When donations are just a drop in the bucket

Giving thanks: Americans make about $375 billion in charitable donations annually, and Huntington-based Donors Unite is looking to raise the stakes by tapping the trillion-dollar domain of U.S. gifting.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

If you’re going to do it, do it right – especially when there’s a billion dollars at stake.

That mother of all clichés factors prominently into Donors Unite Inc., a wide-ranging, Huntington-based nonprofit determined to lend a hand to every registered charity in the country, not to put too fine a point on it.

Donors Unite officially launched this month, flipping the switch on a website that catalogees about 2.5 million charitable organizations – “every single, solitary charity in the United States,” according to founder and Chairman Myron Levine – and offers gift cards that lets recipients choose their favorite cause.

The concept is not breathtakingly original; gift cards that allow recipients to choose from a list of participating charities are now mainstream. But by tapping into the vast database maintained by GuideStar USA Inc., a Virginia-based information service that tracks millions of national nonprofits, Donors Unite offers an unprecedented range of potential beneficiaries.

The logistics are immense, predictably, and Donors Unite’s debut was a long time coming. The group nearly launched in November 2015, but there were “issues” with the original website, according to Levine, and organizers decided to hit the pause button.

The Sag Harbor resident was in a good position to help make that call. After losing his adult son in a 2010 farming accident in Amagansett, Levine turned his grief into positive action, dedicating himself to helping others. Among other efforts, he helped found All For the East End, an umbrella group benefiting more than 1,000 cultural, ecological, educational and social-service organizations across the five East End towns.

That experience helped Levine understand that, back in late 2015, Donors Unite wasn’t quite ready.

“We put it on the back burner, rather than launch something and have it not be everything we wanted it to be,” the chairman told Innovate LI. “We felt it was prudent to hold off.”

But by May 3 of this year, all systems were go. The concept remains the same – gift-givers make a minimum pledge of $10 and send the gift card to a recipient, who then gets to log in and decide where the donation goes – though the Donors Unite group has added several bells and whistles that were missing the first time around.

Myron Levine: Billions of reasons to get it right.

For instance, charities can pay a $25 fee to receive what Levine called “preferential treatment” – a nominal subscription, the chairman noted, meant to level the playing field between smaller, local causes and big-time national organizations.

“So, if you search for charities by ZIP code, charities that are members will come up before charities that are nonmembers,” Levine said. “This is to give small charities the ability to compete with mega-charities, and to be able to have a presence where otherwise they could never afford it.”

Donors Unite organizers have also worked to streamline the subscription process, developing a system that gets donations to subscribed charities faster, among other membership benefits.

“They get money much quicker, because we have all their banking information,” Levine noted. “They get the up-front listings. They get a dashboard that lets them see exactly what has been contributed.

“And we give them marketing materials – all kinds of information that makes it easier for them to go out and solicit gifts.”

Donors Unite has also added a user feature that lets donors purchase personalized gift cards, allowing them to adorn the cards with a name – “This is a gift from Bob” – or corporate logo, and then write in a redemption code at gift-giving time.

It all sounds very quaint, until Levine starts tossing around some of the incredible numbers in play.

According to the philanthropist, Americans made roughly $375 billion in charitable donations last year. That’s an impressive number – until Levine notes that Americans give about $1.3 trillion in gifts annually, with the Christmas holiday (roughly $650 billion) and the trifecta of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day (combined, about $50 billion) topping the gift-giving list.

Throw in another $88 billion or so in corporate gift-giving – all those logo-emblazoned coffee mugs – and that bottle of wine you brought to that dinner party last week, and American gifting easily tops that rarified trillion-dollar plateau.

It’s that “totally different pool of money,” separate from charitable donations, where Donors Unite has set its sights, according to Levine.

“When you add it all up, you’re talking about over $1.3 trillion,” he said. “If only one-hundredth of 1 percent of that was capturable, you’re talking about another billion dollars for charities.”

To that end, the revamped Donors Unite has had little trouble rallying support from regional business and not-for-profit organizations. Levine noted a corporate sponsorship by Bridgehampton National Bank and others in the works, as well as support from the Peconic Bay Medical Center (part of the Northwell Health system), the Southampton-based Peconic Land Trust and other “substantial charities” – including the Long Island Community Foundation, a “principal supporter” whose executive director, David Okorn, sits in the Donors Unite Board of Directors.

While the new website has only been live for a few weeks, Donors Unite’s brain trust is already pleased with the attention it’s generating – particularly from corporate circles, which figure to be a mainstay for the ambitious organization, according to its founder.

“Like anything new, it takes time for people to become aware of it,” Levine said. “But we’re really pleased that it’s gotten such traction, especially from the corporate community.

“They see it as something that fits really well with their concept of social responsibility,” he added. “And that plays an important role in their ability to attract employees.”