Get Out and Give Back: Alexandria in ACTion

by WL Author

ACTion Alexandria does some fierce civic engagement in the country’s most online giving city.
By Jane Hess Collins

Cassie McLaughlin, Janet Gartlan and Kendall Gartlan at the 2010 ACT for Alexandria Generations of Giving Gala. This year's gala is May 5.

Remember when posting credit card information online was edgy and controversial? Neither do I. Now meet ACTion Alexandria – the hyper-engaged, hyper-grassroots outreach arm of Alexandria’s ACT for Alexandria community foundation.

Alexandrians are generous. So generous, in fact, that online-giving giant Convio has ranked Alexandria as its most generous online-giving city for the last three years. (Arlington has come in third for the last two years, with Cambridge, MA, wedging itself in second place).

As ACTion Alexandria’s community manager, Tracy Viselli knows of the city’s generosity firsthand. Her job is to get ACTion Alexandria “out there in the community and be a source of information and news, and to mobilize people to increase their civic engagement and philanthropy,” with philanthropy defined broadly from volunteering to fundraising.

That puts Viselli on the Alexandria road, meeting with nonprofits to identify their needs, with community groups to promote outreach and involvement, and with sponsors for funding. A huge part of her role is web-based.  “We’re trying to use technology to grow this online community that goes out and does things in the community,” she explained.

Viselli views ACTion Alexandria as different from traditional community foundation outreach models because its approach is more grassroots/bottom-up driven, relying on citizen engagement rather than traditional dependency on organizations and donors.

To test its grassroots effectiveness, Viselli and the ACT for Alexandria team identified four urgent needs among Alexandria’s nonprofits in conjunction with the ACTion Alexandria launch on February 7. For each of the four weeks following the launch, one need was featured on the ACTion Alexandria website, through its Facebook page and Twitter, challenging viewers to give.

Result?  Through tweets, Facebook shares and website visits, Alexandrians and their online friends surpassed each week’s goal by 100 to 400 percent through online giving, Amazon Wish Lists and drop-offs of the requested items. That translates to:

– Three months of after-school snacks for its kids staying at the Carpenter’s Shelter
– 320 single servings of Pedialyte for infant patients at the Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services
– Food for 2400 people during ALIVE’s Last Saturday food distribution
– Almost 2500 diapers for children staying at Community Lodgings

Guess there’s something to that online engagement.

ACTion Alexandria faces its biggest challenge May 5 – 7 during Spring for Alexandria, the city’s annual giving event. In addition to the service, celebration and summits, ACTion Alexandria is adding on-line giving to the mix through Spring2ACTion. With the help of Razoo, donors can search by charity, neighborhood or cause. Through Spring2ACTion, Viselli hopes ACTion Alexandria can help local nonprofits raise $100,000 for Alexandria’s needs by the end of the weekend, and the site has a several prizes built in to draw donations.

A two-year initiative of ACT for Alexandria, ACTion Alexandria is funded by the city of Alexandria, the Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge grant and the Bruhn-Morris Foundation. University of Maryland experts in building online communities and public/private collaborations are assessing the impact of the grassroots-driven focus.

Viselli, meanwhile, wants ACTion Alexandria to be “the cool thing to do”   and to earn its reputation as a trusted resource and connector of people-a one-stop shopping place where Alexandrians go to make a difference.

Cool indeed.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow Get Out and Give Back on Facebook, Twitter and her website.

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