Dozens of local youth groups participated in program's first year

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FARMINGTON — Nearly a year and a half after her community service organization, the Volunteer Incentive Program, officially was launched, board president Shantel Cooper finds herself leading a nonprofit group that is suffering from a unique problem.

It has raised more money than it has been able to give away — so much more, in fact, that, for the time being, Cooper has stopped soliciting donations and is focused on dispensing the funds the organization has on hand.

The VIP is designed to help school, youth and community groups with their fundraising efforts by raising money from local businesses and individuals, then distributing those funds to those aforementioned groups in exchange for their work on approved volunteer projects. The idea is to provide the groups with an alternative to candy bar sales or other traditional fundraising projects and putting young people to work for the improvement of the community.

It's not as if that model didn't prove to be a success in its first year, Cooper said, pointing to the dozens of local organizations that benefited from volunteer help through the VIP program, including the Special Olympics, the ECHO Food Bank, local Boys & Girls Clubs, the Sycamore Park Community Center, Childhaven and the Kiwanis Coats for Kids program.

"We had 3,000 community service hours, which I was extremely pleased with," Cooper said. "That's a big deal."

Nearly two dozen groups took advantage of the funding VIP offers, with the biggest users being student organizations from Piedra Vista and Farmington high schools. In total, those groups earned more than $18,000 for their work.

But Cooper remains a bit mystified about why her organization hasn't been flooded with requests from more groups. VIP's cash balance would allow it to help many more groups, she said, but despite her best efforts to get the word out about what the organization offers through media interviews, social media marketing and personal appearances at local schools, there haven't been as many takers as she anticipated.

"We've been more successful on our fundraising side than our distribution side," she said. "In fact, we have a board member who says, 'This is the only board I sit on where we have trouble giving away our money.' I've actually backed away from the fundraising side of it lately."

Of course, Cooper doesn't expect that situation to last for long. She hopes it's only a matter of time before the idea catches on and VIP becomes the go-to organization for youth groups that need to raise money. She acknowledged the idea behind the program is so simple it may seem too good to be true for some observers.

"We are so ingrained as a society in traditional ways of fundraising," she said, describing the mindset she has to battle in getting youth groups to understand how VIP works. "The usual ways to do that are by selling banners, ads to candy bars. We're trying something new, and changing that method is different for everybody."

Cooper noted that the response from Farmington's two biggest public high schools has been good, but many of the groups that have taken advantage of the program are smaller organizations that have a lower public profile and traditionally have struggled to raise money. She's happy to be able to offer help to groups like that, and she wishes more of them would come forward.

When the program began last year, VIP offered groups $8 for every man-hour of volunteer work performed, and groups, with some exceptions, were limited to a $500 payout. But those figures have been increased, with volunteers now being $10 per man-hour and groups allowed to receive up to $600.

Those changes are designed to make the program even more attractive. Cooper wants to see more groups across San Juan County come to VIP for funding, noting with disappointment that youth groups in Aztec and Kirtland are the only organizations outside of Farmington that have participated so far.

Cooper and other VIP board members already have been approached about expanding the program outside San Juan County, but Cooper said they want to firmly establish it here before they export it. She remains a firm believer in the project.

"I feel that the concept is solid," she said. "It will not fail unless we quit, and we will not quit."

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Besides, she argues, the ultimate success of the program can't be judged on simple figures.

"Our end goal is not to provide fundraising for kids," she said. "Our end goal is to cultivate a positive community experience for kids. That's the mission behind all this. … We want to provide a meaningful experience for kids and a meaningful experience for the community in general."

To inquire about donating to the VIP or performing a volunteer project, visit volunteerincentiveprogram.org or call 505-326-2477.

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

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