a healthy social fabric, ecological integrity and a spirit of abundance for all. Most everyone feels a desire to improve the health of our environment, but when faced with our monumental environmental problems the task seems too large and understanding how to proceed can feel overwhelming. In recognition of this frustration, Backyard Abundance was founded to provide you with the knowledge and tools needed to directly improve the health of our local environment. No other Iowa organization teaches residents how to take small steps that transform the outdoors into spaces that demonstrate our ability to live in harmony with nature. Deep and lasting satisfaction comes from the daily observation of personally-made environmental improvements. This personal connection with a landscape evokes a strong desire to share actions and knowledge, quickly spreading our mission in a positive, grassroots way.” [More…]
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County – Among youth who have a mentor, 92% reported appropriate attitudes towards risky behavior and 85.5% maintained or improved their grades. Youth with a mentor are more likely to stay in school, less likely to get involved in drugs, and less likely to get involved in the Juvenile Justice System. “For more than 100 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters has operated under the belief that inherent in every child is the ability to succeed and thrive in life. As the nation’s largest donor- and volunteer-supported mentoring network, Big Brothers Big Sisters makes meaningful, monitored matches between adult volunteers (“Bigs”) and children (“Littles”), ages 6 through 18, in communities across the country. We develop positive relationships that have a direct and lasting effect on the lives of young people.” [More…]
  • Field to Family – “Field to Family’s work is dependent on community support. The generous support we receive from local government, corporate sponsors and individual donors as a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit makes it possible for us to provide food systems education, expand access to local foods and promote the environmental, economic and physical health of our community throughout the year.” [More…]
  • InsideOut – “Inside Out Reentry Community is based in Iowa City and serves people returning to Johnson County after incarceration. We also work with individuals incarcerated throughout the State to help them develop re-entry plans, regardless of where they plan to live after release. Returning to and becoming an active member of society after being in prison is tough, and we strive to give these individuals every possible chance to build productive lives. Our entire community benefits when a returnee finds work, a place to live, and becomes a positive, contributing citizen.” [More…]
  • Iowa City Bike Library – “The Bike Library started in 2004 as a volunteer-run community bike project located in Iowa City, Iowa with a mission of getting more people on bikes. We repair donated bikes and offer them to the public. Bikes are priced with a deposit and checked out for six-month periods. If a bike is returned in good condition within the checkout period, the deposit will be returned to the user minus a $50 sustainability fee that keeps our doors open. Alternately, patrons can choose to keep their bikes and forfeit their deposit.” [More…]
  • Iowa City Cohousing – This is an inspiring housing development in Iowa City that can be a model for better neighborhoods. Contact the group to find out how you can support their work. “We started meeting in 2009 to explore alternatives to traditional housing arrangements. We all shared an interest in living in a community that reflected our values. We wanted a living arrangement that would allow us to reap the benefits of community life while still retaining our privacy. After a lot of reading and discussion, field trips, and consultation, we found that the Danish cohousing model incorporated just about everything we were looking for: A multi-generational community, Social and economic diversity, Community and privacy, Green buildings with a small carbon footprint, Jointly-owned common spaces with shared resources, and Emphasis on alternative transportation.” [More…]
  • Iowa City Public Library – “We have been dedicated to serving our community since our founding in 1896. The Iowa City Public Library is a center of community life that connects people of all ages with information, engages them with the world of ideas and with each other, and enriches the community by supporting learning, promoting literacy, and encouraging creativity.” [More…]
  • Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity – “No matter who we are or where we come from, we all deserve to have a decent life. Ownership of a decent, affordable home strengthens, stabilizes, and supports us as we pursue opportunities to build a bright future. That is why at Habitat we bring together people from all walks of life to construct decent homes and secure affordable financing. With our help, Habitat homeowners achieve the strength, stability, and independence they need to build a decent life for themselves and their families.” [More…]
  • Shelter House – “MORE THAN A ROOF AND A BED. Since 1983, Shelter House has provided safe shelter and helped people improve the quality of their lives as they move beyond homelessness. We began in an old home in Iowa City with a capacity of 29 sleeping spaces including beds, couches, and mats on the floor. Today, Shelter House operates a 70-bed emergency shelter in addition to four homes and an apartment building through which we provide 47 permanent supportive housing units. We focus on programs and support services including housing, employment, and mental health recovery that help hundreds of men, women, and children each year to get back on their feet.” [More…]
  • Table to Table – “The mission of Table to Table is to keep wholesome, edible food from going to waste by collecting it from donors and distributing to those in need through agencies that serve the hungry, homeless and at-risk populations.” [More…]
  • TRAIL of Johnson County – TRAIL stands for Tools and Resources for Active Independent Living. “TRAIL of Johnson County, an IRC Sec. 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, was formed when two groups of Iowa City-area neighbors and friends, who are at or near retirement age, discovered their shared interest in aging in place. Rather than moving to traditional senior-living facilities, we prefer to continue living in our own homes. But we recognize that along the way, we’ll benefit from being part of a community that can offer many forms of support. And that’s how TRAIL was born.” [More…]

Supporting the Arts

Missing from the above list are opportunities to support the arts. Usually one supports the arts by attending music or theatrical events. Local theater offers an opportunity for those in a community to work together and build friendships. As with local food or any local product, it’s nice for communities to have home-grown entertainment rather than paying to have it brought in. You’ll want to find out how you can be supporting your favorite acting groups and venues during the pandemic by directly contacting those involved.

