2021 Giving Guide: Giving Beyond Dollars
Andrew Dayton leveraged his expansive network of business connections when he was preparing to launch the Constellation Fund, a data-driven philanthropic organization on a mission to tackle poverty in the Twin Cities. He invited wealthy friends and relatives to donate. He spoke to leaders of Fortune 500 corporations about the need. He accepted pro bono assistance on the Constellation Fund’s strategy and operations through connections at McKinsey & Co., the global consultancy. But when that work was complete and the organization launched its grantmaking work in 2019, Dayton made a surprising discovery: His allies at McKinsey’s Twin Cities office didn’t walk away.
“They wanted to stay involved,” Dayton says. “They started volunteering to help our grantees.”
Dayton, the son of former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Alida Rockefeller Messinger, started Constellation Fund with a keen awareness that having money didn’t necessarily make him a good judge of which philanthropic contributions would do the most good. His organization aims to remove the guesswork by analyzing results—applying an investor’s eye to the business of giving. He says now that he underestimated community interest in leveraging privilege through hands-on volunteer work.
That realization led to the formation of Beyond Dollars, a program that assesses the needs of the nonprofits vetted by Constellation Fund and pairs them with professionals who are eager to do the work. More than 100 volunteer consultants are currently working with the 30 vetted nonprofits in Constellation’s portfolio. Dayton hired Kate Genereux, who previously worked as executive director of a New York-based venture philanthropy foundation. They’re already adding staff to keep up with demand.
“We can put their MBAs and $500-an-hour skill sets to use,” Genereux says, “and find opportunities that feel deeply fulfilling and relevant.”
Hybrid Volunteering Provides New Opportunity
One might think that a global pandemic and the ensuing lockdown that prohibited many kinds of in-person gatherings would put a damper on Minnesotans’ enthusiasm for volunteering for local nonprofits. But that’s not the case.
Patterns of volunteering have changed, but people continue to turn out in droves to help one another and make sure that essential services are delivered.
Other organizations are doing the same: Meda recently launched a Virtual Accelerator Network that gives the group’s BIPOC entrepreneurs direct access to experienced executives who can offer strategic insight. Minneapolis-based Social Venture Partners Minnesota works to improve the lives of children by connecting people and organizations to, as they describe it, “amplify impact.” Greater Twin Cities United Way promotes volunteering while building a business network through its Emerging Leaders program. Participation works on two levels: connecting professionals to one another and pairing them with local volunteer projects that make a difference in the community.
That desire to get involved beyond financial contributions “feels even more urgent” since the murder of George Floyd, Genereux observes. “You can’t be paralyzed by privilege.”
Flipping the script
The Annex Teen Clinic in Robbinsdale needed to get the word out to young people about its health services and find new sources of income, particularly during the pandemic. But the small nonprofit lacked the resources to make major changes. Constellation Fund’s Beyond Dollars recruited volunteers from two large companies: Piper Sandler helped the Annex develop education programs that are revenue generating and not dependent on grant funding. Target worked on education programming, marketing strategy, and social media.
“The experience was collaborative, productive, and fantastic,” says Ellen Saliares, director of sexuality education at the Annex. “Their commitment and expertise allowed us to actualize some goals and ideas we’ve wanted to work on but we didn’t have the time, expertise, or resources.”
Venture capital firms often provide their portfolio companies with more than money, offering guidance and connections to help them scale. That’s how Joel Grebenick, managing director of Minneapolis-based Stone Arch Capital, approached his volunteer work with Beyond Dollars, which matched him and an investment partner with Ujamaa Place, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that supports young African American men “experiencing inequity at the intersection of race and poverty.”
“They’re looking to expand, and that involves fundraising, corporate partnerships, management tools that are things we can help with,” Grebenick says. “We’re here to serve.”
That attitude is fundamental to Beyond Dollars, says Genereux, who is working to diversify Constellation Fund’s pool of experts—in some cases paying BIPOC consultants to work with grantees.
“We’re providing a tool and a resource to help our grantees along in their journey. This is not charity or white saviorism,” Genereux says. “This is grantee centric, grantee led. They are the true hero and star.”
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Beyond Dollars encourages nonprofits to set a timeline for each project. Sometimes, however, lasting relationships form. Grebenick recently joined the board of Ujamaa Place.
In late 2019, when Alfredo Martel took the reins as president and CEO of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (Meda), he asked his staff: What keeps you up at night? Their answer: All the small business owners they couldn’t help because they were maxed out on staff hours.
Martel, who has spent much of his career in corporate marketing and business development, started thinking about ways to take advantage of Meda’s business supporters and their expertise. “In my corporate career, I had so many wonderful volunteer experiences,” Martel says, often centering on small tasks to solve broad issues, like packing lunches for the homeless or picking up trash as an environmental effort. “When it comes to BIPOC entrepreneurship, our clients don’t need clean parks. They need lawyers, accountants, tax preparation, and marketing help.”
Downtown Minneapolis is visible from Martel’s office on the north side of Minneapolis. “There are people in those towers dying to help,” he says. “How do we connect them to our entrepreneurs?”
In early 2020, Martel and his team started designing an online program that would allow corporate experts to connect virtually with Meda clients. “It seemed like Star Trek stuff—logging on for a virtual consultation. We figured it would take five years and maybe $5 million. Then the pandemic happened, and boom, we were all virtual.”
Meda is currently beta testing its Virtual Accelerator Network with board members. “A lot of the work we do tends to be one-on-one,” Martel says. “With the virtual accelerator, we can have one expert from Best Buy talk to 10 clients about the 101s of search optimization. If we can get 50 volunteers from Ecolab, Cargill, and the like, the math gets interesting. In the next five years, we could go from assisting 400 clients per year to 4,500.”
The virtual opportunity
In Fidelity Charitable’s 2020 member survey and report, The Role of Volunteering in Philanthropy, 17 percent of responding volunteers had participated in virtual volunteering in July 2020, and nearly double that number, 29 percent, had in October 2020.
When asked in 2020, volunteers generally planned to return to pre-pandemic levels of volunteering. Seventy-three percent of volunteers in the Fidelity Charitable study planned to revert to their previous levels. A Points of Light survey also showed that 73 percent of respondents believed that volunteering would be more important than ever after the pandemic.
Technology makes connecting more convenient and tangible—a pandemic realization that Meda and others plan to leverage in the years to come. At the same time, says Constellation Fund’s Genereux, “there’s a desire to be connected, feel close, and engage in the real world again. In isolation, we really had to think about what we care about, and for many of us, that’s belonging and connection. Our eyes have been opened to Minnesota’s racial disparity. Young white professionals have a very different understanding now of the role they can and should play.”