Philanthropitch, like ‘Shark Tank’ for charity

Think of it as a Shark Tank for philanthropy.

You get a few nonprofits with ideas for projects that need funding, add a couple of the Austin area’s most successful business people as judges and up to a $100,000 in cash prizes, and you’ve got yourself a show.

Oh, and did we mention the 400 people in the audience watching your every move?

That is a snapshot of Philanthropitch, a fast-pitch competition for Austin nonprofits that need help turning their social program ideas into realities. The third annual event will be held at the Zach Theatre on Monday from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are sold out.

The event is put on as part of Build-A-Sign’s charitable giving programs, said Chelsea Woodhead, chief people officer at the company.

“We thought, let’s do it in a way that brings our friends along to play and let’s really highlight the incredible things that Austin nonprofits are doing,” Woodhead said. “Those pieces percolated and we had this really exciting idea of doing a fast-pitch competition.”

The competition may be exciting to the audience, but it can be nerve-racking for some participants, especially when the judges include top officials from Austin staples such as Tiff’s Treats, Deep Eddy Vodka, Amy’s Ice Cream and the Alamo Drafthouse.

As the chief executive of one of the oldest charity groups in Central Texas, Tod Marvin is comfortable speaking in front of large crowds. But usually those crowds aren’t full of 400 people who determine whether or not you win the “Audience Award” and there isn’t an ominous clock ticking down your remaining time.

“I tried to bribe every staff person I could to do it,” said Marvin, the CEO of Easter Seals of Central Texas. “But I ended up being the guy.”

But he didn’t fare too badly. Easter Seals won the top prize at the event last year, raking in $53,000 and was accepted into the Greenlights Accelerator program, which helps nonprofits improve their proposals.

For Easter Seals’ proposal to create a residential landscaping business that employs people with disabilities, the accelerator program took a business plan that would have taken three years to break even and turned it into one that is expected to break even by June.

“They really committed to teaching us. It was invaluable,” Marvin said. “We knew what we wanted to do, but the way we wanted to go about it did a complete 360 by the time we came out of the accelerator.”

After the nonprofits make their three-minute pitch, they have a question-and-answer segment with the judges, who deliver instant feedback as they contemplate which group or groups to donate their own cash awards to. Participants in the contest say that feedback is sometimes as valuable as the cash prizes, but judges say they also get a benefit from the event.

“When they get up and speak, they’re so passionate about what they believe in and it comes through a lot,” said Leon Chen, CEO and co-founder of Tiff’s Treats. “It actually inspires me a little watching the different styles of presentations and presenters.”

And even if an organization doesn’t bring in thousands of dollars from the competition, they at least get the exposure to an auditorium full of people who previously did not know about their group.

“Just to see a theater full of 400 people who all … give up an entire night of their life and pay money to hear a bunch of nonprofits talk about what they do speaks really well about Austin and how we care about causes that serve the community,” Marvin said. “For someone who’s been in the nonprofit world for 23 years, I really appreciated the new approach.”

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