Just about a year ago, Erin Jimison, a mother, career woman and self-described Type A personality, came to a realization.
Virtually the only aspect of her life in which she wasn’t making well-thought-out decisions, she said, was in making donations to charitable causes. For most of what she donated, she had been relying on her employers to make those decisions for her.
She thought, wouldn’t it be great if there were some quick, simple way to find out what local, nonprofit organizations were doing, and exactly what their needs were at any given time?
She said to herself, “I’m sure there’s an app for that.”
As a matter of fact there wasn’t, so she got to thinking, and then to planning, especially after reading that more than 70 percent of millennials donate to charities via their smart phones.
Jimison, the chief operating officer for Veza Health, in Billings, spent months doing research and trying to figure out the best means of promoting what she calls a “lifestyle of philanthropy.” The one thing she lacked was technological know-how, which is why early this year she was introduced to Melissa Smith.
Smith and her husband, Michael, are the owners of eSmiths, a 17-year-old Billings business that offers web design, graphic design and computer, networking and technical consulting. Half an hour after they met, Jimison said, she and Smith were brainstorming about how to create the app that Jimison imagined, and what kind of organization they could build to launch the idea.
That was the birth of PHIL, short for Philanthropy, a website and smart phone app that helps nonprofits tell their stories to potential donors, and helps donors find agencies and projects they would be most interested in supporting.
In addition to focusing on the need to get younger people in the habit of charitable giving, Jimison said, PHIL also aims to reward small donors with recognition that might go only to major donors under traditional fundraising models.
Small donors, she said, might not get invited to the annual galas put on by nonprofit organizations. But with a PHIL app, everyone who makes a donation, no matter how small, gets updates on how their money is being spent.
The way it works, Jimison said, is that nonprofits apply to be a partner with PHIL. After PHIL does the necessary background checks to make sure the organization is a legitimate nonprofit, it can begin making “asks” and providing updates on how donations are being spent.
The idea, Jimison said, is that member nonprofits won’t turn to PHIL for operating funds or endowments, but to raise money for specific projects, short-term needs or small donations that will help a specific child or cause, and they will make the “ask” by detailing the need via email updates and app alerts.
Tumbleweed, for example, one of a handful of nonprofits already partnering with PHIL, tells people that a $10 donation would supply one young person’s food and hygiene supplies for one day, while a $50 donation would give one young person a week’s worth of life-skills training.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of Yellowstone County tell visitors to the PHIL website that a $100 donation would pay for one summer field trip for 25 club members.
By making donations with such specific goals in mind, Smith said, “people feel like they’re personally involved in keeping their community strong.”
Or, as Jimison put it, people might say to themselves, “Now I have that story instead of just dropping off a check.”
In the planning phase, one of the people Jimison talked to was Mary Hernandez, the principal at Invisage Consulting in Billings, which helps nonprofits with fundraising, program development, advocacy and other services.
Hernandez said said some organizations and coalitions already use web-based means of connecting donors with nonprofits, but she couldn’t think of any others that would do so continuously and would provide real-time updates on how the money is being spent.
“Immediately, I could see that there were nonprofits that could benefit by what she’s putting together,” Hernandez said.
And with more than 6,500 nonprofits in Montana, many of them short-staffed and lacking expertise in fundraising and development, anyone who can help them meet their goals is going to be welcome, Hernandez said.
“The more the merrier, because there is a lot work to do in our community,” she said. “We’ve always been a country that has run on a strong private and public sector, and a nonprofit sector as well. And we can’t have a thriving community without all three.”
A couple of weeks into their new venture, Jimison said, she and Smith have about 30 people who’ve downloaded the PHIL app. Those who sign up are given a free, secure account, and PHIL provides them with a curated “ask-feed” based on their interests. After making a donation, members will see how their money is being spent as updates are posted and fundraising goals are met.
And though PHIL aims to help nonprofits, it is set up as a for-profit organization itself. Jimison said PHIL will take 4 percent of each donation, using 10 percent of what is collected to distribute equal shares to all member nonprofits. Most of the remaining money will be used to build and expand PHIL, she said.
If it becomes big enough, she said, eventually she and Smith could start being paid, which would help ensure longevity for the organization. But that day is probably a long way off. They are now in what they call the “proof of concept phase,” with plans for a full launch sometime this summer.
“We believe people will want this,” Jimison said. “We have to prove that.”
After talking at some length about their goals and plans and dreams, Smith said there was one more benefit they hadn’t mentioned yet: “Helping people feel better about the world after being on the internet, instead of being enraged.”