A LOCAL NONPROFIT WORTH MORE THAN JUST YOUR MONEY.
For the first time in years, recent developments concerning the global organization Invisible Children have brought inside dealings of nonprofits to the national stage. I was able to view the video promoting Kony 2012 quite soon after its release, and subsequently sat back to watch the world’s multifaceted reaction unfold. First came the roar of the collegiate masses, for which the film’s “fuck the man” tone was most obviously intended; it worked fast, as the amount of money made by Invisible Children off our rampant purchasing of Action Packs and Stop Kony bracelets is still unclear. Then came the seething underbelly of the internet, hastily building sandbag walls in hopes of slowing down the video’s uncontrollable river of followers. The national media was quick to follow, as they enlisted the help of foreign commentators and social radicals to provide quotes on Invisible Children’s racist agenda that was surely only out to promote the “White Man’s Burden.”
After years of massive benefit concerts, celebrity TV-spots, and misleading browser buttons that allowed you to “Donate $5 to (insert third-world-country-demolished-by-natural-disaster here),” it was only a matter of time before this shit hit the fan. But amidst all the hullaballoo, the entire nation seemed to miss the point of it all: nonprofits are meant to help people. If Invisible Children isn’t doing the best job of exemplifying that, then it doesn’t do anyone any good to focus all our media attention on their failures. Instead, give it to organizations that are doing the right thing.
Here in Southern California, where the Real Housewives of Orange County are enough to show anyone what our main priorities in life are, its easy to forget that more than 10% of our citizens are currently living in poverty. So Cal is continuing to deal with record poverty levels that have now lasted more than a decade. While an international charity might be wreaking havoc on the global scene, there are more than enough people who need our help right here at home.
I sat down with founding members of a Southern California nonprofit, We Still Believe, to find out what local organizations are doing to help.
Joey: Brandyn is the businessman, he’s the networking guy, he knows how to meet people, how to get their attention. I’m the visionary—I say, “Man, it’d be so cool if a year from now, we were here.” And Brandyn’s like, “Okay.” And then he goes to work and he gets us there.
We Still Believe is a local nonprofit, spreading their work throughout Orange County, Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire. Its founders, Brandyn Kennedy and Joey Isaksen, formed the organization in 2010 with the simple goal of helping those who need it.
Brandyn: When we show up somewhere and people see our tattoos they say, “Are you guys in a gang or something?” Sometimes people are a little wary of us at first, but then they see where our hearts are.
What’s unique about We Still Believe is that Brandyn, Joey, and their third director James Holguin, met and built the company through the hardcore music scene. The majority of their members are big burly tattooed men with impressive beards and band shirts covered in Old English. The hardcore scene doesn’t necessarily boast a reputation of charity and good-heartedness, and the stereotype hasn’t always helped their group succeed. “After we got incorporated we started wearing our hats to the shows and people would hitting us up about it, and they thought we were some sort of crew,” Joey mentioned. “There’s crews in hardcore, and some of them are not very good guys. We didn’t want to be a part of that, and we even ditched the old English writing on our hats because it looked bad… we were getting confronted by a lot of bad dudes, so we really wanted to make it very clear to people that we’re about serving our community, and we feel like that’s what hardcore kids should be doing.”
Joey: We started assembling friends and it ended up being a bunch of guys in bands that go to the shows and it was just kinda casual… like, “Hey, we’re gonna go to the shelter this weekend and feed some people, are you into it?” And we got a lot of good response, and before you know it we had like 15-20 people and we had to say, “Hey, there’s not enough room for everybody.” So we started thinking about it and we said, why don’t we try to do this legitimately?--
Despite the hardcore reputation, Brandyn and Joey have had no trouble recruiting guys in the scene to help with charity work. “Sometimes it’s funny because some guys you look at and you’re like ‘Man, that guy looks so tough, there’s no way he could care about anyone but himself and being tough,’” Joey said. “But they’re out there and serving food with us. Our friend Tim is pushing like 280 and he’s got tattoos all up his neck and he looks like the Russian dude’s son from Rocky III, and here he is like, ‘Hey, how are ya?’ Just the nicest, sweetest dude, and people don’t ever really see that. They think the people putting in time are just the mom and pop, happy-go-lucky family that have it so nice and they’re so perfect, but no. The most imperfect people are perfectly capable of helping anybody.”
In fact, WSB’s connections with big names in the hardcore scene have catalyzed some of the most crucial points in their success. WSB’s first major charity event was Mosh for Food, a concert featuring popular hardcore bands that brought out more than 380 people to contribute to their cause. Joey explained: “The trick to get in was two cans of food—not jelly or pie filling, something substantial—or whatever donation you want to give us. We got 2500 cans of food. They told one of our members it was the biggest canned donation to the Inland Valley Hope partners in their history. We didn’t even know how to get it all out of the venue that night, we don’t have a truck that would fit all that food.”
