A conversation with Stacy Caldwell, CEO of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation
Stacy Caldwell, right, says the annual Give Back Tahoe campaign has become a “collective giving engine.” Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation
Last Tuesday, 1,675 people visited the website GiveBackTahoe.org, clicked a “Donate“ button, and gave money to more than 60 participating Tahoe-Truckee nonprofits. In that one day, Give Back Tahoe raised over $214,000. Some of these folks clicked a “Fundraise” button and created, in just a few minutes, their own campaign, which they could deploy to their friends via email, Facebook, Instagram, etc. The inclusion of this social media functionality is meant to turn this web portal into a “collective giving engine.”
The Give Back Tahoe website makes giving easy, even for folks who don’t know exactly where they want to send their dollars. There are seven “impact areas,” all searchable, so anyone with generalized warm feelings about Truckee and North Lake Tahoe can quickly find a specific cause to support.
If you spend much time in the Tahoe-Truckee region, you may already know about Give Back Tahoe, the annual campaign run by the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation. If this is a place you love and you haven’t heard about this project, you will be inspired by the story of how this philanthropic enterprise has evolved in just eight years.
I spoke with Stacy Caldwell, who has been CEO of TTCF since 2012, about this year’s campaign, the nonprofits that form the fabric of the Tahoe-Truckee community, and a Field Trip to the Future.
(Full disclosure: California Local publisher Mike Gelbman helped launch Give Back Tahoe when he was publisher of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza.)
California Local: I think many people were surprised to see how quickly this year’s campaign got to that big number last Tuesday. Were you surprised?
Stacy Caldwell: I was delighted but not surprised. It has really been a labor of love for the Community Foundation to build a platform where we can amplify all of the local nonprofits and give them the opportunity to showcase who they are together.
Can you say why you extended giving Tuesday into a longer season?
The end of the year, for whatever reason, is when most people give—some people because they’re reflecting on their lives and feeling grateful for different organizations whose missions have touched them, and others for tax purposes.
As a small rural community foundation, we found that a lot of our organizations didn’t have an end-of-year mechanism to promote their work. That was the impetus for Give Back Tahoe—to help them build that muscle, and to be able to get in front of audiences. And we worked with local journalists to be able to showcase their work.
A unique thing about Tahoe is there’s no one perfect day when you can catch everybody’s attention. A lot of second homeowners and tourists come here to celebrate the holidays—and so we selected this season.
I notice that you have a Challenge Grant where TTCF itself awards $2,500, $3,000 and $3,500 to nonprofits that attract the most donors. Can you tell us how and why this works?
The notion of having the Challenge Grant is that it turns Give Back Tahoe into a little bit of a contest. It makes it a little bit fun. Matching grants are not new in the philanthropic world—people love to see leverage when they’re giving—but I think our Challenge Grant takes it to a whole new level. It builds this collective giving engine, if you will.
In a lot of ways, it’s gamification.There are very few people who feel comfortable calling on their friends and family and business network to give. But when you have a match or challenge, it gives them a reason to go out and ask.
It’s this idea that we create elements of competition; elements of mystery. Who’s going to win? It just makes it more fun, and it seems to resonate particularly well with the community and the culture here.
Can you talk about the Give Back Tahoe website’s functionality and infrastructure? I see there are three leaderboards—and that Tuesday’s winner did not raise the most money.
Over the years we’ve done different things and learned by trial and error. We try to make sure it’s a fair playground for all nonprofits. You have to recognize that there are certain nonprofits that have much bigger machines than some of our smaller nonprofits.
If you’re one executive director and the only employee, you’re going to have a different capability of communicating and accessing a donor network versus a nonprofit that has been around for 20 years. And we tend to also sprinkle in some “randoms,” meaning it’s like a lottery with surprise grants in the middle of the event.
Looking at the leaderboard I was inspired reading the stories of so many awesome nonprofits in Lake Tahoe and Truckee. I was particularly touched by Achieve Tahoe, which won one of Tuesday’s Challenge Grants. Can you talk a little about how they won?
Rather than focus on any one particular nonprofit, I will say that the nonprofits that are successful tend to have a really well-organized and planned strategy for that day. It doesn’t just happen accidentally. The boards and their staff are working together targeting their plan of attack, if you will. In our world, we call that building capacity. And the fact that we are now eight years in—we literally watched these organizations build these end-of-year mechanisms.
The ones who were actively engaged on Giving Tuesday are probably going to continue their fundraising through their own platforms. The goal is that we are not the only way they are trying to raise money. There are 20 million people who visit Tahoe every year. And it’s important for our nonprofits to have that muscle, to tap into the wealth and the love of this place.
Nonprofits provide a service to the community. Achieve Tahoe is getting people of all ages with disabilities outdoors and recreating. We want to be able to provide these services to our community. This is what makes us who we are as a region.
I see that you have been selected by a group called Future Good to participate in its inaugural “Field Trip to the Future.” Can you tell us about that?
This particular cohort is focused on developing “futurists“ for rural America and mountain towns. I know that Lake Tahoe sometimes is not considered rural in people's minds, but we are definitely not urban. And our work has been recognized by this organization. We were nominated by the Aspen Institute, which invited me to participate.
How is this going to manifest?
Well, you’re going to love this being a journalist: I’m on the hook to participate in this cohort for about a year, and there is an expectation that I will develop some kind of future-facing vision or framework to share back to my community. So it can be a lot of different things—a story or an article or a series of articles. I haven’t quite figured out what my medium will be.
While I have a sense of where we are heading and why I wake up every day and focus on housing and the safety net and the forest and all of these things, this is a different level of a challenge for me as a community leader and particularly a community foundation leader. I don’t think there’s any other community foundation to this cohort; it's a really diverse group of different types of stakeholders across rural America.
I can’t wait to see what you come up with, and we will certainly be talking about this again. Is there any piece of what you’re doing right now that I haven’t brought into this conversation?
The only thing missing is the context of how Give Back Tahoe fits within the bigger Community Foundation mission. You heard me say “labor of love,“ right? And it’s fully mission aligned—but the Community Foundation is so much bigger than Give Back Tahoe. We have our own grant making that we do. We facilitate grants with our donors. We also have initiative work where we are working on problems and challenges within the community that no one organization or one grant can fix.
Our initiatives right now are family strengthening—that includes things like healthcare, mental health, education, and economic well-being. The second initiative is housing—we have a housing crisis just like the rest of the country and the rest of California, but ours is unique. And this is a long game that we’re playing. And the newest is our forest initiative, in which we are looking at how to get in front of the issues that are presenting themselves with the catastrophic wildfires—but also how to turn that worst-case scenario into an opportunity by building a new forest-based economy.
Final thoughts on Give Back Tahoe?
Look, we are delighted, and there is room to grow. I’m from North Texas, and there is a North Texas giving day, and North Texas raises over $66 million on that day. So, I’m truly celebrating what we are doing in Tahoe—and I challenge people to really think about: What does Tahoe mean to them? Because I can’t go to the Bay Area and sit at a bar and not hear people next to me talking about their next trip to Tahoe. So it’s time for people to put resources behind the place they love so dearly, because there are very real challenges up here, and we are all dedicated and committed and smart and strategically aligned to address them.
NOTE: The 2021 Give Back Tahoe campaign runs through Dec. 14, at which time there will be another Challenge Grant.
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