‘The dolphin tank’: Austin nonprofits pitch ideas to potential donors


AUSTIN (KXAN) — “We like to call it the dolphin tank,” Philanthropitch co-founder Lisa Graham said. “It’s like [the TV show] Shark Tank, but the judges are pretty nice.”

Seven nonprofits are pitching themselves to potential donors Tuesday in a twist on conventional pitch competitions that pit startups against one another for investor dollars.

Philanthropitch is in its seventh year in Austin and recently expanded to two other cities, San Antonio and Columbus, Ohio. Finalists have three minutes to tell judges about their scalable ideas and three minutes to answer questions.

The seven nonprofits competing for donations this year range from children’s groups to criminal justice reform organizations.

One of them, Partners in Parenting (PIP), aims to double the number of families it serves by next year and sees Philanthropitch as an “enormous opportunity to get our message out,” said Jessica Burleson, the group’s executive director. “We are small, but mighty, and we have been growing exponentially… We’re ready to scale.”

PIP hosts structured support meetings for new moms and dads who are trying to navigate their new landscape. Cat Nunnery joined the organization right after her first son, Fitz, was born and she and husband Brian found themselves wondering if they were doing the right things.

“You’re expected to have a Ph.D. in something that you haven’t even gone to kindergarten for,” Nunnery said. 

Their first meetup with other new parents came when Fitz was 11 days old. There were three other babies there, “and all of the parents’ faces looked just like our faces. We were all overwhelmed; we were all shocked.”

They all shared experiences and got helpful information. It helped Nunnery feel less alone and more confident in her abilities. PIP served 255 families last year, in both neighborhood programs that parents pay for and in community groups that are free for low-income parents looking for support.

The group is asking for $64,000 at Philanthropitch to double the number of families it serves and to increase staffing.

Six other nonprofits are also seeking funding: Deeds not Words, a group that support and promotes women’s social and economic opportunities; JUST, which supports women and minority entrepreneurs; the criminal justice reform group Lone Star Justice Alliance; Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit that provides support and resources to children in foster care; SAFE, Stop Abuse for Everyone; and the no-kill nonprofit animal shelter Austin Pets Alive!

There are three ways for nonprofits to benefit directly from donations at Philanthropitch. Judges are local business leaders who can donate any way they’d like, businesses pledge funding as they please, and audience members donate the cost of their ticket to any nonprofit they want to support.

“It really shows that people are looking for new ways to give philanthropically,” Graham said.

Philanthropitch reached a milestone this year, topping $1 million donated across all three cities where the competition happens. More than half of that has gone to Austin nonprofits. 

Graham and her team plan to expand the event to three more cities — Denver, Philadelphia and Nashville — next year. 

“We don’t always have the best ideas,” she said. “And so, how we then go to another city, find these incredible ideas, and really start sharing those ideas across the country is another really exciting thing that we’ve already seen happen.”

Philanthropitch takes place Tuesday, May 7 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the LBJ Auditorium at 2313 Red River Street. Tickets, which function as your donation, are available here

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