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GCI uses its digital muscle to help non-profits

With Valentine’s Day as a backdrop and 12 Alaskan non-profits in attendance, GCI officially unveiled a new program of giving that they have quietly been piloting over the past year.

“Alaska is in a recession and we know that sometimes it can be harder for non-profits to raise enough funds in that kind of economic climate. So, while we typically donate $2 million each year in products, services and in-kind donations, we really wanted to find a way to help elevate the profile of these organizations,” explained GCI’s Senior Director of Corporate Communications, Heather Handyside.

At the heart of GCI’s new program is an effort to leverage their brand power to create major awareness campaigns for selected non-profits.

“Each month we will feature a new non-profit and they will receive a number of things including: a cash donation and matching funds for products sold in our store, digital signage in our stores across the state, promotion on our Facebook page that has over 64,000 followers and we will also be encouraging our employees to volunteer at that particular organization,” said Handyside.

The inaugural program beneficiaries are: The Salvation Army, The American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Red Cross of Alaska, Alaska SeaLife Center, USO, Camp Fire, Special Olympics, Covenant House, GCI Suicide Prevention Grant recipients through the Alaska Community Foundation, Making Strides for Breast Cancer and Food Bank of Alaska.

When selecting which non-profits to support this year, GCI wanted to ensure it had a wide range of non-profits that serve the entirety of the Alaskan community.

“We wanted to make sure that we selected non-profits that we have a successful history with and ones that really resonate with our employees. We also tried to recognize organizations that have a statewide reach because GCI has employees across the state and serve 240 communities throughout Alaska. So, for us, it didn’t really make sense to sponsor an Anchorage or a Bethel non-profit for this particular program,” continued Handyside.

When looking at the list of recipients, there is one organization that seems to stand out from the rest – Alaska SeaLife Center. Although the SeaLife Center isn’t working to cure disease or provide housing to the homeless, according to their President and CEO Tara Reimer, their mission is just as impactful.

“Some of our board members get really annoyed when people call us an aquarium because we are so much more than that,” explained Reimer. “We look at the aquarium as an education initiative because it is such a great way to get children involved and excited about science. But the aquarium really is only one part of what we do.”

Currently, the SeaLife Center is the only permanent marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility in the state. In 2017 alone, the center rescued 9 marine mammals including four seals and a beluga whale. While the main goal is to rehabilitate, and re-release rescued animals back into the wild, that isn’t always possible and that leaves the center with some pretty hefty bills.

“There are some programs, like our wildlife response program, that are entirely funded by donations. We do apply for some grants, but they are typically very small so that program in particular would not exist if we didn't have charitable contributions both big and small,” said Reimer.

Unfortunately, for non-profits like the SeaLife Center that have a business side to their operation, it can be hard for the public to see the need to donate.

“The Foraker Group here in Alaska has a saying that 'nonprofit is a tax status not a business strategy.' As nonprofits we are trying to promote a mission but often times, the cost of having the doors open and paying rent for the facility is greater than the cost of the services we provide. For us, it may look like we are a for profit enterprise because we charge admission but if you added up all the costs associated with just being an aquarium, we wouldn't be able to survive as a for profit business – our electrical bill alone is $500,000 a year!”

This is where GCI’s giving program can make a truly significant difference in the lives of these non-profits. By elevating the public profile of their selected organizations, GCI is also cueing the community in to how a non-profit functions. It’s easy to overlook the cost of having employees to run day-to-day operations, or the overhead associated with having a brick and mortar headquarter. There’s also the cost associated with the transient nature of non-profit employees who are especially prone to burn out.

But GCI’s charitable contributions aren’t just providing much needed funding and awareness, they are also giving non-profits the ability to be a resilient beacon of strength within the communities they serve.

“A recent Alaska Public Media story about the state, highlighted the challenges that non-profits face, especially at a time when our economy is slow. Many businesses are reducing their financial contributions in response to these tough times. But at GCI we think it is more important than ever to give back to the organizations that help sustain our communities. At a time when many across the state are hurting, we want these non-profit organizations to continue to be a source of strength,” said GCI’s Senior Vice President of Consumer Services, Paul Landes.

*Originally published in the Anchorage Press

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