Brandyn: We kind of used hardcore as a funnel to get donations, because we knew a lot of people in the music industry, but really We Still Believe is a group of guys that would want to get up on a Saturday and basically help out—feed 2-300 people in a neighborhood in downtown Riverside, or go spend time with sick children at a children’s hospital and build blocks with them, because some of the kids were dropped off as orphans and have never met their parents. Some of the kids there aren’t terminal but are going to be there for a couple years, and their parents never even come and visit them.
After Mosh for Food, Brandyn and Joey began to look for ways to branch out in the community and separate themselves from their hardcore roots. The guys have done everything from having friendly barbecues in some of the worst neighborhoods in southern California, to throwing a Halloween party for the children at Newport Specialty Hospital, to raising the money to install a water heater at a homeless shelter whose residents were falling ill from taking cold showers. Their remarkable creativity has brought We Still Believe to places few nonprofits have dared to go before. “Our next event will be hopefully the end of April,” Brandyn shared. “We’re going to put our logo on a food truck. We’re trying to figure out how many people we can feed for how much [money] we have to throw at it, but we’re basically going to park it up in skid row and say, ‘Hey, are you hungry? We’re here to make sure everyone gets something to eat.’ And then we’re gonna leave. We’re not going to tell people they need to conform to our religion, or to get them to vote on some particular thing, we’re just here to listen to you, and what’s going on in your life right now, and make sure you get something to eat.”
Brandyn: I’ve noticed since we started that people are like “I’m not a Christian, are you guys okay with that?” and I’m like, “I could care less, we’re gonna go help people.”
Unlike the vast majority of charity organizations today, We Still Believe has a policy that religious and political affiliations are not a factor in deciding who is or is not allowed to contribute. As Joey put it, “We never wanted it to be about religion. We didn’t want people to think they had to convert to be a part of it. We have Mormon dudes that hang out, we have Jewish friends that hang out, we have people that are just plain Atheists— it’s nothing about that. If someone asks us are we Christian we say ‘yeah, me and Brandyn are Christian guys, we’re not going to deny that, but it’s not like the group is about religion.’” The nonprofit puts all differences aside to focus all of their attention on giving back to the community, and they continuously strive to prove that their number one priority is making We Still Believe solely about the people who need help.
Joey: We realized that a big separation in charity and nonprofit organizations, especially ones overseas, is you donate and you have no idea where that money goes. They could be throwing it out the window, you don’t know what it’s going towards. Not to mention they write off all this stuff, and it’s just a big bill to the state of California… So when we started telling people, “Hey you should come out, you should donate to us,” we made it very clear that we have day jobs. We do it because we want to, and it’s not like we want you guys to donate so you can pay for our gas.
In their various endeavors over the past two years, Brandyn and Joey have met a myriad of big-time nonprofit executives who’ve displayed some less-than-respectable tactics with members of WSB. “Some of the bigger organizations will attack you with slander to put the focus on themselves,” Joey said. “I’m not saying they’re all evil organizations, but they will spend a lot of money on things that aren’t for the cause.”
While meeting with a lawyer at a local restaurant to certify We Still Believe as a nonprofit, the team ran into a group from another major charity organization. One of its members happened to share that only 15 or 16% of their nonprofit’s donations are actually put toward their cause. Brandyn’s hopes for We Still Believe were then solidified. “I said to Joey that night, ‘You know Joe, if we’re gonna do this, it’s gotta be all in.’ One thing I can say is that we are completely in the red on this. I wanted to have an organization where… if your church group kind of failed you, or you were skeptic on other nonprofits, let’s do something where we don’t take a salary, and every cent of the money gets filtered back into the economy. I think that people can back that, and I that’s where my heart is… I don’t want to be part of an organization where there’s a bunch of lavish dinners, and only like 10% goes to the cause. I’m not going to say anything bad about anyone, but as far as what I’m going to put my name on, it’s gotta be legit. Integrity’s very very important to me, and it’s important to my friends. It has to be something that’s respectable, and we have to be honest with people so they know that this is real.”
The guys are so serious about this aspect of their nonprofit that, after raising a large amount of money from a benefit tour, they turned down the opportunity to spend it on making We Still Believe a legitimate 501c3 organization. “We generated the amount of money through [the tour] that we’d need to pay for our 501c3, but we didn’t take it because it wasn’t our money,” Joey explained. “We told the guys, ‘You know what? We’ll find the money another way.’ That money belonged to the homeless, and the people that needed it the most. And we don’t need it the most.”
Brandyn: We don’t want to just keep thinking of things to do and making it all about us. We want students, young adults, adults, to basically help WSB—if you know of an area that needs it, around OC, Inland Empire, LA… let us know and we’ll figure out a way to help.
Above all, We Still Believe exemplifies the fact that helping people should be the most important goal in charity work. The organization continues to dream up new ways to provide for the less fortunate, but they also do some of their best work through tips from members and friends who alert them of individuals, families, and neighborhoods in need. Their only motivation is the thrill of doing something good. “We probably won’t be able to even tap into 1% of the poverty of Orange County,” Brandyn said. “I just feel good if I’m out there and doing and helping. I feel like that day counted.”
If you want to find out more or give back with We Still Believe, visit their website at wsborganization.com.