Seattle Foundation site seeks to inform, engage
The Seattle Foundation is kicking off a new website that supports financial transactions and takes the stories of its community assistance directly to the Web.
Seattle Times business reporter
Online giving has revolutionized philanthropy in the past several years. Now it's about to redefine the 64-year-old Seattle Foundation.
As the foundation grappled with the question of how to attract new donors, its investments went south in the recession and the need from nonprofits skyrocketed.
Today it's launching a new website that supports financial transactions and takes the stories of people it's helping in the community directly to a wider audience through the Web, part of an effort to adapt its work to changing expectations for philanthropy in the digital age.
"The Web über alles," said Norm Rice, the former Seattle mayor who has headed the foundation for a little more than a year. Rice and the foundation's board envisioned a site that could serve as a central platform to connect local nonprofits and potential donors.
"There is clearly a large desire by our donors to be informed and engaged," he said. "A website that allows them to explore, to investigate and to change is highly compelling, especially for new donors who have a whole different experience in computers and technology."
The Seattle Foundation works as an umbrella organization, making grants for about 550 individuals and families, who donate their assets and advise the foundation how they'd like to give, rather than running their own private foundations. The Seattle Foundation also manages 650 other funds set up as bequests or endowments, for a combined $597 million in assets and about $48 million awarded in grants each year.
The foundation regularly reviews hundreds of nonprofits on behalf of its donors, and the information it usually provides to them internally, such as evaluations of grantees, now will be part of its new online Giving Center.
Visitors to the site can search 675 nonprofits by location, mission, key words and other criteria to match their interests. The site also shows how a nonprofit's work links to the Seattle Foundation's overall strategy.
The strategy is to focus on seven elements that make Seattle a healthy community: arts and culture, basic needs, economy, education, environment, health/wellness and neighborhoods.
Visitors can donate
The Seattle Foundation spent $1.45 million on the project, most of it to add online banking capability. Visitors can make credit-card donations to any nonprofit on the site, and people who have existing funds through the foundation can view their financial statements and transfer funds to nonprofits. The foundation does not charge a fee for donations through the site. For funds that it manages on behalf of donors, it charges a fee of 1 percent of the fund total.
The goal is to generate an additional $500,000 for nonprofits in the first year, Rice said. Raising visibility and funds is important after a punishing year for foundation investments. The Seattle Foundation's assets fell to $507 million in 2008 from $677 million in 2007. They were back up to $597 million at the end of 2009. In 2008, the foundation saw losses of nearly 27 percent on its long-term portfolio. About half of the losses were recovered in the market upswing in 2009.
To build its new site, the foundation started by encouraging all of its current and previous grantees — almost 1,300 nonprofits — to submit profiles. Any nonprofit can create its own profile, and existing nonprofits can edit and update their information.
Una McAlinden, executive director of ArtsEd Washington, said she hopes the Giving Center can be a "nexus between a community who wants to help and the nonprofits who desperately need them."
Many nonprofits are too small or too busy to build these networks on their own.
"Much of what we do is below the radar and behind the scenes," she said. "There's so much work to do that it's difficult to build community awareness of the issues, and yet that's what will sustain our work."
As nonprofits move to take advantage of social media, a site that offers online networking is a helpful tool, said Jim Tune, chief executive of ArtsFund.
Being part of the foundation's website offers a stamp of approval, he said, but his organization will continue to do direct campaigns to companies and individuals for support.
"I would be extremely happy in a year if it's generated 100 inquiries," Tune said.
The Seattle Foundation said no other charitable site offers more information on potential recipients and community needs. But the foundation also is playing catch-up to a trend that some smaller organizations and startups have recognized — the importance of connecting donors and recipients, and allowing philanthropy to be more personalized, transparent and direct. Seattle donors, in particular, want to be hands-on and involved, nonprofit leaders say.
"People want to have a clear sense of how they can give their funding to make their own impact rather than just relying on a general check to the Seattle Foundation and hope for the best," said Paul Haas, development director at Solid Ground.
The money is only part of the story, he said. "It's also kind of a front door for greater involvement."
Over the past couple of years, he said, "people are saying, 'I want to be about doing something positive to end homelessness.' They have a chance to go to the site and see who are some of the folks doing that work."
Haas said having a community portal also lets organizations spread the word as their needs and situations change.
The organization is launching a new farm later this month in Rainier Valley, and Haas said the Giving Center can be a place for recruiting community volunteers.
"We have 26 programs, and nothing is static," he said. "This gives us an opportunity to get our work out to a broader audience of people who might not have known about us."
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or email@example.com
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