This article appeared in the April 1, 2012, issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the nonprofit sector’s most widely read news source.
In Texas, a Community Fund Lures Young Donors With a Magazine
The more GivingCity Austin’s editor, Monica Williams, learned about local nonprofits, the more she found compelling stories that were being ignored by Austin’s mainstream news outlets.
By Cody Switzer
A lot of titles have been hung on this town. It was called the “Silicon Hills” as its technology business grew in 1990s. The blues bars on Sixth Street like to call it the “live-music capital of the world.” And a local business group just wants to keep Austin “weird.”
But the capital of Texas has another reputation that is anything but a badge of honor: one of the least generous cities in America.
Now the Austin Community Foundation is working to foster philanthropy among 20- and 30-somethings with, among other programs, a print magazine and blog with a title that could be read as its ultimate goal: GivingCity Austin.
The idea didn’t come from within the foundation, though. It was adopted —and saved—in 2010 when the group hired the magazine’s co-founder and editor in chief, Monica Williams, as its first director of communications. It’s one of only a few magazines published by community foundations in the U.S. and Canada, but it’s becoming a model for other grant makers who want to foster an independent voice about philanthropy in their towns.
“We could not have a better home,” Ms. Williams wrote in the most recent issue of the magazine. “The foundation’s support and the platform it offers GivingCity means we can bring readers information they won’t get anywhere else about how local philanthropy works.”
The magazine, published quarterly, seeks to inspire support for the 6,000 local nonprofits in Austin, which The Chronicle ranked in a 2003 study as 48th in a list of giving among the 50 largest U.S. cities.
Its winter 2012 issue told readers how donations were used to aid recovery from a local wildfire, how to help soldiers returning from combat, and ways to plan a great giving event. The magazine is handed out at volunteer events, by local businesses, and at parties that mark each issue’s publication. Its mission: to be an “inspiring and beautiful” publication that helps people learn about the world of philanthropy through storytelling.
“GivingCity is, in both name and substance, a reflection of who we are in Austin,” says Laura Wolf, executive director of CASA of Travis County, whose organization works with troubled children and was recently featured in the magazine.
Learning About Nonprofits
The magazine is the brainchild of Ms. Williams, a San Antonio native who started her career in New York working for a magazine about yachting. Later she worked in marketing for the now-defunct Internet service provider Prodigy and for publications put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Texas Medical Association, and the Austin Bar Association.
It was at the lawyers’ group that she saw Austin’s young leaders struggling to find their way in helping nonprofit causes. Ms. Williams had had a tough time doing the same when she moved to Austin: She volunteered for one organization right before it folded, then had to stop working with another group that held volunteer meetings only on Wednesday mornings.
She learned everything she could about nonprofits in central Texas, and to help bridge the gap between charities and young people, she set up social-media accounts in 2007 to share nonprofit news.
“I kind of infiltrated it,” Ms. Williams says. “I would attend events and have coffee with people and learn about it.”
As she learned, she blogged. Eventually, she asked Andrea Ball, the social-services reporter at the city’s daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, if there was room in the Austin market for a magazine about philanthropy.
“I definitely thought there was,” Ms. Ball says. “While the newspaper tries to keep up with charities, we have a different mission. We go for news and, these days, investigations.”
Saved by a Call
Ms. Williams says the more she learned about nonprofits, the more she found compelling, emotional stories that were not covered by local journalists. And nobody offered Austin residents easy-to-use information about how philanthropy works, which charities in town did interesting things, when the next events were, and how donors’ gifts were put to use.
“When nonprofits have to rely on the general media to tell their story, I’d say that half of the time they get to tell a success, but the other half of the time it’s a scandal,” Ms. Williams says, which she thinks skews the perception of how charities operate.
Ms. Williams started the magazine in a digital-only format in 2008 with art director and co-founder Torquil Dewar, who has since moved on to other projects. Ms. Williams worked full-time at the bar association, sold freelance writing, and used her own money to pay for photographers and writers, seeking out the best she could find in the area.
She worked with Mr. Dewar from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. some nights, after she put her two children to bed.
It was a labor of love for four issues.
“When you work on magazines, it’s like when you wait tables—you always want to have a restaurant of your own,” says Ms. Williams.
But she soon learned that she couldn’t sustain the magazine on her own. Burned out, she decided in 2010 to scale back.
Fortunately, she had an influential fan.
A board member at the Austin Community Foundation was among Ms. Williams’s readers and saw the benefit of what she was doing. The board member called Ms. Williams and set up a meeting with Ken Gladish, who was then heading the foundation. He soon offered her a job that included publishing the magazine through the community fund.
“I was taken with her passion, her understanding, her commitment, and her desire to really make a difference in terms of the nature of the conversation in central Texas,” Mr. Gladish says.
Now chief executive at Austin’s Seton Foundations, Mr. Gladish says he saw an opportunity to add a key member to his staff but also a way to help support a new voice in the community.
He recalls that he liked the magazine’s “affirming but critical” perspective on local nonprofits. And, he says, he made sure the foundation would allow the magazine to maintain its objectivity and independence.
“If our job as the community foundation, in part, was to create this culture of generosity and the conversation around it, then to have it just be a house organ of the community foundation, well, that might be a good thing for the organization, but it wouldn’t serve the broader need,” says Mr. Gladish, whose new employer supports the venture through advertising.
The community foundation’s current chief executive, Jeff Garvey, says the magazine helps the foundation connect with Austin’s next generation of philanthropists.
“By supporting GivingCity as a program, if you will, we’re able to access and influence a demographic that we think is very valuable to the long-term success of the Austin Community Foundation, and that’s a younger demographic,” Mr. Garvey says.
If it seems foolhardy to appeal to young people through a print publication, Ms. Williams says that’s hardly the case. She says her readers love the physical magazine and that too many people are trying to attract young readers with just a Web site, even in tech-savvy cities like Austin.
About 1,500 to 3,000 people download a PDF version of each issue online. The magazine’s first printed issue came out in the summer of 2011, with a run of 2,500 copies.
It increased that number to 3,000 for its winter 2012 issue and is planning to distribute 5,000 copies of the spring issue, which will be out this month.
“The magazine itself is a journey. It’s a little different than just publishing online,” Ms. Williams says.
The idea is spreading, too: Ms. Williams says she recently took a call from another community foundation looking to start a similar publication.