Birthday fundraisers emphasize charity over a ‘wish list’ |
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Patrick Varine

When he turned 28 this month, Zach Harr of Pittsburgh’s South Side was looking for something a little more lasting than birthday well-wishes on Facebook.

“I wanted to try and take advantage of that traffic and make an impact beyond just birthday messages,” he said.

Harr grew up in Delmont and has fond memories of driving around with his grandparents helping to deliver Meals on Wheels.

“They’ve volunteered in it for many, many years,” he said. “They still volunteer. So it’s something that’s kind of always been there.”

Harr set up a birthday fundraiser through the app Venmo and pledged to match up to $150 in donations for Delmont’s Meals on Wheels program. He publicized the effort to friends on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Within 24 hours, 41 friends had chipped in and, along with his match, Harr had nearly $900 to donate.

“It was fantastic,” Harr said. “For me, it was a chance to show that there are a lot of good people in the world, and you can reach out and really make a difference.”

Harr is hardly alone.

While Harr’s fundraiser was organized through Venmo, Facebook has also formalized a way to create a birthday fundraiser, and users raised more than $300 million for causes about which they are passionate, company officials said.

With 750,000 nonprofit Facebook pages, there are certainly plenty to choose from.

Since November 2017, Facebook has waived any fees associated with the fundraisers, so that 100% of the money raised goes to the designated charity. Company officials have also added a tool so users can choose to make recurring monthly donations.

Other websites, including GoFundMe and Mighty Cause, also offer ways for people to set up birthday crowdfunding campaigns.

Crowdfunding has also been a major boon for larger charitable groups like the Pittsburgh Foundation, which will issue its “Critical Needs Alert” on May 7 in hopes of soliciting crowdfunded donations for 200 nonprofits in the greater Pittsburgh area.

“I think for those of us working in philanthropy, it’s so powerful to see neighbors helping neighbors in that same tradition as Mr. Rogers,” Pittsburgh Foundation Executive Vice President Yvonne Maher said.

“If you take what (Zach) did for Meals on Wheels, and you magnify it by 200, what you have is our Critical Needs Alert,” Maher said. “We’ll announce 200 nonprofits reaching out to friends and neighbors and asking them to be part of a movement that will raise up to $2 million.

The foundation will put $788,000 of its own money toward that effort. In the past decade, the foundation has raised about $40 million.

“We’ve found a way through technology of reaching the Pittsburgh diaspora who want to give back to their community, so we’ll receive donations from all over the nation on May 7,” Maher said.

Dawn March, 27, of North Huntingdon contributed to Harr’s fundraiser. She said it’s not the first time one of the social media fundraisers caught her attention.

“I’ll be 28 soon, and I don’t really ‘need’ anything,” March said. “I feel like I’m beyond creating a ‘wish list’ for my birthday.”

For her late-April birthday, March was planning to create a fundraiser for a local dog rescue. She said the simple path to donating is also a draw in the modern social media age.

“Setting up a small fundraiser that only requires participants to click a few buttons is very appealing,” she said. “It makes giving back simple and hassle-free.”

Nick Simon, 28, of Pittsburgh, another donor to Harr’s cause, agreed.

“Everyone can see the impact of multiple people making donations, whether the amount is small or large,” Simon said.

Delmont’s Meals on Wheels program is not subsidized with any federal money, so fundraising is an important component of successfully fulfilling their goals, according to coordinator Carol Hartman.

“It means a lot,” said Hartman, 82. “Other than that, we’re only getting money from the patrons we deliver meals to. We probably spend about $2,000 per month on food.”

Maher said efforts like Harr’s are “a modern-day lemonade stand or spaghetti dinner.”

“People harness that collective spirit to take care of others,” Maher said. “Anywhere people can engage others in philanthropy is a positive thing for the community and those around us.”

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