Help for the Helpers

By Megan Willome

‘Once a Charity Champion, always a Charity Champion.’

Imagine for a moment that every nonprofit in Waco suddenly disappeared — the small ones, the large ones, the national ones and the local ones. Who would shelter the homeless, help children and animals and feed the hungry?

“The health and wellness of our community revolves around what these nonprofits do. It’s a whole ecosystem in itself,” said Jason Lavender, director of strategic initiatives and business development at TFNB Your Bank for Life. Lavender oversees the bank’s Charity Champions program.

“What a gap that would leave if all the nonprofits were gone. It would be a vacuum,” he said.

TFNB, originally First National Bank of McGregor, is the oldest bank charter in McLennan County and the seventh oldest in Texas. The institution rebranded itself when it began expanding its footprint into Waco. When the bank turned 125 a decade ago, Lavender says the executive team discussed finding a meaningful way to celebrate and communicate its corporate values.

“Something lasting. Something we could make sure was an impact on the community. The executive team kicked around ideas,” he said. “We settled on how to help those who help others.”

Charity Champions was born. Fifty-seven nonprofits have come through the program, and all of them — including the new ones, which will be selected later this year — are champions in perpetuity.

“Once a Charity Champion is selected, they are always a Charity Champion. We celebrated our tenth year this year, and we did that with not just the new eight chosen nonprofits who were invited. It’s everyone who has ever been a part,” Lavender said.

Even before he became part of the program, Lavender knew about Charity Champions.

“I feel like I’ve been part of this from the beginning because I was a customer before I was an employee. I wish more customers knew about how much work and intentionality the bank puts into this program, so they understood what an important role that they play in its success. Our customers are a part of something very special because our dollars are redeployed locally in our own community — for all the right reasons,” he said. “It’s not a marketing ploy. It’s true community outreach.”

Nonprofits can be nominated for consideration all year long, but the distillation process begins in April and May. The bank receives between 200 and 300 nominations each year. It only takes one vote to be nominated.

“We don’t need entire boards and congregations and those being served to send in a nomination,” Lavender said.

He then compiles a report, prepares a spreadsheet and distributes information about each nonprofit to the employees at TFNB. They take time to get to know the year’s nominees, and then they vote. Every staff member gets a vote.

“We want our staff to have buy-in. From that initial voting we narrow down to the top 10 to 15. From that we vote again. From those votes the top six to eight get chosen as Charity Champions,” Lavender said. “What determines how many we choose depends on how many home football games we have.”

By that metric, in 2023-2024 eight champions were selected; six will be chosen for 2024-2025. In 10 years only one nonprofit, AVANCE, has ceased operations in Waco. A few have changed their names after being named a Charity Champion. No nonprofit has been honored twice. The 2020-2021 champions got to serve for an extra year with the disruption from the pandemic.

“Since COVID became so paralyzing, we were not sure the impact it would have on attendance at the events we introduce the Champions at. So to offset any gaps in visibility, we chose to highlight them through two full seasons,” Lavender said.

The nonprofits learn of their election shortly before Baylor’s football season kicks off. They are invited to a breakfast, usually at McLane Stadium — a breakfast which previous Charity Champions can attend as well. Then the fun begins.

Nonprofits receive two primary benefits from their selection: marketing and training. The marketing begins immediately. They get their photo taken with Baylor Head Football Coach Dave Aranda, along with the Baylor mascots. They work with TFNB’s marketing and video team to produce a 30-second and a 1-minute video spot, to be aired on TV and on the Jumbotron. They also get interviewed on Julie Hays’ “Tell Me Something Good” segment on KWTX, a TFNB partner. Another interview with John Morris, Voice of the Baylor Bears, is broadcast over the radio feed on the gameday the nonprofit is spotlighted on the field. The videos get played at Baylor men’s and women’s basketball games as well.

In short, the nonprofits get exposure — to at least half a million people, probably more, Lavender says. That translates into connections across the community.

One of this year’s Charity Champions is Hispanic Leaders’ Network. TFNB was able to make a connection between the nonprofit and Coach Aranda.

“We’re the official bank of Baylor Athletics, which means we have high visibility and access to good resources,” Lavender said. “Coach Aranda spoke at their luncheon. They had 400 people show up. They’d never had a luncheon with more than 50.”

Other times someone sitting in the stands may see the nonprofit’s video play on the big screen at the game and decide to become involved with that Charity Champion.

“The video includes a mission statement of the organization and some potential asks they may have to share when they’re in the spotlight. That champion may say, ‘We’re looking to raise money to buy iPads.’ Someone donated 30 to 50 of them after seeing that specific ask,” Lavender said. “Another donor gave $50,000 for supplies to an organization. Someone funded a full-time staff position for two years.”

Other people may learn about a Charity Champion and decide to volunteer. Lavender says that since COVID, volunteerism has dropped off nationwide. Every volunteer helps donor dollars go farther.

“Charity Champions is a resource to people as well as to the nonprofits themselves,” he said. “These nonprofits are vetted; they’re established and supported. They are leading. They are good stewards of their services and funds. And they need volunteers.”

The other benefit the champions receive is training, which begins after football season. Between January and May, nonprofits attend five sessions of professional development. Previous champions can attend as well. Nonprofits are welcome to send anyone in their organization who might benefit from the training, be that staff, board members and volunteers.

“We help them execute on all the things they need to learn to run a successful nonprofit,” Lavender said.

