Reggie Gordon, longtime nonprofit leader and director of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building (Photo by Jay Paul)
I have a philanthropy daydream. I indulge in it frequently, usually when I’m passing Chamberlayne Avenue’s dilapidated group homes and apartment buildings on the way home from church. It goes like this:
First, I win the Mega Millions jackpot (a sadly necessary step). Then, I open an office on the North Side that offers one simple service: to fix anything in your life that needs fixing, with no judgment. Unpaid rent? Paid. Can’t get to work? Here’s your bus pass. Need childcare? Done.
Is this daydream naive? Sure. Maternalistic? Maybe. But it satisfies that deep desire to do something about the persistent problems that afflict low-income Richmonders.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. “We have lots of well-meaning folks who read an article in the paper and feel something needs to be done, and they start creating a solution,” says Reggie Gordon, a longtime nonprofit leader and director of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building. Gordon holds listening sessions every Friday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., during which people come in to share their ideas for solving poverty in Richmond. “We’ve talked to people who have toiled, and pondered this for months,” Gordon says.
The problem is, Gordon says, these grand plans usually involve giving secondhand stuff to the city’s needy, or soft-skills job-readiness training. Most duplicate what other organizations are already doing.
“It’s a beautiful problem, in that we have lots of people who want to help,” Gordon says. The challenge, then, is this: “How do we gently corral people toward a common strategy?”
That’s what Gordon and others will be discussing at the upcoming Community Conversation on philanthropy presented by The Valentine (Richmond magazine is a partner in this series). Free and open to the public, this latest installment of a dialogue on Richmond’s values takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 6 at Libbie Mill Library.
Effective giving should take an evidence-based approach, Gordon says, and be guided by a simple question: “What would make you feel respected and valued and affirmed if you were having a tough time?” Instead of buying Christmas gifts for Miss Jones’ children, “Can you hire Miss Jones? And can you pay her at least $15 an hour?” And “What does Miss Jones need in January, in March, in July?”
Panelists will also talk about how to inspire the next generation of Richmond’s givers. “Millennials are motivated by causes rather by institutions, and [by] having a direct and tangible impact with their gifts,” explains Emily Watkins, director of strategic engagement at the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg. Call them the GoFundMe Generation: They want to see their dollars help someone hit a specific goal.
But what if you’re a person of average means, without the ability to make significant financial gifts? What’s the best way to make a difference?
A few years back, Gordon had that exact conversation with a group of friends in a barbershop on Second Street. They talked about how the black men in Richmond who wanted to do positive things just weren’t connecting with each other. “Then, we got tired of talking,” he says.
Inspired by Thomas Cannon, the Richmond postal worker in Richmond who gave away more than $150,000 in his lifetime, Gordon and nonprofit leaders Robert Dortch and Damon Jiggetts launched a giving circle of African-American men. Named the Ujima Legacy Fund, the circle asks each member to donate $1,100 per year (the extra $100 pays for administrative support from The Community Foundation). Each year, the fund awards a $20,000 grant to a local organization with an education-focused mission, such as ART 180, Richmond Cycling Corps and Team Excel, the last of which helps young athletes improve their grades. Ujima invites kids to attend its grant announcements. “We want them to understand that they can grow up to be philanthropists,” Gordon says.
Another way to give big, even if you’re not wealthy, is to join the United Way’s Young Leaders Society. Young professionals are asked to pledge a minimum of $250 each year to United Way’s Community Impact Fund and also do hands-on volunteer work. It’s an eye-opening introduction to the complex challenges facing Richmond, Watkins says, as well as an opportunity to make a direct, personal impact.
Most importantly, it’s not the traditional “I, empowered person, volunteer to you, recipient” model of volunteering, she says. One program pairs volunteers with lonely older adults to work side by side assembling school readiness kits for kindergartners.
Another, called United Way Metrocash, asks volunteer “Cash Coaches” to sit down with individuals and connect them with initiatives that boost their financial security. Need a car to get to work? There’s a program for that. Need help managing your household budget? There’s a program for that.
It sounds like my philanthropy daydream may already be coming true. Even if my Mega Millions numbers never hit.
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