February 16, 2012 at 1:50 pm
By Ellen Parlapiano
Growing up in a family without much money, Della Rae often lacked the basics. So as an adult, blessed with a nice home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and wanting for nothing, Della was eager to share what she had with the less fortunate. However, to her surprise, it wasn’t easy. The scenario is common, she says. For instance, you have an old sofa bed or extra set of dishes in good condition. You want to give it to someone in need, but you can’t find a local organization to actually connect you with such a person. So the stuff sits in your attic or garage, benefitting no one. This challenge led Della, 43, to launch DonorsResource.org, a website that makes giving simple. Currently serving the Portland metro area and southwest Washington but aiming to expand nationwide, the site enables potential givers to search by zip code to connect with local nonprofit organizations. Wannabe donors can also list what they have for nonprofits to claim. “We help donors and nonprofits find each other,” says the single mom of Simon, age 12, and Sarah, 10.
It’s the site she wanted back in October 2005. Still married at the time and a stay-at-home mom, Della had sold a weekend home and had, among other things, boxes of no-longer-needed kitchenware and bed linens. She called her sister, Deborah Waggoner, to see if she knew a place that would take the stuff off her hands. Deborah had no clue and mentioned that she had a stockpile too. Della asked friends from the Lake Oswego Mothers Club, but they also had castoffs they couldn’t find homes for. “We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we combined everything and got it directly to a disadvantaged family,” Della says.
None of the big-name charities she phoned was willing to take it all. Then she thought back to her volunteer work years with the Childrens Community Clinic in Portland, which serves disadvantaged community members. Della figured the clinic’s staff was bound to know of a family that could benefit from her hand-me-downs. She called and learned about a victim of domestic abuse who had escaped in the middle of the night with her three small children. They had relocated to Portland with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and were living with the woman’s parents in a one-bedroom apartment while they awaited public housing. Certainly they could use whatever Della and Deborah could drum up.
The sisters got busy. They made a list of what they already had, then gathered additional necessities from generous pals. “The response was amazing,” she says. Within days, Della’s living room was piled high with furniture, clothing, toiletries, small appliances—whatever the family might need to set up a household they could be proud of. Once the woman had her own place, Della and Deborah loaded everything into a van and delivered it to her doorstep. “It was so emotional,” says Della. “The grandparents were there, the children were wide-eyed as we lugged in toys and furniture, and we were all crying and hugging each other. I’ll never forget it.” On the way home, the sisters were so moved they drove for two miles in silence. Finally, Della turned to Deborah and said, “We’re going to keep doing this, right?” And so Sisters of the Community, the nonprofit that eventually morphed into DonorsResource.org, was born that November afternoon in 2005.
While an attorney friend helped them file for official nonprofit status, Della and Deborah collected more basics for other needy families suggested by the clinic. Word spread quickly throughout the neighborhood, and before long it became clear they would need a warehouse. The Lake Oswego Mothers Club spearheaded fundraisers so that the sisters could afford to rent an $850-per-month distribution center. There, the shelves filled up so quickly that Della and Deborah realized they’d better expand their reach to additional nonprofits if they wanted to get everything distributed.
Della began contacting local social service organizations, telling them about Sisters of the Community and its mission. She also streamlined the claims process by developing checklists that agencies could use to indicate what families needed. Caseworkers filled out the forms and faxed or e-mailed them to Della, who would then pack up care packages with the help of friends and family. Simon and Sarah, 6 and 4 at the time, pitched in too, adding their own toys and outgrown clothing to the boxes. Within 18 months, Sisters of the Community had distributed more than 20,000 items.
However, changes were necessary. Deborah had to find a full-time paying job. Della had gotten divorced and was preparing to run the organization solo. The distribution center model, though working well, left Della too busy to bring more nonprofits into the loop. A solution came to her one sleepless night: a virtual warehouse, meaning a website where nonprofits could list their needs and individuals could log on to find where to donate things. “I wouldn’t need to pay for a storage center or pack boxes any longer, and I’d have more time to spend on publicity and fundraising,” says Della. Taking the organization online would also enable Della to eventually connect donors and nonprofits nationwide—her dream. So she temporarily stopped taking new donations, distributed what was left and closed the warehouse in October 2007. In April 2008, she relaunched as DonorsResource.org, “It truly takes a village to pull something like this off,” says Della, thankful for the friends and neighbors who provided legal, accounting and other professional services pro bono. The head of a local credit union even wrote a $5,000 check to help cover the cost of the database and website development.
To date, 350 nonprofits in the Northwest have registered on the site. And local companies have joined the cause: A publisher gave seven crates of books to women’s shelters; the Oregon 150 committee (created to celebrate the state’s 150th anniversary) donated its office furnishings to several nonprofits after closing. More than 45,000 items have been distributed, and a nationwide program is in the works.
The Personal Touch
While it might seem that an online system makes giving less personal, that’s not so, says Della. “You might log on to our site and find out that the church around the corner needs blankets for its homeless shelter. Then you and your family can go over and drop them off.” Maybe your high-school-age daughter has an old prom dress. DonorsResource.org can connect her with Abby’s Closet, a nonprofit that collects gowns for giveaways. If there’s no opportunity for a face-to-face connection, many nonprofits can at least tell you who will benefit from your offering. A woman looking to donate her mother’s couch after her death learned that was the last piece of furniture needed by another mom in order to regain custody of her children. “I’m so proud of the difference we’ve made in our community,” Della says.
As for fundraising, that happens on a grassroots level too. When the organization needed $7,000 to revamp its website, she called and wrote to all her friends and past supporters, requesting that they contribute and spread the word. That brought in about $3,000. Then she launched a monthlong Della-thon on Facebook, which generated $800 in the first week alone. A local funder stepped in with the rest. “People are so willing to give—you just have to ask,” she says. With everyone’s help, DonorsResource.org was able to raise enough capital to overhaul the website and make it more functional.
But there was one more obstacle to overcome. “We needed more hands on deck to achieve all I envisioned,” she says. She established a unique internship program with the students at Portland’s Riverdale High. In exchange for community service credit, 10 teens have assumed leadership roles in the organization, handling everything from Web design to social media, under Della’s supervision. They’ve already produced a video, organized events and set up a Facebook page and Twitter feed. Now they’re working on increasing community awareness and bringing nonprofits into the fray. “These interns are getting things done,” says Della. “Before they came, I felt like I was moving granules of salt. Now we’re moving salt mines!” Sometimes you have to be willing to step back and let people help you meet goals you can’t accomplish alone, she adds. “Even in these bleak economic times, there is so much that can be giv-en, says Della. There are outgrown cribs and strollers sitting in garages, while there are moms who have no equipment for their babies. Down-sized offices are throwing out furniture when vocational training programs could benefit from those desks. I hope to inspire people to look into their closets, attics and toy boxes, and think about paying it forward.”
Watch to learn more about DonorsResource.org: