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Social action funds: going from spare change to social change. (Community Action).

With the Vietnam War and civil rights movement in full swing, more than 30 years ago a group of social activists in Madison, Wis., began collecting small donations to help bail protesters out of jail.

Today, that fund still supports social change, but the radical tinge has faded from view. In fact, what evolved into Community Shares of Wisconsin is so mainstream that in many corporations its payroll deduction pledge cards are offered alongside those of the well established United Way.

Described as the oldest social action federation in the country, Community Shares of Wisconsin last year raised nearly $700,000 and distributed almost $400,000. While it may not seem huge compared to, say, United Way's 2000-01 annual campaigns, which reached a new high of $3.91 billion, it represents a significant achievement for Community Shares federations -- as well as other alternative giving funds -- across the country.

"Community Shares of Wisconsin is a great, great example of the role of social action funds in philanthropy," said Rick Cohen, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), a philanthropy watchdog organization in Washington, D.C. "What they do is they give people in workplaces, in both the public and private sector, options for giving to the kinds of charities that reflect the values and interests that people really care about. Many of the interests of people in the workplace are not simply the old tried and true large nonprofits, but are the nonprofits that reflect the issues of social justice and advocacy -- issues that provide services to various populations."

Social action funds like Community Shares have emerged as an alternative to workplace giving campaigns like United Way's, the oldest and most well-known in the country. According to Sloan Wiesen, NCRP's communications director, alternative funds are about two things: maximizing choice in giving and ensuring that social justice charities gain an equal place at the table in workplace giving programs.

"Alternative funds have emerged as an amazing complement to organizations like United Way or other workplace charities that were more limited as to what charities they would allow employees to support," Wiesen said. "Alternative funds are about empowering America's working families to choose which charity they want to support."

Crystel Anders, executive director of Community Shares of Wisconsin, agreed with Wiesen. The difference between Community Shares and United Way, Anders explained, is the kinds of organizations each funds. Community Shares gives money to groups that work for social change, while United Way gives money to those that provide social services. For example, Community Shares member agencies are focused on protecting the environment rather than cleaning it up; they provide affordable housing versus shelters for the homeless. Despite their differences, Anders said, the type of charities Community Shares funds complement those that provide direct relief for people in need.

"We raise funds for charities that are focused on long-term solutions versus direct service," Anders said. "I feel we (Community Shares and United Way) complement one another in terms of taking both a long-term and short-term perspective. Both are equally important to community problem solving."

Community Shares' commitment to long-term change seems to be catching on. In its first year, Community Shares of Southern Arizona in Tucson has already signed on 30 member agencies. Compare that figure to the 15 member agencies Community Shares of Wisconsin began with in 1971 (it's now 41), and it's easy to see that social action funds are finding their place in workplace giving campaigns.

According to Shannon Cane, executive director of the Amazon Foundation, a grantmaking organization in Tucson, the commitment member agencies must put forth to join Community Shares is not small. Members must pay dues, which run anywhere from $100-$1,000 a year, depending on budget size, and give 48 hours a year, including serving on the board and a committee. This, Cane said, shows that member groups are committed to seeing Community Shares succeed.

"Organizations that have been excluded from the traditional workplace giving mechanism are looking for ways to increase their donor base. The workplace is an arena that these kinds of groups have not been traditionally able to access," Cane said. "The timing is just right in our community. There's been this amazing snowball effect. The whole concept of a cooperative giving organization is so attractive that it's just hard to resist."

Tucson's positive response to Community Shares highlights the success new alternative funds are experiencing and is an illustration of what GregTruog, executive director of Colorado Shares, calls an "exciting time" for social action funds. In Denver, for example, Community Shares of Colorado, in coalition with Caring Connection and Community Health Charities of Colorado, was recently awarded a bid to manage the Colorado Combined Campaign and the Denver Employees' Combined Campaign, an indication that social action funds are making a name for themselves in the workplace.

"We're ecstatic about that," Truog said. "It's a recognition of the work we've done and the progress we've made, and it gives us new credibility in the corporate marketplace. It was a third party looking at our operations and how we did things and coming away convinced we had the ability to do the job."

Community Shares is oftentimes compared to United Way because both raise money through payroll deductions and both distribute money to nonprofit member agencies. United Way was the first and, for several decades, the only charitable organization to use workplace giving as a means to fundraising.

So far, the two are coexisting nicely. The growth of alternative funds hasn't had a negative impact on United Way's fundraising campaigns and, likewise, Community Shares federations don't see United Way as a threat to their existence. Instead, the reverse has been true: Both organizations have seen growth in their fundraising numbers.

"Our purpose is not to compete with United Way. Our purpose is to increase community-based philanthropy across the board," Cane said. "So, we believe it doesn't need to be an either-or proposition -- either Community Shares or United Way. It can be both, and we can coexist and work together well. In fact, as history has gone, what happens eventually is that giving to United Way member agencies increases as an alternative giving organization (like Community Shares) starts up in a community. The more community awareness there is about workplace giving, the more people will give to all kinds of agencies, not just Community Shares."

Said Meg Van Gompel, marketing director for United Way of Dane County in Madison, Wisc., "We haven't seen a substantial negative impact, because we know different donors are attracted to different issue areas."

She said, "We've found that when you have many options that appeal to many donors, general overall giving increases and, therefore, specific giving to our agency also increases. If having additional options encourages them to give if they've never given before, then we all benefit."

Social action funds are holding their own against United Way. Kevin Ronnie, NCRP's director of field operations, said that despite United Way's long history with workplace giving campaigns, funds like Community Shares are doing well.

"When comparing United Way to alternative giving, you're comparing apples and oranges," Ronnie said. "They are so different in so many ways. They fundamentally do the same thing, but the fact is that Community Shares does not have direct access to as many workplaces as United Way does. Therefore, it can be difficult to compare the two."

According to Cohen, the emergence of social action funds like Community Shares can be viewed as a reflection of the changing needs of people in the workplace. People are looking for alternatives, and groups are looking for different avenues to reach donors in the workplace.

"Social action funds reflect the changing demographics of the workplace, meaning that we have younger workers that have different charitable interests," he said. "It shows that people want choice in their giving. Donors want to have choice, and they want to have a close relationship with the charities they support. Alternative social action funds represent an important vehicle that is making great strides."

Gina Bernacchi is a reporter for the Denver News Bureau.
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Title Annotation:Community Shares of Wisconsin
Author:Bernacchi, Gina
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 15, 2002
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