Another Sign That Crowdsourcing Input on Grantmaking Is Catching On Among Funders

In case you’re not familiar with Wawa Inc., this is the East Coast chain of convenience store/gas stations that takes a pretty interesting approach to philanthropy. The company launched its philanthropic arm, the Wawa Foundation, in 2014, and has an ambitious goal of giving $50 million to health, hunger, and everyday heroes over the next five years.

Like many corporate funders, Wawa gives back to the communities it operates in: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Florida. But it recently made a big commitment to nonprofits in Greater Philadelphia that caught our attention. And the interesting part is that it used crowdsourcing to make the final decision.

The purpose of Wawa’s Hero Award is to recognize a local nonprofit committed to serving the Greater Philadelphia area through freedom, safety, learning and civic engagement. Rather than leaving the final grantmaking decision up to a board or staff, Wawa turned to the public for advice after narrowing the list down to four Philadelphia nonprofits. The finalists were Veterans Multi-Service Center Philadelphia, Special People in the Northeast (SPIN), Best the Streets Wrestling Program of Philadelphia, and Philadelphia READS. Voting was open for just 10 days, from June 20-29.

The Wawa Foundation launched its Hero Award program during the city’s Independence Day festivities by presenting the award in front of a large crowd gathered around Independence Hall on July 4.

After tallying up over 11,500 votes from people in the region, SPIN was announced as the winning nonprofit. This group provides services for adults and children who have developmental, intellectual, and autism spectrum disabilities. The other groups focused on literacy, youth development and local veterans’ transitions. But in general, Wawa’s heroes program supports crisis responders, military personnel, veterans, police officers and local firefighters.

Of course, the obvious problem with a crowdsourcing approach that involves a public voting system is that the winners may well be whoever gets most organized about getting their supporters to cast ballots. (How many times has a friend pleaded with you to vote for this or that in some online contest?)

Regardless, this is another example of a local funder looking to the community for input in allocating grants. We've written about a couple of others, like the Chicago Community Trust.

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We should note that in this case, all four groups won something. Spin is receiving a $50,000 grant and the other three groups $10,000 each. There were over 300 submissions from nonprofits in the Philadelphia area that were narrowed down to these four. So clearly, this whole crowdsourcing thing is really getting the word out about grant opportunities for a foundation that’s just two years old.

Not only is this Wawa’s grant grantmaking program interesting because of the crowdsourcing approach, but also because of its focus on nonprofit leaders as heroes. Although many of the men and women running our local nonprofits certainly are heroes in our minds, this isn’t language we often hear in the foundation world.

However, we certainly don’t expect all of Wawa’s grantmaking efforts to be subject to public votes. Wawa’s health program broadly encompasses the healthcare needs of people in six East Coast states. And its hunger program is all about raising funds for local food banks and donating food so that these residents’ basic needs are met.

Nonprofits can submit letters of inquiry for regional and national grants, sponsorships for charitable events and in-kind donations (like gift baskets and product donations) online with a very simple support request form. You should hear back within a couple weeks whether you’ve been approved or denied. Talk about efficiency!

As of the last figures available in April 2016, the Wawa Foundation had contributed more than $23.4 total of its $50 million five-year goal, with $2.4 million awarded in the year to date.