Hello all! Welcome to the first Philanthropist of the Week with Leo Ramirez, one of the best-connected and very influential people in Austin, and someone with a company that can change the way we approach giving. I first met Leo at an entrepreneurial convention in Austin called RISE – he was teaching a seminar called “The Changing Face of Philanthropy” and what I found was informed, well-designed solutions for common problems in giving back, as well as an intelligent, quick, energetic man with dreams as large as my own and the capacity to make them happen. I have met with Leo three or four times since then and thought he would be a perfect way to start this segment. What follows is a rough bio based on our 30 minute interview a few days ago, as well as research on my own. Enjoy 🙂
“I live in the world of possibility, and that’s just how I choose to live my life. I take other people’s fears, I take other people’s ‘no’s’ and my interpretation of that is opportunity. It’s not, ‘Well, there’s a door shut.’ It’s like, ‘OK well, there’s gotta be an answer.’” Leo’s path into philanthropy started with this love for problem-solving and basic desire to help others. He co-founded his first non-profit seven years ago and since then has become more and more connected and needed. He now dedicates 60 hours a week to organizations he believes in and helps mentor would-be philanthropists (like me) and community leaders, all on the side of his full-time job.
His passion and approach have been influenced, in large part, by the way he was raised. “I know what it means to have nothing. I know what it means to be given handouts, and I know what it means to use those handouts, work hard, and do something with my life.” Leo’s parents were low-income when he was young, but he went on to get a Stanford education in computer science and is using his perspective to challenge common misconceptions about philanthropy and make it accessible and meaningful for more people. One misconception is that a “philanthropist” is someone who gives a lot of money. Leo says, “Anybody who selflessly gives for the benefit of others—and that’s anybody who gives time, money, anybody who lends their talents, regardless of how small of that contributions may be—is a philanthropist . . . I’m doing my part even though I’m not injecting a ton of money—like I’d like to—into the world.”
Another common belief he challenges daily is that giving handouts to people is a bad thing.
People’s perception is that it is a pervasive issue and everyone is taking advantage of the system. The reality is that people need help sometimes. There are people that I’ve met in cabs, who are cab drivers with chemical engineering degrees, that just lost their job, fell on hard times, couldn’t find another opportunity and they’re doing it to make ends meet because some day they’re going to get back on their feet and they’re going to be ok. And they need a little help. There are smart people on the streets, smart people in homeless shelters, there are people with capabilities, there are people with opportunities, kids that with a little bit of investment can become the next great entrepreneurs and innovators and philanthropists and community leaders.
The handouts worked to help Leo succeed, and many others like him, and he says he’s surrounded by people with his background who are doing amazing things. He attributes the misinformation, in large part, to people who sensationalize things to prove their point, and compares it to people who try to make all business people out to be crooks. “People take the stories that fit their agenda and then they blow them out of proportion to illustrate their point and that’s just unfair.” The effect of that misinformation isn’t small, and it is impeding philanthropic giving.
Reaching past the stereotypes is something Leo has invested a lot of time doing, and that is reflected in every conversation I’ve had with him; ask him any question and he’ll give you a strong answer with a few statistics to back up his conclusion. His dreams are lofty, but he bases his programs on solid research and relies on other experts to help challenge his ideas so he can work past the things stopping philanthropy from progressing as fast as it could. “I think some people don’t give because they don’t feel their contributions really mean much, because . . . they have no way of measuring their individual contributions against everyone else’s individual contributions to see what that compounded impact has on the organizations that they’re supporting, and there are no real easy mechanisms to see that today.” Another reason is the overwhelming amount of groups to choose from. He sites that fact that there are over 1.1 million active non-profits in the US alone, and over 6,000 in Austin – making it difficult for people to decide where to help. Also, people tend to think of donating only in terms of money. “If you think about it as you’re running a business, you can either spend $30 thousand on a full-time person for a year but if someone can actually volunteer their time and give you some full-time work, or some half-time work, or a couple of people give quarter-time work for those folks, now you’ve saved yourself $30 thousand that you didn’t have to raise.”
So when Emiliano Lozano came to Leo with the idea of MiniDonations five years ago, Leo connected. “When [Emiliano], my cofounder, approached me with his idea for rounding up daily purchases and donating the difference to charity . . . I loved it so much that I committed to helping him get his company off the ground, and then as I worked with him I loved it so much more that I decided to come on board and he allowed me to be the CEO of the company.” Since then Leo has delved deeper into the roots of philanthropy, what it means, and how to overcome problems so he could help develop this very innovative program that helps people donate more, and to donate more meaningfully.
