How Can You Maximize Your Charitable Dollars?

Craig Styles, Philanthropic Advisor

We all want our dollars to go the extra mile. One nonprofit does just that from the front lines of disaster response.

As someone who works in philanthropy every day, I like to discover nonprofits that are shaking the industry up in new and interesting ways. I’m also passionate about helping regular people figure out how to donate their time, money and effort to worthy organizations.

That’s why I was excited to sit down for a Q&A with Art de la Cruz, the Chief Operating Officer of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization that’s been thrust into the limelight following the major hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico last year. I wanted to know: How does the team handle the scale of such destruction?

Beyond that, I wanted to capture his expert advice on how the rest of us can approach our charitable giving in a way that makes the maximum impact with our dollars.

Craig Styles: How would you describe Team Rubicon’s mission?

Art de la Cruz: We’re a disaster response nonprofit that unites the skills and experiences of military veterans and first responders with the needs of the community. When a lot of people think about natural disasters, they think of Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria—massive events that affect thousands. While responding to crises of that magnitude is certainly important, we look at anything that overwhelms a local community. That can mean tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, fires and disasters that don’t always make the news cycle.

Our ability to help on a smaller scale differentiates us. When we see a disaster, our goal is generally to have people drive in from within 450 miles. Last June there were fires in Santa Clarita, California. We were able to plan Saturday and Sunday operations for two consecutive weekends, in which volunteers from the Los Angeles area helped the survivors of the fire put their lives back together. Of course, we expand that radius if it’s a massive disaster like Harvey, for which we took over 2,000 people down to Texas.

CS: Why focus on veterans, specifically?

ADC: Vets were born to serve. Studies have found that vets get a lot out of service, as it maintains wellbeing, creates social connections, and to some extent lets them acquire skills that can further their careers. Our work builds a community of vets and first responders who are likeminded and socially driven.

The government invests about $40,000 to turn someone into an infantryman and millions to turn someone into a pilot. That person is placed in unique situations where he or she has to make decisions in the face of ambiguity, and they’re leading people at a really young age. Many veterans have higher than average comfort with decision-making and leadership.

Five years ago, right after Hurricane Sandy, we sent 450 volunteers to help out. That small number of Team Rubicon volunteers led 10,000 unaffiliated volunteers from the community. Our military veterans are, in many cases, just natural leaders.

CS: How have you dealt with the sudden influx of natural disasters over the last year?

ADC: We’ve seen a huge acceleration in what our organization can do, and we’ve used the opportunity to scale our operations and grow in capacity. I feel like Hurricane Harvey singlehandedly accelerated our growth timeline by a few years because we received more funding and more volunteers than under normal circumstances.

It’s important, though, to understand that while we generate unusually high donations during disasters like this, our real bread and butter are fixed donations that people make over time. That lets us build tools to address the next disaster.

CS: Do you have advice for people who want their charitable donations to make as big an impact as possible?

ADC: As a donor, it helps to understand what kind of impact you want to generate and how your money is being used. Personally, I treat donations like investments. So I ask myself, What kind of return do I want? It’s really easy to take a myopic view of donations by looking only at things like overhead and administrative costs, but you have to look at impact and outcomes as well.

Lots of times people donate in the face of a particular disaster, but taking a long-term view is also really important. Monthly donors are hugely valuable because they represent a predictable base of revenue, which lets a nonprofit make long-term investments to grow in an impactful and sustainable manner. Donating just $5 a month for a year is genuinely valuable to a nonprofit.

Don’t assume your donation is unimportant just because it’s not a huge dollar amount. In fact, almost 97% of the gifts Team Rubicon receives are under $1,000—but combined, those gifts total close to $2.5 million! That’s an incredibly significant contribution from regular folks rather than major donors.

At Team Rubicon, we spend a lot of time calculating the value of our “standing army.” We have 70,000 volunteers with unique skills, many of which they’ve acquired through our training. We believe our donors should know that their money is creating an engine that can respond in the face of future calamities.

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