Vote  early and often to tell American Express where to spend their philanthropic dollars. Choose from among 25 meaningful historic sites that are also vital community centers in the Twin Cities--from providing arts programming to addressing social justice. The deadline is Wednesday, October 12.
The winning nonprofit will get the largest share of a $1 million pot, but five years of experience with this AmEx contest shows that the winners along with many of the competitors will gain additional benefits as well. By mobilizing support to participate in past contests, many of the nonprofits transformed their organizational capacity, including building better boards and expanding their fundraising bases. Additionally, 17 of the 25 Boston  competitors joined forces after the 2009 competition to create an ongoing campaign to increase attendance and participation in their events and programs.
American Express is an early innovator with this philanthropic approach that some refer to as “crowdsourcing” or “crowdfunding.” Launched in 2006, Partners in Preservation (PIP)  is a program in which American Express, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation , has awarded $5.5 million over a five-year period toward preserving 56 historic places throughout the United States. “We recently recommitted to our partnership with the National Trust and have dedicated to spend another $10 million in the coming 5 years for preservation efforts,” according to Tim McClimon, President, American Express Foundation.
Motivating nonprofits to build support
“In contests like this one, some organizations proactively mobilize their supporters and others don't. The mobilizers win,” explained John Hecklinger, Chief Program Officer of GlobalGiving , in an interview. "Some have complained that voting mechanisms like this one give an advantage to large organizations. We have not observed this to be the case. In a campaign like this one, it's possible that a small but enthusiastic group supporting a less famous or visible site could out-campaign a much more visible site.”
Friends of the Paragon Carousel is a case in point. “We were the dark horse to win,” Judeth Van Hamm told me. Van Hamm was the founder of Paragon, a 2009 PIP winner. “We were a small organization, morale was low, our building was sad and decrepit, we had just lost our board chair. But when the folks from the NTHP met with us to recommend that we apply for this PIP grant, that was a turning point. We galvanized the people who remembered the amusement park and folks in the community who wanted to enjoy the carousel.” Today, reported Van Hamm, Paragon has a highly energized board led by the person who was the most active leader in the PIP campaign; they have expanded membership, and enlisted many volunteers.
“The Pui Tak  Center in Chicago, a 2007 winner, mobilized support from people of all ages from here and from China,” reported Cheryl Green Rosario, Director of Philanthropy, American Express. Pui Tak provides a broad range of services for new immigrants, as well as educational programs for children and adults.
“We work with a lot of organizations with expertise in historic preservation, but many of them need help with capacity building--with board and organizational skills, fundraising and marketing--to make sure that the site and programs are healthy for the long term,” explained Chris Morris, Program Officer, NTHP, in an interview. “Nonprofits enter this contest for the money, but they come out of it saying that they learned how to do outreach and communications, became better organized, and pushed themselves to the next level.”
Value to communities and the company
It became clear to me as I talked with various people who are involved with PIP that this crowdsourcing project brings historic preservation to life. By turning people on to the exciting and vital activities that are taking place today in these historic sites, the nonprofit contestants are building broad-based appreciation of the connection between the past and the present.
City mayors are also highly engaged and supportive of PIP. And clearly PIP drives economic development. It also doesn't take much to figure out that enhancing tourist destinations and re-engaging communities result in more spending on travel, hotels, restaurants, stores, etc. That should make AmEx shareholders happy, too. It’s all for the good.
Don’t forget to cast your vote , no matter where in the world you are.