‘Time, Talent and Treasure’: 2020’s spike in charitable giving a bright spot

Though the chips may have been down, charitable giving was up in 2020.

According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), charitable giving was up 7.5% in the first six months of 2020, compared to the same span in 2019. That increase came during a time period when the United States unemployment rate hit its highest point since the Great Depression, with an April peak of 14.7%. AFP reported significant 2019-to-2020 increases in new donors, repeat retained donors, and recaptured donors.

In northern Michigan, those trends hit close to home.

Susie and Bill Janis

“If you think about it, philanthropy during these times for most people is probably a second thought,” said Bill Janis, chairman at Century Inc. “But we’ve heard through the grapevine that more than 700 people made a donation to Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in the month of April of 2020. And that just struck me, of what this community is really all about. Because normally in philanthropy, in depressed times, people are wondering whether or not they’re going to be able to live through it, let alone be able to be prosperous enough through it (to give back).”

Bill and his wife, Susie Janis, are two of northern Michigan’s biggest philanthropists. Susie co-chairs NMC’s Be What’s Possible campaign, the largest fundraising effort in the college’s history. With a goal of $35 million, Be What’s Possible had already hit the $32 million mark as of October 2020.

The Janises are cognizant of their status as prominent philanthropists in the local area.

“We get approached a lot,” Susie said. “We could have a full-time person going through the calls we get or the needs that are there.”

Regardless, they are adamant about one message: Philanthropy can come in many shapes and sizes.

“To me, it doesn’t matter if you give a can of applesauce or a million dollars,” Susie said. “It’s what you have and what you decide to part with and share that matters.”

Susie Janis says giving can either be financial or time.

“So often, we’ve heard, ‘Well, we don’t have the money like you guys do.’ But it really isn’t about the money,” she said. “Eventually you need that, but another hard part of philanthropy is when people give of themselves.

“And Traverse City is full of very, very generous people who give a lot of their time volunteering.”

When asked about their philanthropic philosophy, the Janises have a surprising answer: There isn’t one.

Susie says the couple “started small” with their giving many years ago, without an intentional strategy in place. Since then, they’ve added a few signposts that guide their giving.

It’s typically local, for one. Susie explains that she and Bill “love to watch something happen” and to see up close what their dollars are doing.

The Janises also set a certain amount of money aside that they plan to give each year, which means their ability to support certain organizations or campaigns can fluctuate depending on when they are approached.

Otherwise, Susie says that she and her husband look for organizations or campaigns that “pique their interest” in some way. Sometimes, that means an effort that is meeting a dire community need. Other times, it takes the form of a more personal passion project. Sometimes, it’s just an organization that can show it is accomplishing its mission in an effective way.

An example of the latter, Susie says, is Michael’s Place, the local nonprofit that serves as a healing center for children, teens, adults, and families grieving the loss of a loved one.

In the early days of the organization, the Janises were asked to make a donation. One specific detail about the nonprofit ultimately won them over – and secured their support.

“One of the things they told us – and it struck us huge – was the fact that all the couples so far that they had walked through the terrible, horrific time of losing a child, not one of those couples had gone through a divorce,” Susie said, noting how statistics often indicate that grief over the loss of a child can lead to divorce. “So that really motivated us to give a gift (to Michael’s Place). That one thing they said just really stuck.”

Bruce Byl, who co-chairs the Be What’s Possible campaign with Susie Janis, is another active local philanthropist, along with his wife Mary. He echoes many of the Janises’ thoughts on philanthropic philosophy, ranging from the importance of local giving to the ability for anyone to get involved regardless of wealth.

Bruce and Mary Byl

Specifically, Byl highlights “the three philanthropic Ts” – time, talent and treasure – which open the door for wider involvement in the world of giving and philanthropy.

“Time and talent are equally important in the equation as treasure,” Byl said. “Although financial resources are always required to meet an organization’s mission, they are of limited use if there is not a committed, passionate and engaged executive team and volunteers behind the cause directing the efforts.”

That bigger-picture conception of giving and philanthropy – not only just as a matter of dollars given, but also of volunteer time and total personal or emotional investment – has been crucial for getting millennials involved in the philanthropic space. In 2018, Forbes noted that millennials would, by 2020, become the largest demographic in the American workforce – and therefore an important piece of the puzzle for philanthropic giving.

The same report claimed that, while millennials lagged behind both boomers and Gen Xers in terms of dollars given to philanthropic causes, a higher percentage of them were giving to charity in some capacity – often by volunteering their time.

Other factors could help drive more philanthropic behaviors among younger generations, too – particularly the rise of the “collective giving” model. According to research published last year in Nonprofit Quarterly, “giving circles and other collective giving groups have tripled since 2007 to over 1,600 active circles working in all 50 states today.”

Giving circles are large groups of people who collectively donate money to various causes, thus having a larger impact than one donor – particularly one without substantial wealth – can have on their own.

Giving circles have been gaining steam – and members – in northern Michigan for the past several years, with Impact100 Traverse City standing as one of the biggest success stories. A nationwide organization with chapters in many different communities, Impact100 seeks to harness the collective resources of hundreds of women to provide significant financial gifts to local nonprofits and charities.

Each member of Impact100 Traverse City makes an annual gift of $1,000 to the organization, with the funds then pooled into $100,000 grants for which organizations in five different focus areas – arts and culture, education, environment and recreation, family, or health and wellness – can apply. Each woman who gives an annual gift also gets a voice in deciding where the money should go.

According to Jody Trietch, president of Impact100 Traverse City for the 2020 and 2021 grant cycles, the organization has awarded more than $1.1 million in funding since its inception in 2017, with grant recipients including organizations like Michael’s Place, Habitat for Humanity, Addiction Treatment Services, Peace Ranch, and more.  In its first year, Impact100 Traverse City drew donations from 250 members – a national first-year record for an Impact100 group. Last year, that number was up to 316.

For the current donation cycle, Impact100 Traverse City had to hit 214 member contributions by Valentine’s Day to earn a challenge grant of $20,000. The money from the challenge grant will go to the organization’s Sharing the Love fund, which Trietch says is there to help women “who are interested in being part of the (Impact100) process but otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to do so.”

Trietch thinks the collective giving model has opened the door for many people to get more actively involved in philanthropy. While she says most Impact100 Traverse City members were just giving “$100 here or there” before they joined the group, the scope of the organization and its grant process has helped “increase the total pie” of local giving by allowing members to see in a very real way how their contributions are making difference.

Members not only get exposed to local nonprofits through the annual application process, but see and hear presentations from past grant recipients which outline the impact those grants have.

“Fifty percent of our members, before contributing to Impact, had never written a check to a nonprofit as large as $1,000 before,” Trietch said. “For one out of every two women, this is the most significant gift she’s ever given. And it’s made even more significant by the fact that she’s leveraging those dollars by another 100 times.”