North Beach Sun Summer 2018

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community Charitocracy’s Benj Lipchak and Jessica Sands at the nonprofit’s de facto office at Waveriders in Nags Head.

the winning

gift photo by kati wilkins / story by arabella saunders

a local nonprofit is getting people to think differently about philanthropy, one vote at a time


n any given Friday on the Outer Banks, you can stroll into Waveriders Coffee, Deli & Pub in Nags Head to find local Benj Lipchak tucked away near the corner of the cafe, sitting in what he refers to as “the comfy chair” – a cushiony throne complete with beige upholstery and two oversized arm rests that can double as small desks. Amidst coffee enthusiasts and nine-to-fivers on their lunch breaks, the young entrepreneur works tirelessly on his graduate school project turned passion: Charitocracy. “About six years ago, I was working on my MBA, and I needed to do a project for a social entrepreneurship course,” Benj explains. “That’s when I came up with the idea to get a lot of people to give a small amount of money, and then vote on which charity should receive it each month. Each donor has an equal vote, no matter how much money they contribute.” Charitocracy – where charity meets democracy, and which conveniently rhymes with meritocracy – transformed from a Powerpoint presentation into reality in October 2016, when Benj decided to take a year off from his day job as a software engineer. “The hope was to engage people who aren’t used to giving – either because they’re new to it or because they don’t have a lot of money – and encourage them to become philanthropists,” Benj says. “I wanted to make it a fun experiment – it’s social, educational and convenient.” After a year filled with afternoons spent at Waveriders designing the website, and long nights 18


completing the paperwork required to become a national donation of $4 per month, Benj and Jessica have collected charity, the online crowd-curated, charity-of-the-month more than $25,000 for both local and national charities since October 2016. club was born. “Feline Hope won one time, and the Outer Banks SPCA Although Benj describes the concept behind Charitocracy as being simple, through his own strokes of program- just won this past April, because there’s a strong base of ming ingenuity, with the help of his wife, Jessica Sands (who locals voting. Other national groups have included the runs the administrative side of things as the nonprofit’s Innocence Project and NPR. There have even been some CEO), and the three other members who make up its lead- neat smaller ones like Comfort Cases, which provides bags ership board, Charitocracy is now a multifaceted operation. for foster kids who might otherwise have to carry their stuff At the beginning of each month, Charitocracy enters a around in trash bags or whatnot,” Jessica explains. “They’ve new cycle. Week one is reserved for nominations. Once a covered all kinds of things, which is really cool.” Going forward, Benj hopes to expand their nonprofit organization is nominated, it remains marketing to reach a wider audience, integrate in Charitocracy’s database for life – although it’s only eligible to win once per calendar year. “the hope was more website features, and allow for specific During week two, members vote for the regions or interest groups to create specialized Charitocracy clubs. organizations they believe the money should to engage “I think that what makes the most sense in go to at the end of the month. No matter what people who amount is pledged per month – $1 being the aren’t used to the future will be to create many local ‘mini’ minimum – each donor gets an equal vote. Charitocracys,” Benj explains. “We’d continue giving.” growing Charitocracy at the national level, but Week three marks the announcement of if, for example, we gathered a couple hundred the top 10 charities based on votes. -benj lipchak, donors from Hampton Roads, I could create “People can move their votes around, too,” a separate Hampton Roads Charitocracy, and Jessica explains. “So even if you voted for some- charitocracy thing that doesn’t make it into the top 10 for the founder then that group could concentrate on voting month, you can switch over to one that is.” for causes that are specific to their area.” For now, however, Benj and Jessica will At the start of week four, the top three nonprofits are announced, and members can then vote on a continue to focus on allowing locals and visitors alike to not winner. Once the winner is chosen, donors also have an op- only give back to national organizations, but to maintain a connection with Outer Banks nonprofits as well. tion to sweeten the pot. “When we have the winner, we give people a week to do“The beauty of being based on the Outer Banks is that nate more towards that specific cause if they want,” Jessica while a lot of locals have already gotten involved, we also says. “When the relief funds for Hurricane Harvey won, we have people who regularly come here from all over and had a lot of extra donations, and the final pot was more than still want to stay connected to this area when they’ve gone back home,” Benj says. “Our hope is that Charitocracy gives $2,000.” Today, Charitocracy boasts more than 200 members them one more way to do that – and supporting our local who are located everywhere from the Outer Banks to Sili- nonprofits sustains us in a way that simply writing a check con Valley, and many places in between. With an average and mailing it off to a faraway charity never will.”

Articles from North Beach Sun Summer 2018