by Morgan Benson, CWIP member, Communications Committee member
In April, on a beautiful spring afternoon, I had the opportunity to speak over the phone with Candice Payne. Many of you will know her as the woman who paid for hotel rooms for homeless individuals in Chicago during the Polar Vortex earlier this year. If you aren’t familiar with her story, you can access a story on it here. Ms. Payne received an overwhelming response to her good deed—being featured on not only local news, but national news as well, including the N.Y. Times, Ellen DeGeneres’ Show, and others.
I was particularly moved by her story, not only as a beautiful example of a regular person helping others, but as an example of how philanthropy can happen in non-traditional ways. Her story, as a professional woman, a Chicago entrepreneur, and founder of her own nonprofit, Action for a Cause really captured my attention and that of our CWIP communications committee. Here is my interview with Candice on what it means to give, how this experience has changed her, and her hopes for what comes next.
I know you are a busy woman and I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me so that I can share a little bit about your experience and how it relates to people who work in fundraising and philanthropy so that I can share it with members of CWIP and people who follow our blog.
You’re welcome, no problem.
Most people in Chicago and those reading this blog are pretty familiar with your story—you’ve been on both local and national news, including the Ellen DeGeneres show. But I just wondered, within the lens of people who give to nonprofits and give philanthropically, had you ever done anything like this before?
Yes, I had. This last school year, we decided to buy 500 bookbags filled with supplies for the beginning of school. We put them in our pickup truck and drove through what I would call less fortunate areas—we drove through some of Roseland, Englewood, and other areas giving our bookbags. We do things like that, but this here [paying for hotel rooms for homeless individuals] just got so much publicity. So, different things that we can do to give back.
So, along those lines, what would you say that philanthropy means to you?
Well, for me, it doesn’t always necessarily need to mean something monetary. You know, if you have a gift of knowledge in whatever field, sharing that can be a gift. Whether a person is starting a career or a business, philanthropy doesn’t have to mean giving money. I think, that it is a spirit of being open to helping someone.
Yes, I agree with that completely. Now, your story has received a lot of coverage, and in reading more about your gift, I heard that you started a nonprofit—Action for a Cause. Was that a direct result of the gift of housing the homeless during the polar vortex and the publicity you received?
No, it was something we were already doing. Action for a Cause was established two years ago, but I hadn’t really done much with it though until now. I established a nonprofit, I knew I wanted to do something to help others, I just didn’t know what or how. I didn’t know where to focus—if I wanted to help battered women, if I just wanted to help children, if I wanted to mentor felons coming out of the prison system. I wanted to help somehow—I just didn’t know how. The polar vortex allowed me—over those five days—to see what my purpose could be. Knowing that that situation was so temporary—that those hotels rooms were only for a few days—made me realize that finding a more permanent solution was my purpose. So I came to the realization that, you know what, that I can use my passion for real estate, and actually help the homeless get off the streets. Can I stop homelessness? No, but I can do my part. And so that’s where Action For a Cause came into fruition. So its been here, it’s just been sitting on the shelf.
Would you say that there is anything particular to your experience—as a woman, as a female business owner, or anything else unique to you—that really shaped or contributed to your decision to give back in this way?
Well, I would say that around this time, a lot of people have become numb to homelessness, and the reason being is that on every corner you see it—walking downtown, every block you see it, so you put up this shield and become numb. Doing that, some people lose their compassion, and when you lose your compassion you pass them and just ignore them. And I think for me, when I see them, my compassion has grown even more because I feel like I should stop and talk to them. Everyone has their own story, and it’s not what the misconceptions are. The misconceptions are that homeless people are lazy, that they don’t want to work, and that they made these choices to be where they are in life. But that’s just not the case. You know, for me, like I said, years ago, I knew I wanted to do something to help—no I’m not rich, I don’t have a lot, but I can spread the knowledge that I do know the people to help them. And what I do have, I’m willing to give.
What sort of feedback have you received from the community, from individuals, from other nonprofits that has surprised you or been unexpected?
Yeah, I was not expecting this—that there would be so many people that wanted to help. From me, posting on social media—I was offering people money to come help. I didn’t know, I wasn’t aware that so many people just wanted to help but didn’t know how or didn’t know where to start. So, this was a new avenue for them to help, you know—I have a car, I can do this or I can do that. So, I received a lot, a lot, a lot of support. I’ve gotten several other nonprofits that actually reached out to me that want to connect. And I haven’t gotten through them all—there have just been so many—but it’s a lot of support. And that further let’s me know that people want to help, people just need to know how—they need the resources.
So, after all this, what comes next? For you, for your organization. Where do you see the work that you and your organization are doing going in the next 5 years?
Well, with the nonprofit I am still learning a lot of the ins-and-outs of running a nonprofit. I’ve been in business before, I’ve had businesses, I understand business—but the nonprofit is a whole different ballgame. So I am still learning a lot about that, but I close on the first multi-unit building in about two weeks, I’m working with the Cook County Land Bank, and we are going to start the renovation on that, and I hope that we can acquire a lot more. We are going to put together a fundraiser, to raise money to acquire a lot more real estate to do this work as part of our mission.
Very cool! That’s really exciting
So, my last question is: given the audience of women in Chicago who work in fundraising and philanthropy, if you could share one lesson, one takeaway from your experience with women working in philanthropy about how to engage people in giving, what would that be?
Well, what I did is I went to social media, and you know, currently social media is a big outlet for a lot of people, and it actually gets people in contact with each other to connect. So I would say, utilize your social media, and have an idea, put it out there. A lot of people want to do something, but don’t know where to start, and don’t have a lot of money. But it’s not always necessarily the truth that they need money to get involved. Because people can help other people, and they can also help you to get the money to do the work. So, I would say using social media more actively to get people engaged.
Great, thank you so much. We so appreciate you taking the time to speak with me and share your story with our members!