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Action figure Eric Schnell shows path to good work, new meaning

headshotEric.jpgBy Adam Overland

In a time of economic downturn, the success of a burgeoning charitable organization might seem unlikely. But University of Minnesota staff member and LearningLife "action figure" Eric Schnell is seeking to turn the tide of generosity, one dollar at a time.

At the U, Schnell is chief administrative and information officer of the Office for Equity and Diversity, whose mission is to infuse the core values of equity and diversity into all aspects of teaching, learning, research, service, and outreach at the University. Schnell devotes much of his spare time to a volunteer fundraising organization he began, called www.PositiveChange.com.

The organization's mission is to alleviate poverty by raising large numbers of small donations. Its core message suggests donating just 99 cents. The money raised through PositiveChange.com is funneled to Keystone Community Services, a nonprofit organization managing three food shelves in St. Paul.

In essence, PositiveChange is a group of foot soldiers canvassing their contacts. So far, the membership consists of dozens of University employees and their friends and family members. "It's past and present colleagues," Schnell says. But with those people on Facebook and Twitter, Schnell hopes word will spread fast. He would like the organization to eventually become a vast network of "micro-philanthropists."

A big inspiration for Schnell's Web site was the micro-loan concept at www.kiva.org. That site allows people in developed countries to loan small amounts of start-up capital for funding entrepreneurial projects in less developed countries, so that people can lift themselves out of poverty. "But there are certain problems that don't lend themselves to loans, and so we thought those could be helped with a micro-philanthropy approach," says Schnell, who notes that over 50 percent of adult food shelf visitors in Minnesota are currently employed--they're just not earning a living wage. "We can't give them a loan--they're already in a deficit mode. They need help now," he says.

At the May 16 LearningLife Fest, Schnell will be part of an "action figure" panel discussion of paths to volunteerism and community engagement. The discussion will be led by former St. Paul mayor and Senior Corps director Jim Scheibel.

In addition to Schnell and Scheibel, panelists include Pastor Rod Anderson, who leads a rapid-action job networking group that has served more than 13,500 people over the past 21 years; Cindy Moeller, a former human resources executive, who founded and is the current board chair for Yinghau Academy charter school; and Bob Viking, former CEO of the Saint Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation, who is now development and marketing director for Great River Greening, an organization that leads and supports community-based restoration of natural areas.

Of his own volunteer experience, Schnell says, "The extraordinary times we're living in make me acutely aware of my own privilege--working at the University, having healthy kids--and I feel a certain responsibility." His two sons have even gotten involved in the project. "They've kicked in some of their own money--they each have a spending, a saving, and a giving bank. It's teaching them the intrinsic rewards of giving," he says.

Eventually, Schnell would like to leverage technology and provide real-time feedback to donors. If they raise money for a city school, for example, then the minute the concrete hits the form, donors would receive an e-mailed picture or text message. "I don't know that donating has always felt good for people who just put a few coins in a jar. And I want to make it feel just as valuable as giving a hundred bucks and with the technology today, we ought to be able to do that," says Schnell.

A version of this story originally appeared in Brief, a publication of UMNews.

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