Charities find uniting makes giving richer

schoephoester.jpg One of the most successful holiday charitable programs anywhere in the United States started right here in Anchorage, at least partly because of hard times in the oil patch in 1995.

In those days the oil industry was struggling because of low crude prices and a sagging economy. Holiday giving was a long-established tradition in the industry, and many of the nonprofit organizations had come to expect that the oil companies and their contractors would be a major source of such support.

My colleague Joan McCoy looked around and realized that, because of layoffs, five of the six people who had helped in the company’s charitable gift-giving program the previous year were gone. Not wanting to be a grinch, McCoy did some head scratching to see how the company might meet nonprofit expectations that year with diminished resources.

At the same time the Salvation Army, Catholic Social Services and members of the United Way of Anchorage board of directors looked at the industry’s decreasing size and economic conditions. They too knew it might be difficult to meet the hopes of those they served and wondered what could be done differently to make up the difference.

The Marine Corps Reserve also was simultaneously deciding that its Toys for Tots program needed a better way to distribute the presents that the folks in Marine uniforms were collecting.

Dennis McMillian, executive director of United Way of Anchorage, calls those simultaneous happenings "a harmonic convergence" that resulted in a better system for doing things, a cooperative system that seems uniquely well suited to Anchorage.

The various agencies asked McMillan to help them get something organized, and all parties started brainstorming. They knew from the start that part of their dilemma was that many organizations were running their own programs, each with its own set of overhead costs.

Their solution was a cooperative effort called Giving From The Heart, or GIFT for short. GIFT pulled together 40 organizations to collect toys and presents, raise money and provide Christmas food to Alaskans encountering hard times. They decided on a one-stop distribution system where individuals and families could come to receive presents and enjoy a seasonal feast.

Because thousands of people were expected, GIFT needed a large space in which to handle the distribution. McMillan called the Anchorage Telephone Utility, which offered its big warehouse on Telephone Avenue. ATU became one of the two major corporate sponsors, a commitment later adopted by Alaska Communications System when that company purchased ATU from the Municipality of Anchorage. Phillips Alaska’s predecessor company, ARCO Alaska Inc., became the second large corporate sponsor and that relationship has lasted through the years as well.

GIFT served 9,000 people that first year, and this year will probably serve 11,000 to 12,000. In developing the program, the many agencies found that they could serve more people, more effectively, than they could when working alone. The program also draws support from thousands of volunteers.

McMillian says the program is uniquely suited to Anchorage because the nonprofit organizations here are much more open to working together than their counterparts are in most areas of the country. At one point McMillian’s enthusiasm for the GIFT way of doing things prompted him to offer it as a model program at the United Way of America Community Leaders Conference in Cincinnati. The response he got was that other parts of the country probably could not match the cooperative spirit in Anchorage and that the GIFT approach would have tougher sledding out there.

Though I find it difficult to believe that they couldn’t do it our way in other parts of the country, it does say something nice about Anchorage that we can.

Nancy Schoephoester is manager of philanthropy and community services for Phillips Alaska Inc. She can be reached via e-mail at ([email protected]).

12/30/2001 - 8:00pm