This is not your mother's nonprofit

  • Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2012 - 8:43 AM

In just five years, the LEAD Project has had an impact on nonprofit volunteering and influenced attitudes toward philanthropy and the young.

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LEAD Project board members Bridget Ulrich, Lan Freitag, Jonathan Wilson and Mara Hughes

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It's not what you get people to do; it's how you get them to do it.

That strategy has proved successful for the LEAD Project, an all-volunteer organization that first made its name by throwing hip parties in the name of charity, and has evolved in only five years into an influential force on the Twin Cities nonprofit scene.

LEAD (short for Leadership, Emergence and Development) still throws the occasional bash, but its primary purpose is matching young professionals with nonprofit volunteer opportunities. The group claims more than 3,000 members who are active in some way, at least 200 of whom have committed to a local nonprofit, joining a board, becoming a mentor or helping to execute a project that meshes with their particular expertise.

"It's always been easy for people to send in $100," said LEAD board member Bridget Ulrich, 27. "It's harder to get them excited about devoting considerable amounts of their time."

LEAD got off to a good start largely through the connections of its well-heeled founding members. But its continued growth has come from broadening the appeal to a wider demographic, meeting Generation Y (and younger) on its own terms.

Co-founder Jim Delaney said he once saw a little sign in a workspace cubicle that sums up the attitude of LEAD's target market: "It read, 'I want to change the world, but I want to do it through the comfort of my regular life.' People are seeking more balance between their job and their community engagement and they don't see as much of a distinct line between the two as past generations."

Jeanah Hong, who works in product marketing for Honeywell, moved to Minnesota less than a year ago, but through LEAD has already become a board member with a local nonprofit, a new chapter of the youth program Girls on the Run.

"What's nice about them is that they have a variety of nonprofit opportunities to choose from, not just one or two," she said.

Co-founder Matt Hemsley, now a vice president at Piper Jaffray, said that what makes LEAD stand out is that "it's more focused on how to engage young volunteers, rather than for what purpose."

And without an office, executive director and other trappings of what it means to be a nonprofit, they could afford to exercise "independence, with a bit of healthy irreverence," Hemsley said. "LEAD has never had to raise money to keep the lights on, and we always thought that if the answer to a question was 'because it's always been done that way,' then there was probably an opportunity to do it better."

Leaning more populist

The original board members all fit the profile of the blue-blooded community patron -- they came from wealthy families, traveled in overlapping circles, attended the Twin Cities' top private schools and most went on to Ivy League colleges.

"That's the type of people it took to start an organization like this," said current board member Jonathan Wilson, a 34-year-old attorney with Dorsey & Whitney. "There's no reason other folks can't do this, too, it's just that they don't have the built-in connections that make it easier starting out."

In 2009, LEAD's leaders took the unusual step of replacing the entire board at the same time. The new board includes a wider slice of the socioeconomic pie, as well as a healthy mix of for-profit and nonprofit job skills. They've lowered ticket prices to as little as $25 for some events (although Saturday's celebratory "Toast" event was $75 through Feb. 16, after which tickets go up to $95).

"Compared to the big traditional galas, our ticket prices aren't that high," Wilson said. "We don't want to be exclusionary that way. We even have people who are unemployed coming to find a useful thing to do with their time, and also do some networking. This is a new market of volunteers -- not just white-collar, but blue-collar and students. People are realizing it's never too early to get involved."

Ulrich called the group's events mutually beneficial for the volunteers and those they help: "Students and people just starting careers can network with higher-up levels and find mentors, and maybe even new job opportunities."

More nonprofits follow suit

LEAD has also helped to spark a surge among long-established nonprofits to start their first young donors' circles, even helping the Minnesota Zoo and the Science Museum of Minnesota to do so. When the group began, there were only a handful of similar efforts targeting young adults in the Twin Cities. Now there are dozens.

"They've planted a lot of seeds," said Trista Harris, director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice in St. Paul and co-author of the book "How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar." "They've helped nonprofits look at young people as more of a resource than they did in the past -- young people who know how to leverage their social networks to do some good."

Harris said that she's actually had hostile reactions from traditionalists when she promotes more focus on young-adult philanthropy.

"They don't think they should waste their time on 30-year-olds," she said. "There's this misconception that young people don't give, but the truth is they're just not asked as often. Baby boomers have been dominant for so long, but they aren't going to be around forever. If you don't start courting the next generation, you'll eventually be in trouble."

Robyn Schein, who runs the recently launched Fourth Generation program at the Minneapolis Foundation, agrees that LEAD has raised the local profile of philanthropy "as an exciting thing for young people to get involved in, and that it's OK to do it differently than their parents. They don't want to just give to the same things because their families always have. They want to find causes they're passionate about on their own. They don't just want to write a check, they want to have an experience."

Although LEAD emphasizes finite projects for its volunteers because that's what they are most interested in, the group has maintained continuing relationships with some nonprofits. The youth-mentoring program Bolder Options was the group's first beneficiary.

"The traditional clubs like Rotaries, Jaycees, the Lions, they're all fading or changing and probably aren't going to come back," said Darrell Thompson, director of Bolder Options. "This is a great new way to bring in young people."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

  • A TOAST TO LEAD

    What: A five-year anniversary celebration for the young professionals philanthropy group. Attendees will vote on which of five charities will receive the proceeds.

    When: 8 p.m.-midnight Sat.

    Where: Le Méridien Chambers Hotel, 901 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $75 through Thursday, $95 thereafter, formal attire. More info at www.theleadproject.org.

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