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New websites change giving game in Memphis

Memphis is a city of great need. It's also a city filled with organizations addressing those needs. The problem, though, is a lack of coordination among organizations providing similar services. And for many Memphians, discovering the best organizations that serve a specific need is difficult at best.

Many cities have digital platforms cataloging area nonprofits, but Memphis has just launched a new website that could change the local giving game: it lists nonprofit services connected seamlessly to data on specific needs in the community. The result? Educated donors who are empowered to choose where and how to make an impact.

WHEREweLIVEmidsouth.org and WHEREtoGIVEmidsouth.org are meant to help Memphians understand the organizations working in the city as well as the specific neighborhoods where those needs are greatest. The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis developed the sites with the help and collaboration of a number of philanthropic organizations, corporations and nonprofit partners.

"There is a lot going on in Memphis that people don't always know where the facts are from,” said Robert Fockler, President of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. "Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for everyone in our city to make the impact they want, where they want, as soon as they want. Memphis is big enough that I don't know where all the facts are but it's small enough that I should be able to get the information.”

After a couple of years in the making, the two websites launched Nov. 24. The sites work together to provide the public with current, accurate information about the health and livability of the Memphis metro area while also connecting them with nonprofit organizations that are working to improve the community.

They are two separate sites but are interconnected in so many ways. The sites give people information about communities while providing avenues to get involved in those areas. The sites will use actual data to drive change.

Data will be drawn from a variety of public sources, and curated and organized by staff at the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Sustainability and the University of Memphis. The city's vast number of nonprofit agencies will create their own free profiles.

"Our whole thing is about people having access to data so they can do more for their communities,” said Sutton Mora Hayes, Vice President of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. "There is no hidden agenda. People have a right to access this data and it's been hard so we're trying to make it easier. We're looking forward to how they will use it and create change in their community.”

WHEREweLIVE is a dashboard that allows people to look at Memphis in different ways – from a regional, macro level down to the city block they are interested in. It uses data from a variety of public sources to show objective, current information on a variety of livability and health factors for an area, like how many miles of bike lanes are in a ZIP code or the number of health clinics within a five-mile radius of an address.

WHEREtoGIVE is more of a directory of all the nonprofit organizations and various agencies that serve the Memphis area. Organizations are asked to create profiles that list their mission, staff and board of directors, various programs and services, and financial information. Visitors to the site can search the profiles to find organizations that work in a focused area or serve a specific need.

A number of Memphis organizations are bought in, so to speak. The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis developed the sites, but several other organizations and nonprofits helped. The project cost $400,000, all of which is from private sources. (Here's a complete list of partners.)

In short, the community is behind the effort.

"For us it meets our goals for livable communities and encouraging the philanthropy of others,” said Lauren Taylor, Program Director for Livable Communities for Hyde Family Foundations, a partner for the project. "To create a day-to-day community indicator has been a priority for us. One of our priorities in livable communities is to strengthen neighborhoods from inside-out leadership. Our goal is increasing the number of people who are physically active and engaged.”

Similar platforms that either list community services or provide data on specific community needs exist in many other cities. But Memphis is the only city that now has both platforms talking to each other, Fockler said.

Each nonprofit organization has its own profile. When creating it, the organization can tag themselves in one of three categories. Church Health Center, for example, might tag itself as health care first so it shows up higher in the list of health care organizations when people are searching for those agencies.

The information nonprofit organizations provide should make the grant process easier.

"While we have our process and our questions we ask, when someone asks for us to fund a project the data that's provided can be hit or miss,” Taylor said. "Some organizations are thorough and some are selective. We now have WHEREweLIVE where we can go and fact check the information, dig a little deeper. For the organizations that are under-resourced or individuals who don't have the time to dig through data sets that's incredibly valuable. … Then go to the WHEREtoGIVE side you can compare apples to apples and see the programs. It's a level playing field.”

But it's not just helpful in the application process. Taylor said the sites will enable funding organizations like hers to create baselines for services and over time see if the work is actually making a difference.

Organizations that participate are required to update their profiles once a year. Financials are automatically loaded for the last three years. The organization profile pages also have a Donate Now button for anyone wanting to contribute, offering up one more point of contact to give the vast number of nonprofit organizations in Memphis a way to get closer to the community.

The Community Foundation serves as the neutral auditing agency, Hayes said.

"The information is from the experts in each of these fields,” she said. "When talking about health the information came from the health department. We brought together all these partners to talk about what they are good at. If we can streamline what everybody is talking about then we have less overlap.”

And over time, she said, it will hopefully create trust that people can feel between neighborhoods and organizations, seeing them as one talking to each other.

Overlap is actually an issue in the nonprofit world. If used to its full potential, the WHEREtoGIVEmidsouth.org site will show users the organizations that are working on a specific need in a given area.

"From the funding community, we get a lot of people who call and say they have a great idea for a nonprofit,” Hayes said. "We're hoping in the long run this becomes a resource. If I'm in Frayser and working on something, I can look at this and see what is offered there. There is a lot of duplication in the nonprofit community. Hopefully organizations can see who they can partner with or maybe there is some way to learn from each other.”

An important next step is getting more of the nonprofit community on board so the platform is a more complete representation of what and who is at work in Memphis.

There are 100 profiles created but more than 300 agencies in the pipeline.

"The next six months are more important than the last six months,” Fockler said. "Understanding how people use it and encouraging them. We need people to use it. For the nonprofits, we need them to get their peers to use it. It is incumbent on us to get as many people on it as we can.

"If we only have 100 agencies it won't be what it needs to be. But the 100 on there we were smart going after 30 of the most important agencies. If people come on the site and don't see the Church Health Center or MIFA or the Food Bank they'll scratch their heads and say, ‘What's going on?'”

The long-term hope is that a critical mass of nonprofit organizations will be in the system, meaning if agencies aren't listed it almost will be like they don't exist.

"It's a carrot-and-stick thing,” Fockler said. "We know a number of funders will require this to be able to apply for a grant.”

This story originally appeared in High Ground News.
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