Support Local Business

A great way to support local jobs and the local economy is to support small and local businesses. Many local businesses have other positive impacts besides offering quality products or services. So in addition to your tax deductible donations to local non-profits, supporting local businesses is a way to improve the quality of life in your community.

Your local bike shop probably spends time, money, and resources to help promote trails and cycling. Supporting a local bike shop may be the best way, or only way, to promote cycling in your community since shop owners are usually directly involved and invested in promoting cycling.

Your locally owned and operated bookstore can help support local authors and can create a venue for book readings and groups to meet.

Do you want to support local sustainable agriculture and regenerative farming practices? There may not be a local charity focused on those goals, but you can support local restaurants that partner with local family farms.

There are many other examples where local businesses, despite not having a non-profit status, can be a great partnership to help impact your community in positive ways.

State and National Organizations

These are some state and national organizations that are a good addition to any portfolio of charities.

  • Center for Science in the Public Interest – “Founded in 1971, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is perhaps the oldest independent, science-based consumer advocacy organization with an impressive record of accomplishments and a clear and ambitious agenda for improving the food system to support healthy eating.” [More…]
  • Dances of Universal Peace – A relationship and community building organization focused on music and dance with the intension of creating greater understanding, respect, and kindness in the world. [More…]
  • Iowa Public Radio – “Iowa Public Radio was created in 2004 by the Iowa Board of Regents to manage the radio groups of Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa. This statewide public radio network (a total of 26 stations) now serves 250,000 listeners with three programming streams: News, News/Studio One and Classical. IPR’s combined radio groups serve rural and urban Iowa, touching all of Iowa’s 99 counties. Our history is long and proud: Iowa State University and University of Iowa each have public radio stations that are nearly a century old, with FCC licenses that were among the first 100 radio licenses ever granted, and our statewide network is one that other states look to as a model. This century of service to and for Iowans is the foundation for our future.” [More…]
  • Iowa Public Television – “Iowa PBS is Iowa’s statewide public broadcasting network. Iowa PBS provides quality, innovative media and services that educate, inform, enrich and inspire Iowans throughout the state. A noncommercial, public-service mission enables Iowa PBS to present an unequaled array of programs of lasting value to Iowans regardless of where they live or what they can afford. More than two million viewers each month turn to Iowa PBS for programming that reflects a range of interests for Iowans in all demographic categories.” [More…]
  • Independent News – Support independent news sources through subscriptions and other methods. This is a good list to start with, provided by The Berlin School of Creative Leadership via Forbes, from 1 Feb 2017 yet still relevant. [More…]
  • Kirkwood Community College – “Kirkwood Community College identifies community needs; provides accessible, quality education and training; and promotes opportunities for lifelong learning.” [More…]
  • National Public Radio – “NPR is an independent, nonprofit media organization that was founded on a mission to create a more informed public. Every day, NPR connects with millions of Americans on the air, online, and in person to explore the news, ideas, and what it means to be human. Through its network of member stations, NPR makes local stories national, national stories local, and global stories personal.” [More…]
  • PBS – “PBS is a membership organization that, in partnership with its member stations, serves the American public with programming and services of the highest quality, using media to educate, inspire, entertain and express a diversity of perspectives. PBS empowers individuals to achieve their potential and strengthen the social, democratic, and cultural health of the U.S. We invite you to learn more about America’s largest public media enterprise.” [More…]
  • The Gazette – “We work hard every day to be responsive to our community in our pursuit of fair, accurate reporting. We’re your neighbors, and we’ve been doing this work for more than 130 years. The Gazette is fully independent and 100 percent employee owned.” [More…]

Valuable Global Digital Resources

There are many valuable global digital resources that are user supported. Here are a few initiatives.

  • Archive.org – A website that maintains backup copies of the internet. A great tool for going back in time to see sites as they existed many years ago. [ About | Give ]
  • LibreOffice – A volunteer developed and supported suite of software programs for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and more. [ About |Give ]
  • Ubuntu – An exceptionally advanced operating system similar to Windows or Apple MacOS, but free to the public and supported by a global community. When you download the operating system, there is an opportunity to donate. You can use the Give link here to see the donation page. [ About | Give ]
  • Wikipedia – A global encyclopedia with contributions from around the world. “The nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation provides the essential infrastructure for free knowledge. We host Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, created, edited, and verified by volunteers around the world, as well as many other vital community projects. All of which is made possible thanks to donations from individuals like you. We welcome anyone who shares our vision to join us in collecting and sharing knowledge that fully represents human diversity.” [ About | Give ]

Categories of Impact and Need

There are many categories of impact and need. This list is provided to provide some suggestions. You will want to research what’s available and choose according to your interest.

  • Climate – Our dramatically fluctuation climate is resulting in rising ocean waters and other changes that need a response.
  • Consumers – During tumultuous times, consumers are at greater risk of scams. In addition to product safety concerns, and environmental concerns, there are frauds targeting the elderly and vulnerable in our society.
  • COVID – The 2020 COVID pandemic has taken the lives of over 200,000 Americans and the impact of the pandemic has left many others suffering financial loss and the loss of loved ones.
  • Natural Disasters – Many communities have been hit this year with devastating natural disasters such as fires, floods, and derecho storms.
  • Poverty – Millions of children and families are living in poverty in the United States.
  • Veterans – There are many organizations and efforts providing assistance to veterans.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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