That includes bringing in experts. Lavender says the bank’s executive team realized nonprofits were having to look outside McLennan County to find the resources they needed, but TFNB could bring those resources to them. Much of the training comes through the bank’s partnership with 360 Solutions. CEO Chip Wilson guides the program, working with TFNB’s executive team and the nonprofits themselves to learn what topics they want to cover. Lavender then reaches out within the community to find speakers. Wilson supplements the presenters’ materials with his own expertise. Topics vary from year to year, depending on what the organizations say they need, but may include training in marketing, strategic planning, events, social media and grant writing.

In addition, each Charity Champion receives a marketing intern and a grant-writing intern for the year, in partnership with Baylor and the federal work-study program.

“It’s an amazing experience for the young people. We’ve had several interns go to work for the nonprofits they started helping,” Lavender said. “One of those happened this year, with HOPE Pregnancy Centers.”

These trainings also result in relationships between nonprofits, as they find ways to work together and learn from each other.

“They may be serving a different part of the community, but their pain points are the same. Being able to hear from one executive director or board member what their solve was — that’s very impactful to another organization that hasn’t been able to figure that out,” Lavender said.

Sometimes nonprofits end up partnering with one another.

“One organization said, ‘I have a need for food for some of my foster families that have kids come in at midnight for placement.’ Shepherd’s Heart, Bob [Gager], heard that and said, ‘We can give to you through the food pantry. We’ll come and deliver it to you,’” Lavender said. “It was synergy.”

Lavender’s zeal for nonprofit work stems from his mother, who adopted him when he was about 6 years old.

“She was extremely involved in Habitat [for Humanity], Rotary [Club], other organizations in Kerrville. She was always dragging me along at a young age to teach me the value of community, helping people who didn’t have the same means and access to things I was blessed with,” he said.

His enthusiasm is mirrored by the other members of the TFNB executive team.

“We all have different reasons why we’re passionate about nonprofit work,” Lavender said, mentioning issues that touch each member personally — from foster care, to autism, to empowerment for girls. “We all come together and care.”

The Charity Champions form connections between people and organizations and make Waco and McLennan County stronger. This year’s group addresses hunger, nurtures leaders, provides birth control to animals, evangelizes and disciples student-athletes, helps kids believe in the magic of Christmas, supports small farms and business, assists women with unplanned pregnancies and cares for kids entering the foster system. Who knows what communities will be served in 2024-2025.

“I don’t know of another organization in the country that does what we do in little ol’ Waco, Texas,” Lavender said.

2023-2024 Charity Champions

Animal Birth Control Clinic provides access to affordable veterinary care, keeping pets and people together. This strategic, compassionate work reduces the risks of lost pets, shelter intake and euthanasia.

Carrie Spivey, Executive Director: “For us, it’s the audience exposure. Our budget is so lean in marketing and advertising. They’ve put us in front of thousands of local first-time and underserved pet families. We are hoping Charity Champions leadership and marketing help will us help the many local pet families in need of ABC’s essential, life-saving care.”

Heart of Texas Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) seeks to evangelize and disciple every coach and athlete in Central Texas with the gospel of Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Ben Johnson, HOT FCA Metro Director: “One of the biggest bonuses is the addition of the interns who have been super, super helpful behind the scenes. We work the best when we partner with local churches. We got a list of all the schools in McLennan County and had the interns make a list of every church within about x-number mile radius of that school.”

Hispanic Leaders’ Network provides personal, cultural and professional opportunities that inspire Hispanic leaders to serve and make a positive impact in the greater Waco community.

Elaine Botello, Board Chair: “I feel like the community knows more about what we do, the programs that are offered. The participation has grown just by being honored as a Charity Champion. We’ve embraced everything Chip Wilson has taught us and put it back into everything we do. We couldn’t put a price on everything we’ve received from TFNB.”

HOPE Pregnancy Centers provides life-affirming services to those facing unplanned pregnancy, so moms, dads and unborn babies receive support when it’s most critical.

Community Engagement Director Heather Ortner: “Being a Charity Champion has afforded us an expanded network of compassionate leaders and increased awareness in the McLennan County community. We are so grateful to the TFNB team and 360 Solutions for this distinguished privilege and hope it will be a continued partnership.”

Isaiah 117 House changes the way foster care begins, providing children and teens who are removed from their homes a safe place while CPS works to find a foster placement.

Janay Morgan, McLennan County Program Coordinator: “Our organization has benefited greatly from being a Charity Champion this year. The awareness TFNB and Baylor Athletics has brought to our mission and ministry has truly been a once in a lifetime opportunity. More than that, the relationships and partnerships we have built with our intern squad and other members of the Charity Champion family is invaluable.”

Waco Downtown Farmers Market supports local farmers and small businesses, increases access to healthy and affordable food and enriches the community through weekly wellness activities.

Bethel Erickson, Executive Director: “We’ve been delighted by all of the resources being a Charity Champion has brought to the farmers market. It’s been a lot of fun being honored at home Baylor games, but the greatest value has been in working with Baylor marketing interns who’ve helped us create social media campaigns and a market loyalty program.”

Waco GoodFellas strives to better the lives of families in need during the holiday season and helps children believe in the miracle of Christmas and the importance of giving.

World Hunger Relief Farm works to alleviate hunger through education, research and sustainable agriculture on its 40-acre farm.

Katie Walter, Executive Director. “TFNB’s Dominic Villa — who’s done the videos — he’s really professional and organized and accommodating to organizations like us who are used to running at full steam ahead. We’re appreciative of the communication and planning and keeping us informed. The people in these organizations who they’re honoring and serving are people not used to being served and honored.”