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Innovators


Project

MI Deals for Charity

Grand Rapids, MI 49503

John and Shawn Tol know how to make a deal

In the vein of Groupon, Living Social or some other ubiquitous deal site, customers get a bit of the purchase price off an item, reservation, meal, etc. The business thanks the broker for the added exposure and the dealmaker leaves with some of their own profits.

With locally grown MI Deals for Charity, the daily deals are run a bit differently. Created by John and Shawn Tol, MI Deals for Charity allows visitors to purchase a deal outright, with a percentage of the full price going to a local charity of their choice, they can purchase the deal at a discount, with the charity receiving a smaller percentage of the deal, or customers can allow the business to choose the charity to be benefited and allow some sort of perk of their own.

The Tol’s have put in the footwork to shop their own deal around to businesses and charities, but once the ball got rolling, and people started to pick up on the importance of such an economy, businesses and charities started doing the work for them.

“The restaurants and businesses we’ve talked to have been super excited for a number of ways,” John Tol said. “First of all, we charge less than the national deal execs do and that keeps more money in their pocket. Second, we give the charity the opportunity to refer its business, and we’ll pay them on every deal sold, along with every time that charity is picked to be benefited. There a lot of opportunities for the charities to participate. Out of the whole, we should be able to help each other and move forward.”

Currently, MI Deals for Charity is running a deal with Brush Studio, offering a $49 package, including a 2.5-hour painting class and a glass of house wine for $21, with $6 donated to Kids' Food Basket and 5 percent donated to the buyers’ charity. Heather Callahan, of Brush Studio, said the experience with MI Deals for Charity has been nothing less than refreshing, showing how a seemingly stale idea can be renewed into something that helps a community in more ways than one.

I’m a west Michigan guy and it bothers me that these deal sites come in and beat up on local merchants so much, who are just trying to support their business. Then they leave and take this money to Chicago or wherever. I think this will be a great alternative for people to say, “Hey, I want to support local and I want to help put the charity of my choice.” -John Tol

“We have had a great experience with MI Deals for Charity,” Callahan said.  “Shawn and John are really great people with a passion to see our community supported. I feel like once people realize that it’s not just another deal site—that it will grow like crazy. 

Callahan, as a small business owner, said she is always looking for creative ways to reach new customers, which often includes some sort of discount program.

“Running a deal with MI Deals for Charity has done just that,” she said “Who wouldn't want new customers and be giving money back to some great community organizations?” 

The site is easy to use and well-organized, Callahan said, and the business is run fairly and honestly.

“Our experience with MI Deals for Charity has made me realize that the ‘big deal’ websites should soon be obsolete and that as a small business we should be honored to support another local small business that is so focused on giving back,” she said.

And that’s just how the Tol’s got their start. John originally worked with a company that provided funding to children with diabetes. He was trying to find a way to help charities when he came across the infrastructure of daily deal websites.
“I realized a system like Groupon takes 50 percent of the price you ‘save’ back to Chicago,” he said. “If you spend $20 on something with a $40 value, up to $10 of it goes back to Chicago. That kind of upset me with the amount that's being taken from our local merchants here in West Michigan. I thought, gee, wouldn't it be great if we could take that money and stick it back through the charity?”

Taking a page out of the Groupon and Living Social book, Tol came up with an idea to see a larger portion of the money from a discount deal going back to a local charity or even the community from where it originated.

And while marketing is always essential in any startup venture,  the charities and customer base taking part in MI Deals for Charity have turned into the organizations most valuable asset in that area. Shawn’s background is in sales, and she’s leveraged her network of locally engaged people and organizations to get more word out about MI Deals for Charity.

“We have a subscriber base. Subscribers want to see deals. Merchants want to see a boatload of subscribers. It's a chicken and the egg situation,” Shawn Tol said. “Let’s say we ask have Olive’s to run a deal and part of the profits of the deal would run to the American Cancer Society of West Michigan. They also have a database of followers, so we would also potentially network through that, in conjunction with helping refer deals to local businesses.”

It’s an exponentially growing chain of word of mouth that keeps MI Deals for Charity on people’s lips, and one that the Tol’s are eager to help keep moving, Shawn said. 

“It’s been very well received as being a young company. Some are comfortable with the other larger websites but they love the idea of keeping it local and benefitting a West Michigan charity,” Shawn said. “People that are subscribers are able to donate to a local charity and we donate to that. It’s just a matter of getting their people to connect, and we help them do that.”

MI Deals for Charity is an alternative for people to support more than just their own money. They’re supporting local business and charity at the same time.

“We’re excited about giving people the alternative to something we think is not a good thing to West Michigan,” John said. “At this point, MI Deals for Charity isn’t trying to be a billion dollar company, it’s just trying to help out our neighborhood. But it’s not going to stick to West Michigan, either, we may reach out to Traverse City or Chicago—places where people from West Michigan would enjoy going.”

Both born and raised in Grand Rapids, the Tol’s have a strong connection to this region, and truly want to see it thrive. It’s their honest and simple ethos that creates such a strong foundation for Mi Deals for Charity.

“We have to start in our own community and see where that goes,” Shawn said.

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids.


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