GivingCity Austin in Austin American-Statesman

This article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on April 15, 2015.

Monica Maldonado Williams cracks the charity code

Publisher of Giving City looks to volunteers, overlooked nonprofit leaders
By Michael Barnes – American-Statesman Staff

Monica Williams STATESMAN 1 by Ricardo B. Brazziel
Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell for Austin American-Statesman

In 2007, while Monica Maldonado Williams worked for the Austin Bar Association, lawyers often expressed an interest in doing community service. Williams spent a lot of time reaching out to nonprofits to see how the lawyers could get involved.

“It was frustrating,” says the writer and editor who became the publisher of Giving City, a respected, mostly online magazine about local philanthropy. “I’ve since learned why and how nonprofits work — and why they don’t always have the capacity to serve volunteers.”

No surprise: Most nonprofits are set up almost exclusively to take care of their clients.

“Serving the volunteers is gravy,” Williams, 44, says. “Some groups treat it as important. Some as their main thing. Most nonprofits don’t have the staff to do volunteer management and their main missions, too.”

Since today’s volunteers are often tomorrow’s donors — a recent study by Greenlights, a group focused on solving complex community problems, showed that less than 15 percent of the region’s nearly 6,000 nonprofits have any paid staff — the nonprofit sector will continue to be hobbled in the future unless things change.

In the past eight years, Williams has looked hard at the nonprofit sector.

Most recently, with Mando Rayo, CEO at Mando Rayo + Collective, a multicultural digital marketing agency, Williams has created the New Philanthropists, an initiative to match underutilized leaders with nonprofit boards of directors.

They discovered that promising younger Austinites, newcomers, retirees and specifically people of color — often profiled in Giving City — aren’t at the board of directors table.

“She tells the full story of Austin,” Rayo says of Williams. “From big charity events to families struggling to get by, as well as inspiring stories from young leaders of color to established leaders of Austin. … Because of her work, she has been able to engage thousands of people to be part of our community and truly make an impact with nonprofits here.”

Magazines to nonprofits
Born and raised in San Antonio, Williams is the daughter of Rene Maldonado, a retired civil servant, and Margarita Alvarez del Castillo Maldonado, a retired Social Security Administration worker. Her mother’s mother helped raise four kids.

“She was the stay-at-home mom,” Williams says. “I had three parents growing up. I wish I could have that for my children.”

Her grandparents’ generation labored hard and enjoyed few educational advantages. Skip ahead: Williams’ siblings all graduated from college.

Williams made good grades in school and played lots of sports. At Holmes High School, she served as president of the math honor society.

“It wasn’t glamorous at all,” she jokes. “I was kind of a loser. For fun, we would put all the balls and tennis rackets in the car and say: ‘Let’s go drive down to the high school track and play until dinner with my parents!’ I remember thinking that’s what all high school kids did. When I got to college, I realized they were going to parties.”

Williams studied communications and political science at Southwestern University, looking toward a career in magazines.

“I wanted to work in magazines my whole life,” she says. “I obsessed over them, loved the way they wrote about culture and life. I had no idea how to do it. I only knew I had to live in New York.”

After a romantic detour through Chicago, she purchased a one-way train ticket to New York in 1994, arriving underdressed for a paralyzing snowstorm. She waited tables before landing her first editorial assignment, with the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“I was happy to get this job,” she says. “I found my tribe there.”

After that, she worked for Power and Motor Yacht magazine, where she tested high-end boats and traveled all over. She was fascinated with the high caliber of these niche and association magazines.

She moved to Austin in 1998. At first, she worked for the Texas Medical Association, writing about medical economics and education and trying to engage readers through a couple of feature stories a month. Once, a guy at Flipnotics coffee shop recognized her name from her byline in Texas Medicine magazine.

“Yeah, dude, I don’t know what’s more sad,” she jokes. “That you recognize me, or that that’s what I do for a living.”

In fact, she loves learning about anything, even arcane subjects like medical economics. She is married to contractor John Norwood Williams, who earned degrees in civil engineering and biology.

“He can build or fix anything,” his wife boasts. “He spent some of his summers working on an old cotton gin.”

They are raising two children.

For the past eight years, however, Giving City magazine has been her main career focus. For two years, she combined that role with a gig as communications director for the Austin Community Foundation.

“She is a tireless one-person cheerleading squad for team philanthropy,” says Tom Spencer, director of I Live Here, I Give Here, another group that helps nonprofits and also runs the annual Amplify Austin day of giving. “She has carved out a distinctive and underappreciated role in the growth of our culture of giving back and serving.”

Beyond Giving City
Along the way, Williams found that Austinites had developed an insatiable hunger for data and stories about nonprofits. And while giving to local charities nearly doubled between 2004 and 2014, according to the Greenlights study, the city is still improvising a culture of philanthropy.

“We need to mature our philanthropic sector,” she says. “Learning how to be a volunteer, to be a donor, a social entrepreneur; there is a long way to go. Austin is a city of seekers. We are looking for meaning in our lives and in our work. Some people came here for quick money — they see the growth and they want to capitalize on it. More are looking for something about themselves. I think it has always been that way. They want to find their way to give back, find their way to make an impact.”

Luckily, almost every Austin contact has generously pointed her to other sources on the subject.

“Austin is great about sharing knowledge and making connections,” she says. “There are a lot of very helpful people.”

Her very first question — why isn’t it easy to volunteer — continues to puzzle her.

“That situation is not going to change any time soon,” she says. “Volunteers must realize that they can’t just pick up the phone and start volunteering at their convenience, that the nonprofit will be so grateful that they just connected with their cause. Unless the (charity) has a person devoted to the volunteer experience, it just doesn’t happen.”

Among the other obstacles: A lack of historical context.

“People think that they have been here a long time if they’ve been here 10 years,” she says. “How many people know the story of Lady Bird Lake or the history of St. David’s? Let them know there is a pathway. “

Another thing: Social entrepreneurs from the booming tech sector tend to land on the same solutions: a new app, say, or a new online platform.

“I don’t think there’s enough research done before they go ahead,” Williams says. “They need to be a little humble and find out that there might be somebody in the nonprofit sector already doing this.”

Despite a nagging feeling of competitiveness among nonprofits for the same charity dollar, Williams — along with Rayo and others — believes there are communities that have never been asked to give.

“There is a huge opportunity to reach out,” she says. “All the people of color in the middle class now. Lots of people retiring. These are prime people. It’s hard to do. It means going way outside your comfort zone. You’ve got to take new risks, meet new people.”

She also sees great opportunity for newcomers.

“You look for meaning here, you want it to fit your family, your neighborhood, your city,” she says. “At what point in your life do you realize that I don’t just want to give $20; I’ve seen stories about people who have made an impact and that’s now within my reach.”

As for matching potential givers of color with mainstream boards, she and Rayo are building on the Giving City model in order to identify groups that are doing well and those that are in need of help. They plan training for both sides and a streamlined way to make sure the fit is good.

“It’s not about naming and shaming,” she says. “It’s about accountability and helping. It’s going to take a long time. We are giving ourselves permission to get beyond the awkward stage. It’s about making progress.”