This feature was originally written for Prof. Seele’s COM 331 class at BU
Throughout high school and as a student at Boston University, Nick Dougherty had been involved in school and sports, but he wanted to help people. However, like most college students, he also found himself short on time and money, both of which he thought necessary for any sort of charity work.
With their schedules full of class and their pockets emptied by tuition, most college students feel like Dougherty; they cannot contribute to charity. But Dougherty wouldn’t accept this. Armed with nothing but a creative mind and a passion to help, he set off to find the college student’s method of making a difference.
The first rule is to keep it simple. “You need a very low entry point,” Dougherty says, “and offer all levels of engagement, from just donating money up to running a chapter.” The original idea was the concept of dropping a coin in a box with the money going to a different organization each month, a sort of charity for charities. “We [Dougherty and his girlfriend Kaylee Dombrowski, a fellow BU alum] had ideas of using different household items. Washing machines, refrigerators. But we realized that people are used to putting things in mailboxes.”
With willpower and dedication, Dougherty and Dombrowski made their idea happen. Taking a simple concept and slowly turning it into a national organization, they set an example for college students who might feel powerless. “Being busy is not an excuse to not do something,” Dougherty says. “Charity is accessible to everyone.” The result of Dougherty and Dombrowski’s hard work is Project Mailbox, an organization with passion and a story to tell.
Establishing an organization from scratch based on your own simple idea is no small feat. Advertising and recruitment are difficult with no budget and little experience in the philanthropic community.
Dougherty isn’t one to wait. Once he decided on the concept, it was time. “I e-mailed Dean Elmore that night,” he says, “but it’s tough to get something started.” The logistics of collecting money safely on the street were difficult to figure out. Without BU’s support, Dougherty found himself on his own. But with the help of Dombrowski and their group of friends, they got the idea off the ground.
“We had to do everything ourselves,” Dougherty recalls. “We designed, printed and distributed the flyers. I attended charitable events on campus, made friends and made sure everyone I talked to knew what Project Mailbox was.”
While the work was hard, Dougherty believes that’s exactly why he succeeded. “We had to get creative and that shows that we care. If you don’t really care, it’s not worth it.”
Dougherty and his newly formed Street Team brainstormed ideas and found ways to get the word out about Project Mailbox. They wrote advertisements on chalkboards in classrooms across campus and put together a mailbox headpiece with items lying around their rooms. But a bunch of college students couldn’t do it on their own. Dougherty knew they had to take it to the next step: “We had to get more pro players.”
As a charity designed to help other charities, Project Mailbox had an advantage in the non-profit world. Dougherty describes competition as “the elephant in the room,” but Project Mailbox focuses on collaboration over competition. By working with other charities at BU and all around Boston, Dougherty has made connections with an entire community of non-profit leaders. Jason Paik – president of The Supply, which has worked with Project Mailbox in the past – likes to take advantage of such organizations willing to partner. “I think charities working together makes it so much easier. We’re both serving to find a solution to a problem we both stand for. I see Project Mailbox as a great facilitator for non-profits on our campus,” he said.
Hard Work Pays Off
In 2012, Dougherty received an e-mail from Stay Classy, an online fundraising platform and host of the Stay Classy Awards. “They found Project Mailbox through a BU Today article, and wanted to nominate us as ‘Most Influential College Organization’ in the East. Based half on judges and half on online voting, we ended up winning.” That September, Dougherty and Dombrowski flew out to San Diego for a weekend to attend the award ceremony. “It was awe-inspiring,” Dougherty recalls, thinking about the non-profit community members he met. “These people dedicate their lives to philanthropy in ways I could never imagine.”
Dougherty has continued working with the organization since graduating, keeping the same simple concept of dropping change in the mailbox and donating to a different charity each month. But Project Mailbox is still growing every day. It has since become a national organization. Boston University is the first official chapter and more are in the works. “I want to see it out of campus,” Dougherty says. “It’s an open forum. I’m excited for the unexpected; I want to see where other people are going to take it.” He also hopes that further growth will foster healthy competition, with different chapters competing to raise more money.
If He Can Do It, You Can Too
Dougherty believes everyone has a certain amount of charity work they should do. “And it’s not about the money,” he says. “It’s about awareness and the community.” Meg Andrews, another BU alum and friend of Dougherty who has volunteered at a number of organizations, believes that college is the right time to do it. “College is all about experiencing new things, developing knowledge and awareness, and growing as an individual,” she says. “I think participating in charity work can help accomplish all these things.”
Paik agrees with this idea, and says that charity work contributes to the self as well as society. He believes that “serving in charity work ultimately shapes your character and your outlook on things…your appreciation for your surroundings grows deeper.”
Project Mailbox is living proof that hard work pays off, and Dougherty, Dombrowski, and their friends made it happen. Dougherty offers simple advice to anyone else trying to make his or her dream a reality. “Surround yourself with good people, have them hold you accountable, and set deadlines. And don’t get caught up in the planning phase. Just throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks.” Or, in fewer words, Dougherty lives by the motto: “Just f—— do it.”
For more information on Project Mailbox, check out their website at projectmailbox.org