Burlington organization optimizes charitable donations

BURLINGTON — When someone in the United States presses the “Send Payment” button to donate to a large charitable organization working overseas, it is difficult to track exactly how much is going to the organization’s upkeep and how much is going to on-the-ground work.
Bridging the Divide, a new, Burlington-based organization, is seeking to change all that.
The charitable-giving organization, which recently received its federal 501(c)3 status, is based on the what administrators call the “new giving” model, already prominently used by organizations like Kiva and Endeavor, which give microloans to individuals on the ground in developing countries.
While Bridging the Divide doesn’t partner with individuals, it does partner with organizations on the ground — for now, all five partner organizations are in the Middle East. And the funds that go to each organization, as well as the consulting work that Bridging the Divide provides, is not restricted — the recipient organization directs how the funds are spent, and Bridging the Divide functions as an intermediary between Americans donors and its partners.
Bridging the Divide President David Holdridge said the idea for his outfit came from years of working with larger humanitarian organizations, witnessing the inefficiencies that could be avoided and the restrictive funding that some of these organizations provided. At the same time, he was interacting with locally based overseas organizations that were doing good work but had no way of reaching a wider audience to publicize that work.
Meanwhile, he said, with the growing prominence of online giving donors giving directly to the aid organizations was becoming more widely done.
“We were coming to the conclusion that a lot of new technologies were disrupting old ways of giving,” he explained. “We saw the writing on the wall. More and more local organizations were becoming more capable.”
And though the numbers are nearly impossible to collect, Holdridge said more and more Americans are using online giving to donate directly to overseas organizations.
“An estimated 10 percent of the money Americans give overseas is now being given directly,” he said.
Holdridge, who was most recently the Middle East regional director for Mercy Corps, described Bridging the Divide as a broker in the charitable giving world. His staff vets each partner carefully, choosing among numerous locally based organizations and doing audits for financial efficiency and transparency.
“We certify that (our partners) are hard-working,” said Holdridge. “We believe enough in the causes that they’re fighting for every day, and we want to expose the American people to that heroism.”
According to Jessica Majno, the organization’s community outreach coordinator, Bridging the Divide is hoping to engage Americans in three ways: through dialog, advocacy and through donations.
As a vehicle for interaction between Americans and overseas organizations, Bridging the Divide provides some consulting services and aid with public relations, but its sole concentration is on its partners, not on any humanitarian work of its own. Thus, though it has offices in four locations — besides headquarters in Burlington, it has space in Washington, D.C.; Lebanon and Iraq — staff and operations are entirely funded by grants and donations by private foundations. This means all the donations Americans make go straight to its partner organizations.
“We don’t take any overhead from any donation that comes from an American in the United States,” Majno said. The only thing that gets subtracted, she said, is the 2 percent fee that the PayPal Internet payment service takes for processing.
Although donations through an online service like Bridging the Divide may not be in increments as large as a lump grant, Holdridge said this form of donation is far preferable to the recipient organizations.
“The volume of money is not huge, but the steadiness is important,” he said. “It’s more modest money, but it continues.”
And a fundamental piece of Bridging the Divide’s role as a vehicle for these interactions is encouraging communication between these organizations and Americans. Each of Bridging the Divide’s partners is doing work with multimedia, and in the coming months, Bridging the Divide will be working to upload the content — in the form of blogs, videos and slideshows — to its website, www.bridging-the-divide.org. Majno said her organization is planning to provide translation services for its partners, and through commenting, email and Skype, will work to connect individual Americans with the organizations.
And though the official launch of Bridging the Divide’s website was not until July 14, the organization was accepting donations, consulting and providing grants to its partners for several months before that.
One partner is ASUDA, an organization based in the Kurdish region of Iraq that fights violence against women. ASUDA, founded in 2000, coordinates training of volunteers in identifying and responding to victims of abuse, raising awareness of violence against women and of women’s rights in impoverished areas, and a offering shelter and protection to victims of social and domestic violence.
Khanim Latif, ASUDA’s director, spoke by email of the benefits that her partnership with Bridging the Divide has already had.
“BTD has provided support in writing and developing several project proposals,” she said. “In addition to this, ASUDA has received a direct grant from BTD for a project on elections awareness for women in areas that ASUDA has not widely covered in the past.”
As Bridging the Divide expands, its staff has started looking for organizations to support in Egypt, and Majno said that down the road the organization will be looking to partner with others on the African continent.
“Our goal is to try to get Americans engaged in a dialog, to start understanding how this model is the future of foreign relations,” she said.
It all comes down to the question of our roles, Majno said: roles as Vermonters, as Americans and as inhabitants of a connected world.
“Vermont is really far from Iraq, but through this model, not only can you get engaged, but you really need to,” she said. “In order for our projects to be sustainable, citizens need to be involved and engaged.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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