MiniDonations is built on the simple idea that everyone can be a philanthropist and that a small amount of money from a large amount of people can add up to make a big difference. With so many non-profits already doing great work, Leo wanted to focus on doing something that would raise more money for everyone instead of fighting over the same donations and grants every year. He points out the fact that over 70% of charitable donations every year are from individuals, while only 30% are from government and businesses. “If people really understood that they have the power to have their favorite organizations either sink or swim, then attitudes may change.” Their website provides a simple way for individuals and businesses to give to their favorite non-profit organizations on a percentage basis. I love it! It is easier to show than explain, so here is my profile:
Basically you create your own profile (you can even use facebook to log-in), select the non-profits you’d like to support (his database includes 1.1 million), and then contribute to your MiniDonations account. Once you’re ready, just click the “Donate” button and they send your funds out to every one of those non-profits for you, even if it is only 1% of your giving-pie. You can add funds to your account in a number of ways, including credit card, point of sale transactions that round up your purchase to the next dollar and contribute the difference, direct deposit with employer matching, and so on – there are so many ways individuals, businesses, and non-profits can use this site. There is even a community feel to the site, like facebook – you can compare your giving profile with other people to see where they give (not how much), update your status, broadcast upcoming events for your non-profit, and so-on. At the end of the year you’ll receive one tax form with all your charitable giving ready to go for your tax return.
So, how different is MiniDonations? I’ve browsed through quite a few of these giving platforms, but haven’t seen one that matches it. Other giving platforms like this are based off different principles and charge a high premium for the convenience they offer. Microgiving.com, for example, charges 10% for their commission and 3% for the credit card transaction fee, and Crowdrise.com charges non-profits 4.95% plus a $2.50 fee for every donation (unless you purchase an expensive yearly membership), making small donations pointless. MiniDonations is built on the principle of making every cent count, and has the goal and the plan to reduce their fees to 0% as they grow. For now, the fee is a steady 3% for credit card processing (credit card companies charge businesses 1-2% of every transaction) and other administrative costs. Since MiniDonations is still young, they do ask for your support of 10% of your giving pie, but it isn’t required. Leo’s plan to reduce fees to 0% means MiniDonations will actually be paying merchant fees for you – and his plan to make that happen is built on the same revenue structure as Facebook and Google.
What do you think? Can we get 25 people to create a profile and try it out with a $25 donation? Give a shout out in the comment section below to let us know! I added $50 to my account today (through my visa) and have chosen a few great groups to receive my money – like Friends of Indian Creek who help keep my favorite climbing spot nature-friendly and open to climbing, Big Brothers Big Sisters because I benefited from a similar program when I was young and have volunteered with them before, and BeHive which is a local education non-profit that helps low-income youth. Who did you add? Why?
Also – local Austinites can look forward to a great giving campaign this winter started by Leo called Keep Austin Generous. Through quirky SXSW-style fundraising put on by non-profits and locals who want to help out, point-of-sale donations by local businesses, and KAG’s presence at the Trail of Lights, Leo plans on raising over $5 million for non-profits across the world, an effort to help catapult Austin to become the most philanthropic city in the United States. Leo believes in “democratized giving” and won’t be deciding which organizations receive the money. Instead, random donators will be chosen out of a hat, so to speak, and will receive a $1,000-5,000 grant into their MiniDonations account, and they then decide which groups receive the money! So, non-profits have the chance to earn some donations and spread their name! Find more info at KeepAustinGenerous.org.
Do you have questions for Leo? Ask them in the comment section below and I’ll post his responses in one and two weeks! Find more information on my “Ask the Philanthropist” section by clicking here.
Leo’s bio from MiniDonations.org:
Leo is a social entrepreneur with exceptionally diverse experience launching and managing nonprofits, leading multi-disciplinary teams and building solid relationships with civic and corporate leaders. His 18-year career has spanned executive management, business development, consulting, support and engineering positions with Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Coremetrics, Trilogy and Apple. He founded his first nonprofit, EDCO Ventures, in 2005 to address job creation in economically underprivileged regions through high-growth, entrepreneurial ventures. He also co-founded Copán, LLC, which provides NextDooring services from Latin America and is Executive Producer for NOC Films’ “Zero:Hour.” He is on the Advisory Board of Mexic-Arte Museum, VP of Development on the Mex-Net Alliance Board of Directors and serves on the Dance International Board of Advisors and Proyecto Mosaico Committee for the National Museum of the American Latino. He is a Clean Tech Open Mentor and frequently advises other for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs. He was a Deacon at First Presbyterian Church of Austin. He volunteers his time and talent to numerous education, environmental and entrepreneurship organizations. He also created and teaches Austin’s first childbirth prep class for new fathers at GetBabied. He attended Stanford University’s Computer Systems Engineering Program from 1992–1996.