Scarp: For charities, innovation can start with a pencil - East Valley Tribune: Columns

Scarp: For charities, innovation can start with a pencil

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

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Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 9:37 am | Updated: 7:23 pm, Fri Mar 29, 2013.

We learned in school about the inventors such as Edison and Bell who parlayed their inventions into fortunes, of the great capitalists of the Gilded Age such as Rockefeller and Carnegie and Morgan who took great risks on their way to becoming titans of industry.

Comparatively few of us remember the titans of charity and the millions and millions of dollars they and their associates raised for the benefit of the less fortunate.

But the history books have their stories: Clara Barton, nurse and teacher, and others founded the American Red Cross. The Rev. Edgar Helms and his Methodist congregation’s picking up rich Boston-area residents’ tossed-out items and training the poor to fix them for resale was the beginning of Goodwill Industries.

Life in this country would be vastly different without these giants or most any charity. They are testimony to the daily fact that despite America’s underlying philosophy that everyone has a shot to become rich, famous, president — and if your last name happened to be Kennedy or Bush, all three — many of us begin life’s race a couple miles behind the official starting line.

Charities help bring those in the rear farther forward. Ultimately we must start running by ourselves to compete in that race. But for some the opportunity to even compete was given them by charitable people. These caring people are not only possessed of warm hearts but of intolerance of how so many otherwise deserving individuals lack access to a fair shot at success.

At the Tempe Center for the Arts on Tuesday a competition featured Arizona charities hoping to score five-figure amounts of donated cash, nicknamed “American Idol with a Soul.”

Sponsored by Social Venture Partners Arizona, the event, called Fast Pitch, gave each of the eight finalists three minutes to impress a panel of judges who were successful in both for-profit and non-profit worlds.

Each three-minute monologue was polished and energetic. Most of the speeches squeezed your heart. Two finalists, AZ Common Ground and Tiger Mountain Foundation, work with released prisoners and families who suffer from the effects of their loved ones’ incarceration. One said their efforts reduced recidivism rates of about four in five among unaided released inmates down to less than one in 30 among those they have been able to help.

Another group, One n Ten, counsels and helps young people of different sexual orientations. Its spokesman, Micheal Weakly, talked about the strong link between bullying and suicide among young people, particularly LGBT kids, nine out of 10 of whom are harassed every single day of their lives.

Another contestant, representing ACT Inc., which raises funds for arts education in an era of school budget cuts, began to choke up as he talked about how lost he an arts-emphasized curriculum. “The arts saved my life,” James Porter said through tears.

It was Treasures 4 Teachers, a Tempe-based group that equips schools with school supplies that dried up in the school budget crisis, that touched me — and it seems the judges — the most, because it won the top prize of the evening.

According to the event program, executive director Barbara Blalock started picking up discarded office supplies from various companies and contributors and stored them in her garage to hand out in preschools. The impetus was the story she told Tuesday’s audience of a preschooler’s asking her teacher for a pencil.

Pencils were so preciously few that the teacher, who bought them herself, couldn’t afford to have small children lose them, so she asked the little girl to untie her shoe and leave it in exchange for the pencil until she was ready to return it, a sure way to make sure the girl wouldn’t forget, Blalock said. (Are you listening, state legislators?)

Maybe from that single pencil could spring another titan of charity?

Fast Pitch grew from 175 attendees at its first event in 2011 to more than 500 today, each paying ticket prices starting at $65 for the chance to gain wisdom from these innovators. Social Venture Partners Arizona executive director Terri Wogan said people in business, as well as people generally, are hungry for ideas.

The crowd was satisfied enough that in addition to what was raised as prize money before the competition, $60,000 was raised Tuesday night from impressed donors, Wogan said.

Fast Pitch is “a good conversation starter for some serious discussions. It asks who’s out there changing the world,” she said. Non-profits have to think more creatively today to survive, Wogan said, which is why competitions like hers attract contestants and interested businesspeople.

“I hope that this is not a one-night event but one that is helping people build skills for a long time to come.”

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