With the season upon us, it’s time for a public service announcement to counter the lazy consumer reporting going on out there. You’ve heard them: consumer alerts and tips not to give to charities with too much of their budgets devoted to “overhead.”
As someone who has delved in the nonprofit world for the past few years, look at that organization’s mission, output, and people. Yes, do your research, but don’t sweat it if a nonprofit pays its executive director a decent salary or, God forbid, advertises. Any NPO worth its salt devotes 100% of its resources toward “the cause,” all the while reusing paperclips and running used paper through the printer.
Credit people like Dan Pallotta with leading the charge to get us all to think differently about nonprofits. He’s spoken in Indianapolis twice, most recently at 2010’s keynote Start with Art. If you work for a nonprofit or are interested, please pick up a copy of his book Uncharitable.
If you’re interested in a year-end contribution for the tax break or just to feel charitable, you can’t do better than local. Here are a few of my picks, and friends, who are doing great things. They don’t often get the big exposure that their counterparts do, but they do amazing work to make Indianapolis truly cool. (They’re in alphabetical order, to be fair.)
A little shorter on cash than time? Consider donating your time to any of these organizations as a volunteer. It’s a great and rewarding way to use your talent or muscle in contributing to your community.
Travis DiNicola and his dedicated staff and band of volunteers tackle the problem of adult illiteracy. It’s a very straightforward mission and a problem that affects an estimated 100,000 adults in Marion County.
Reading coaches tutor adults with basic correspondence, bills, and other basic reading and writing tasks. They even help nonnative English speakers. Check out this tight, well-run operation that provides a much-needed service to the area’s functionally illiterate.
If ever an organization’s mission were best encapsulated in their name, I present Keep Indianapolis Beautiful. Dave Forsell & gang coordinate tree planting—with a goal of 2,012 by 2012—community gardens, recycling, cleanup, October’s massive Lilly Day of Service, and its annual awards for excellence in architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, engineering and construction, public art and development.
Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library
While working at Eli Lilly, Julia Whitehead had a vision to honor author and noted curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., with a library in his hometown. Last year, she realized that vision, with a soft opening of a memorial library on Vonnegut’s Armistice Day birthday and full opening in January. (I was invited to speak there, which was a great thrill.)
Sometimes clever fundraising initiatives fall into your lap, so when the school board in Republic, Missouri, voted to ban Slaughterhouse Five this summer, the Vonnegut Library offered to provide free copies to the high school students there. The move garnered great earned media and nationwide attention to the Library.
After six years on the board and a one-time, part-time employee, I’ll always have a soft spot for the irrepressible gang that works to provide unique art events. Whether it’s showcasing installation art in shipping containers on an empty lot, to giving emerging artists a shot at their new gallery, to providing free professional development workshops with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, to the irreverent Art vs. Art, the 2011 Cultural Vision Award winners tirelessly develop both the professional visual artist and new audiences.
Mab Graves is but one great example of a local visual artist success story in a vid I produced last year:
Too long in the shadow, Second Helpings has emerged as one of the coolest organizations doing outstanding work to help the hungry in Indianapolis. Dubbed a “Food Rescue Agency” and modeled after the groundbreaking DC Central Kitchen, Second Helpings prepared 3,000 meals weekly by receiving donations of perishable food mainly from the food service industry—distributors, caterers, restaurants, grocers—and creating wholesome, delicious meals to distribute to local homeless shelters, churches, and schools. They also run a culinary training program that produces local chefs.
I enjoy volunteering my time each fall as part of my alma mater’s service day, and I’m always impressed by their well-coordinated legion of volunteer cooks, kitchen prep folks, and drivers.
Second Helpings also hosts the most fun and cool fundraiser of the year, Tonic Ball. Yes, word is getting out. They’re be rescuing food for the upcoming Super Bowl. And construction has started on expansion of their kitchen facilities.
Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community
Credit Jim Walker and the gang at Big Car with urban revitalization through art. Their gallery quickly became the last stop on the First Friday monthly art tour and greatly contributed to continuing the upward trajectory of Fountain Square.
Now they’ve set their sights on another neglected stretch, the long blighted Lafayette Square Area. They inhabited an old Firestone Service Center in May and bugged out of their lair of seven years in the Murphy Building this month. Big Car exudes grassroots, and in true fashion created a garden plot right on the blacktop. The pavement garden reminds me of David Byrne.
Big Car’s vision for its western outpost entails creating a “hub for art, culture, education, mass transit and diversity.” It has already hosted the International Film Festival’s Bigger Picture Festival featuring graphic artists’ re-imaginings of classic movie posters and No Exit theater group’s innovative interpretation of the Nutcracker.
Look for amazing things to sprout in Lafayette Square.
Credit the dearth of good radio in this town or the nationwide drought of news in favor of opinion for the great growth of WFYI radio. Then again, credit great programming—I rank This American Life, Radiolab, and The Story as some of the most creative, informative, and engaging programs out there, period—and an expansion of local shows and news that tackle issues facing the city.
When engaging most intelligent people on both sides of the fence in conversation, they’ll often reference listening to WFYI for some salient point they just make. It took cuts in federal and state funding to bring more of the listenership into ponying up, but our local NPR station has seen great fund drives this year.
I count myself as one of those people on Ira Glass’ list of listener-nondonors. And while my current state of affairs didn’t allow a donation worthy of a totebag, I did give…finally. If you listen and don’t contribute, don’t wait for the next fund drive, put some coin in the kitty.
Whew! Indy can brag about such a plethora of great organizations with which to involve yourself. I be remiss if I didn’t present a few more:
- IndyFringe: Thank Aussie transplant Pauline Moffat for bringing the Fringe to prominence beyond just the annual late summer festival. With its Mass Ave theater building with its explosion of programs and events. Its dizzying and fruitful. Click here to donate. Click here to volunteer.
- Very Special Arts Indiana: The good folks at VSAI help people with disabilities discover lifelong learning and how to express themselves creatively through the arts.They’re always doing great things, in schools, in hospitals, in the community, and they’re always worth a stop during First Friday at their home in the Harrison Center. Click here to donate. Click here to volunteer.
- Young Audiences: For half a century, Young Audiences Indiana has catered arts education to schools. Led by JoEllen Florio Rossebo, YA’s provides professional development for art teachers, enlists more than 100 professional teaching artists to schools, and provides summer and afterschool programs. Click here to donate. Click here to volunteer.