Increased philanthropy? It’s in the cards

Jim Durning poses at the Nile Rodgers Dance Party event.


An innovative approach to gift-giving could dramatically increase the funds flowing to regional charities this holiday season.

Sag Harbor-based Donors Unite Management Corp., in partnership with the Long Island Community Foundation, is introducing a choose-your-charity gift card and associated website, set to launch around Thanksgiving.

While gift cards that allow recipients to pick their causes aren’t new, Donors Unite has added a unique twist: Instead of giving recipients a small list of charities or causes to choose from, these cards will tie into GuideStar USA, a Virginia-based registry of over 1.9 million qualified 501(c)3 charities.

There are many potential benefits inherent to this philanthropic breakthrough, according to Donors Unite President and CEO Jim Durning, starting with an unprecedented ability to help charities expand their fundraising efforts.

“One of the biggest problems charities have is raising new money,” Durning noted. “They have their regular donors, but when it comes to finding new money, generally everybody is going after the same dollar.”

This can be a particular problem around the holidays, when cancer research, for instance, might take a back seat to “stuff-a-bus” campaigns and other food drives. The innovative Donors Unite cards and website, scheduled to go live in time for the Thanksgiving weekend national shop-a-thon, let the gift recipients pick their nearest and dearest cause and even provide a “give where you live” ZIP code-based search function.

The website is being developed internally by programmers Durning worked with during his days as a digital media director in the music industry. Before leaving the music biz to focus full-time on Donors Unite, Durning – brother-in-law of Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters – specialized in digital ticket sales and merchandizing, experiences that are now helping him formulate the charity organizer’s functionality.

Durning cofounded Donors Unite with Myron Levine, the corporation’s chairman, who lost his adult son in a farm accident in Amagansett about five years ago. Levine decided to assist at-need communities as a way of dealing with his grief; among his first projects was the Nile Rodgers Dance Party, a 2013 fundraiser at Riverhead’s Martha Clara Vineyards to benefit All For the East End, an umbrella organization supporting numerous eastern Long Island charities.

Levine, Durning and Long Island Community Foundation Executive Director Dave Okorn all worked on that show and became fast friends, based on their mutual desires to assist multiple charities. When Durning and Levine approached him with the Donors Unite gift card idea, Okorn immediately recognized a winner.

“They saw the difficulties nonprofits have trying to raise money all the time, especially here on Long Island,” Okorn noted. “Look at all the galas and golf outings and events we have … they’re all competing for the same donations.”

That leads to another unique twist in the Donors Unite plan: The gift cards are designed specifically to replace material gifts exchanged during the holidays or given to honor specific events like birthdays or bar mitzvahs. By promoting the notion of charitable giving for any occasion, organizers hope to improve he Island’s philanthropic profile.

“Somebody invites you over to dinner, and instead of bringing cake or a bottle of wine, you bring a donor card,” Okorn said. “It’s your aunt’s 85th birthday, but what does she really need? Give her a donor card. You can give something that may or may not be valuable to the individual, but this is a better opportunity.”

An opportunity not only for those 1.9 million GuideStar USA charities, but for the gift-giver and gift recipient as well, according to Durning, who pointed to the “psychological giving perspective” associated with the gift of charitable support – particularly when the gift recipient gets to choose the donation destination.

“If you go to a particular charity’s website and stroke in your information, there’s no recognition – no ‘pat on the back,’” Durning said. “Not to mention the fact that someone making $50,000 a year, someone for whom $100 is a big deal, is likely to say, ‘Well, I’ll give $50 instead of $100, or maybe $20 … nobody is going to know.’

“With the gift cards, recognition is part of the idea,” he added. “John Q. Public makes the donation and gets that little pat on the back, even if the circle is just one other person. There’s a real psychological benefit in that recognition.”

Another benefit of the donor card effort, according to Durning, is the ability to “get children accustomed to philanthropy,” particularly through the Donors Unite monthly donation system, wherein gift-givers can arrange to have monthly donor cards sent to recipients, who log in each time and research a new charity to support.

“Every month they go on our search engine and find a cause that fits the bill,” he said. “This not only gets children accustomed to giving back, but it will show them there are many people who have less than they do, sometimes right around the corner.

“In my experience, you can’t fake that feeling you get when you give,” Durning added. “We need to make that a habit for children.”

Programming of the Donors Unite website is wrapping up this week, with a quick testing phase scheduled before organizers flip the switch. But the philanthropic forces behind the system are already thinking big, banking on the appeal of replacing some material gifts with donor cards.

The U.S. gift-giving market over a trillion dollars annually, according to Okorn, while Forbes reports that the gift card market alone topped $200 million last year. Turning just a fraction of those lofty sums into Donors Unite cards, according to organizers, could have a tremendous effect – particularly for charities that struggle for attention during the holidays.

“Ultimately, the goal is to make sure these charities have the resources they need to run the programs they’re running,” Okorn said. “If this is successful, it could be hundreds of millions of dollars going to a bunch of different charities every year.”