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Philanthropic Bartenders Making Waves in Communities

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"No matter what your career is, there's a way that everyone can incorporate giving into the fabric of their daily life." -- Hilary Krishnan, 27

When Brian Floyd decided to donate his tips from a shift of bartending at The Vanderbilt in Brooklyn, N.Y. to tsunami relief in early 2011, he had no idea what this selfless act would inspire. Less than two years later, 25-40 bartenders across 3 cities donate tips monthly through The Barman's Fund and then use the collective earnings to give back to their communities. Together, they have raised and distributed more than $119,000 through this unconventionally impactful charitable fund.

The Barman's Fund is currently applying for 501c3 status, but their self-made rules for giving will not change. They -- the bartenders who have donated a shift -- together seek out local organizations that have an immediate, apparent need, and then they fill that need as soon as money is raised. Politics are out, as are charities that deal with non-people causes like pets or the environment. Having some infrastructure, generally evidenced by 501c3 status, is a must, and if at all possible, they try to not to give money; instead, the bartenders used raised funds to purchase what an organization needs.

Sammi Francis, 25, who heads the Charlotte, NC chapter of the Fund shared that her favorite gift was a carload of living items (toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, socks, underwear, etc.) worth more than $1,000 that she delivered to a local men's shelter. "The feeling I get from dropping off the donations is better than any amount of money you could give me," she shared, "and it's because you can actually see how appreciative the people getting the gift are, how much it means to them."

The premise of The Barman's Fund is that everyone can make a positive difference in their communities, from the participating bartenders to the customers in their bars. Most of the bartenders are millennials, as are most of the bar patrons. It's therefore not surprising that bartenders join because they hear about it through their friends, and that many of the ideas for donations come from conversations about what people do or needs they hear of. In Sammi's case, she was inspired to start the Charlotte chapter after visiting New Orleans and accompanying her brother's girlfriend Holly, the NOLA chapter leader, in shopping for and then delivering goods to a women's shelter. She was hooked, even after learning that the 'grantmaking and giving' component is like holding a part time job.

Gifts including a new stove for Grow Dat Youth Farm's teaching kitchen, new cribs for the CHIPS Maternity Shelter in Brooklyn, and back-to-school supplies for kids in shelters through the Coalition for the Homeless were all sourced from opportunities that the involved bartenders noticed in their communities. Sometimes, too, the gifts are sourced from formal or informal letters of inquiry, like the Bed, Bath & Beyond gift cards to teens aging out of foster care that were purchased two days after Floyd received a compelling letter of need from another bartender's wife, who works with this population. The Barman's Fund mobilizes the personal networks and skills of the people involved not just in their giving but also in developing their brand; the website, graphic design, publicity, and even sometimes the beer are donated by people who believe in the mission of giving back.

A common reason that people in general don't donate is that they don't know where the money goes or if it will make a difference. But, "with trust in the bartenders' judgment and energy as a guiding factor," Hilary Krishnan explains, "people get excited that they can do something without spending an evening volunteering in a soup kitchen, so they donate a lot more." When they ask where the money is going or how the donation the last month was received (and ask they do!), bartenders like Hilary, Sammi, and Floyd are able to share anecdotes that make the donors feel more connected. People feel involved and come back to give in future shifts. The bartenders, too, become consistently involved and stalwart supporters. Michael Sternfeld, 28, was onboard from the second ever Barman's Fund shift, and shared his amazement at how nearly every shift in Brooklyn has other involved bartenders from neighboring bars in attendance; even though they're already giving back, they want to give back more. Michael has honed his awareness of groups in need through The Barman's Fund: "Teens in foster care, for instance, is a demographic that I've spent very little time talking about. But, what a gift to help create a network of support; I see now how valuable that was."

As Sammi put it, the concept of The Barman's Fund is "mind-blowingly simple." It is absolutely simpler than the process of reading proposals, having meetings and site visits, approvals in formal board meetings, and requesting reports, as many philanthropic entities do. But this divergence from traditional giving is working and has greater potential to spread its philanthropy both directly and indirectly. Bartenders who move, including Floyd, who is headed to Austin in 2013, plan to grow the Fund in their new cities. As capacity grows with the addition of more cities and bartenders, they can take on larger projects, like the recent gift of a $15,000 colposcope for the free clinic at the Mt Sinai Adolescent Health Center. They will also hopefully be able to secure some sponsorship to plan events. They are also spreading a culture of giving just by advertising Barman's Fund shifts and letting people know that they can be involved in giving just by grabbing a beer.

We don't typically think of bartenders as the face of philanthropy, but The Barman's Fund is a cause I'll drink to for sure. You should too.