Volunteer Incentive Program looks to make splash in first year with nonprofit status

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FARMINGTON — Shantel Cooper, the president of the Volunteer Incentive Program, isn't naïve enough to think her newly formed local nonprofit organization is going to singlehandedly change the way school and community groups go about conducting their fundraising campaigns.

But she certainly expects it to make a significant difference.

"This could replace a portion of their fundraising," she said of the VIP, which raises money from local businesses and individuals, then disburses it to groups or individuals at the rate of $8 a man-hour for work on approved volunteer projects. "It's not going to replace every means of fundraising, but it is going to make a real positive impact."

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Cooper's confidence stems from the fact that, for the past two years, she and her husband Ireke of Cooper Fire Protection Services Inc., and George and Melissa Sharpe of Merrion Oil & Gas have been funding such an effort on an informal basis to the tune of $15,000 a year. Cooper credits the Sharpes for coming up with the idea for the program and said they have been offering money to local groups for volunteer work for much longer than the two years she and her husband joined them.

The Sharpes and the Coopers made their project official in February, when the VIP earned its nonprofit status. The beginning of the new school year in August essentially marks a coming-out party for the organization. Cooper is eager to see the program make a splash over the next several months.

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"I envision a place where businesses can make an annual donation," she said, explaining how her family business, along with many others in San Juan County, routinely finds itself deluged with requests for monetary donations from a variety of student or community organizations at the onset of each new school year.

Instead of supporting those student programs piecemeal by buying the candy bars, donuts, wrapping paper or other items they are selling, Cooper said the VIP affords young people the chance to raise up to $500 for their group by working on a volunteer project in the community.

"Now, businesses (that donate to the program) can say, 'If you want to access our funds, go to the VIP," Cooper said.

She said many local business owners and individuals have expressed to her that they feel overwhelmed by the number of requests for help they receive from student or community groups, though they hate to turn them down. And the young people representing those groups often feel enormous pressure to sell those products, Cooper said.

The VIP aims to address both sides of that issue. Instead of raising money through the sale of sugar-laden products, the program deals in a currency of community improvement — and that's the best thing about it, she said.

"It teaches kids how to earn the money for their program," Cooper said. "It teaches them community pride. And it relieves the pressure on everybody. Now, businesses don't have to choose and pick (which groups to support).

"I think it also provides them with a double return on their investment," she said. "It's helping kids, and the money gets reinvested in the community. And it's creating a great pool of volunteer help in the community."

The process for accessing the funds is straightforward. The group's website, volunteerincentiveprogram.org, features an electronic application that any interested group or individual must complete. There is also a portal on the website that lists organizations or programs that need volunteer help, so matching willing volunteers with needy groups is relatively simple.

Once the work has been performed, the sponsor of the volunteer group and a representative of the organization that benefited from the work complete more paperwork cataloging and verifying the number of man-hours worked. They then sign off on the project and submit the electronic paperwork back to the VIP, which promptly makes the appropriate donation to the volunteer group.

 

Over the past two years, groups have volunteered on behalf of such organizations as the Special Olympics and Boys & Girls Clubs of Farmington. But Cooper emphasized that other groups develop their own community-improvement projects, such as the students of a local dance studio who taught free dance lessons at a community center to buy costumes for one of their productions.

While there is a $500 limit for most groups participating in the program, Cooper noted that there are exceptions for larger organizations, such as local high school football programs that must raise as much as $75,000 a year to meet their budget. If a business wishes to designate a larger donation to the VIP for the benefit of one of those groups, say $10,000, Cooper said her organization is happy to facilitate that.

The program is based in Farmington but is intended to serve all of San Juan County, and Cooper said the organization's board already includes or is looking for members from various communities. She hopes that will encourage business owners or individuals to donate to the program for the benefit of everyone.

"I would love to raise $100,000, and I would love to give every single penny of it out," she said, explaining that she believes there are some great lessons young people can learn from volunteering as part of the VIP.

"I'm really excited about it, and I think it has great potential," she said. "I personally can't find any negatives to it, and I think the people who get involved in this really enjoy themselves. You don't want to turn down kids."

Call Cooper at 505-326-2477 or email volunteerincentiveprogtram@yahoo.com for more information.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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