Monday Q&A: ‘G’ is for give

It’s not easy to explain what PlanG is in one sentence.

But Marti Beller, who recently co-founded the local startup, must make a good pitch.

Marti Beller

Beller

Still in its beta phase and working toward a full-scale launch, PlanG, an online system to help people manage their charitable giving, recently closed on a $4 million capital raise from a list of investors that includes some of the most powerful names in Richmond — names like Chandler, Ukrop and Goodwin.

With the $4 million in hand, PlanG’s eight employees will soon move into new office space in Shockoe Slip.

Beller, 44, co-founded the company with fellow Richmonders Melina Davis-Martin and Heather Loftus. BizSense caught up with Beller last week to discuss PlanG’s launch, its mission and where the company goes from here.

Below is an edited transcript.

Richmond BizSense:
What is PlanG?

Marti Beller:
PlanG is a way for individuals to manage and grow the giving they do to the nonprofits they care about the most. When we looked at the market, we saw giving was very fragmented. People give at schools, at church, at work and at cash registers. It really wasn’t captured in one place. PlanG brings that all into one place.

RBS: You’ve also partnered with retailers and other businesses. How does that part of it work?

MB: We realized there were people like retailers and employers that wanted to engage in helping consumers give and didn’t have a democratized way of doing it. We have 250 online retailers that will put anywhere from 2 to 10 percent of your spend into a PlanG account. You can then choose where to give it to any of a million charities in the United States. It’s about them taking discounts and incentives and turning them into joint charitable contributions for you to decide who to give to. And hopefully we’ll make employer giving even more seamless.

RBS: And there’s sort of a banking component to it as well?

MB: You can run all your charitable giving through that same PlanG account. You can integrate it with all your banking systems. This one account is where you employer might match your donation or your retailer might give incentives. It’s one place that shows you your total impact of your giving: an aggregation site that allows you to manage your giving.

RBS: PlanG is a for-profit company. How does it make money?

MB: We charge the recipient nonprofit a nominal fee for receiving a fund. The industry average to raise a dollar for nonprofits is 20 cents on the dollar. We’re charging one quarter of that.

RBS: Where did the idea come from?

MB: I worked for Affinion Loyalty Group for 16 years. I ran points-based loyalty programs, such as for financial institutions that have credit card points. I left two years ago, and a number of local nonprofits were saying “Hey, can you help us out?”

RBS: How difficult was raising money?

MB: We raised the $4 million all from Richmond. We started off not completely knowing where to go to get the money. After going to New York and D.C., we realized there was plenty of capacity in Richmond. Our list of investors is the who’s who of who you’d want to be associated with in Richmond: Ted Chandler, Jim Ukrop and the entire Ukrop family got behind this investment, as well as the Masseys, the Goodwins and Karen Booth Adams.

RBS: That’s an impressive group. How’d you do so well with that circle of Richmonders?

MB: Fortunately, Melina knew some people. This town embraced us. There wasn’t a meeting I couldn’t get. Even if they didn’t invest, they gave me great advice.

RBS: What does $4 million do for PlanG?

MB: The big part is building the brand: the language, the logo, the tagline, the technology. And the underpinnings — it’s a complex structure in terms of how money goes in and out.

RBS: How big a market is there for PlanG to tap into?

MB: Last year, individuals gave $211 billion to nonprofits. It’s just such a huge market. This isn’t a small niche market. We just have to make sure we have a product that’s compelling to people.

RBS: What about competition? It seems like popular sites like Kickstarter would be competitors.

MB: A lot of these sites go after a specific transaction of giving. It has a start and an end. We’re not trying to go after the transaction of giving. We’re trying to capture the giver — what do they need every day to manage their giving?

RBS: Talk about PlanG’s new office.

MB: We’re moving down to 117 S. 14th Street, right next to Ledbury. The new space is about 2,700 square feet. We’ve had eight people in 1,000 square feet. It will seem like a mansion. We’ll move in probably in about a month.

RBS: It seems like a fairly complicated product to explain to people. Is that the biggest challenge as you get up and running?

MB: The biggest challenge is getting the word out and getting people to embrace PlanG and adopt it as the way they manage their giving. Giving doesn’t happen every day for every single person. So you need to remember it when you give. When you first used eBay, you were introduced to PayPal. We’re hoping we’ll be the thing people think about in terms of managing their giving.

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