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Philanthropitch aims to turn Austin into 'social innovation capital'

When I first sat down with Dan Graham and his team to talk about his newest venture, the philanthropically inclined Notley Fund, he told me his dream was to make Austin the “social innovation capital of the world.”

With its booming tech industry, its growing population and the giving nature of its residents, Austin is the perfect city to leverage its business capital, its wealth of nonprofits and the entrepreneurial nature of the city to become a leader in the philanthropic field, he said.

His goal, Graham said, was to get people to recognize Austin not just as the “live music capital of the world,” but also the “social innovation capital of the world.”

I let him in on a little journalistic secret: “If you say it enough times to a reporter, someone is bound to pick up on it.”

And I’ve got to say, Graham and his team are really great note-takers. At last week’s Philanthropitch competition, during which the Notley Fund awarded $139,000 to eight nonprofits, the Notley Fund team and its partners used the term “social innovation capital of the world” more times than I could count.

And they’re not just blowing hot air. In its four years, Philanthropitch, which is now run out of the Notley Fund and was previously run out of Graham’s BuildASign company, has given away more than half a million dollars to help advance the missions of 38 area nonprofits.

The group’s other philanthropic competition, Startup Games, which brings together businesses to compete for charity in Olympic-style competition of everyday games like Mario Kart, ping pong and Jenga, has raised $265,000 for nonprofits. And both of those programs are expanding outside of Austin. Philanthropitch will have its first event outside of Central Texas in Atlanta next month, and Startup Games will be in the Denver/Boulder area in Colorado this year.

But Philanthropitch plays a special role in Notley’s plan. Not only does it highlight local nonprofits and introduce them to a room full of hundreds of people who may not have otherwise heard about the work they do, it also funds their forward-looking projects.

This year’s projects included pitches for helping to grow nonprofit models that are working in Austin beyond the Central Texas areas — some were even looking to grow internationally. Other groups, like Goodwill Central Texas, aimed to keep their impact right here in our backyard and tackle a huge problem in our community: lack of technical training for available jobs.

Past projects have already succeeded. Last year’s big winner, the Multicultural Refugee Coalition, launched Open Arms, the nonprofit’s business venture that provides refugees work that pays living wages by making clothing apparel and sewn goods. After its participation in Philanthropitch last year, Open Arms partnered with Ikea and became its first social enterprise venture in the United States.

And this year, Open Arms was back on the Philanthropitch stage, this time as a partner for one of this year’s competitors, Circle of Health International, which was pitching a reusable cloth diaper business venture to help support its mission working with women in areas of humanitarian crisis.

Those are just some of the ideas that get thrown around at Philanthropitch. To give you a better taste, the American-Statesman will profile each of the participant’s in this year’s competition.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll start thinking of Austin as the “social innovation capital of the world,” too.

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