Keynote: Passion as a Vehicle for Change

For the Community Foundation of Tompkins County’s Annual Celebration Keynote Speech, Emma Frisch (PEAKS Founder) shared her story about using passion as a vehicle for change, and inspired the audience to think about how they could transform their community through their own passions. A refreshing approach to crowdfunding as a new way to raise money through creative philanthropy and community engagement.

(Apologies: the speech was not recorded until the very end. However, the speech is translated below with the concluding remarks after the “video montage”).

Today I want to share something I’ve learned that has changed my life and that could change yours. You can use your passion as a vehicle for change, and a new website* called PEAKS, can help you do that.  As I’m talking, I want you to think about how this approach could help you become a philanthropist in your local community or how to build your philanthropy in a way that can be fun and impactful.

First I want to thank George, Janet, Amy and the Board the Community Foundation for inviting me to speak at this year’s celebration. I’m truly honored to be here. I also want to give a shout out to Ken Schlather who saw the potential in PEAKS and is helping me bring it to Tompkins County and to Pat Haggerty our web developer extraordinaire.

I had the opportunity to see Cory Booker’s inspiring commencement address this past Saturday at Cornell. The mayor of Newark, New Jersey left the graduating class of 2013 with a simple message about the power of individuals to awaken others with love, and the power of people to create change together. He boomed over the loudspeaker: “I tell you now …your generation will be determined by how you come together as lovers – lovers of peace, lovers of justice. The fires that must be burning are the fires of love and justice, the fires of our hearts and our compassion, the little fires of individual actions that every day add up to an inferno of change.”

This resonated so profoundly with me, because I believe every single action I take will make a difference in the world. I can make a difference by biking up the hill to a meeting and buying my vegetables from Lucy and Chaw at the farmers market. But what took me longer to realize is that I could also make a difference in the world by be using my hobbies and passions, the things I do for myself in my spare time to make me happy.

What is passion?

A passion defines something we love to do.  I imagine that each of you sitting here today can think of at least one passion that you have: sitting in a special place in nature, cooking a gourmet meal for friends, creating an ecological housing design, or in George’s case, listening to Diana Ross.

Now, do me a favor and take a moment to share one of your passions with the person sitting in front or behind you. I want to hear a sea of passion out there!

Let me hear some examples – shout them out!

Each of you, like so many leaders before us, is a Changemaker. People have been using their passion as a vehicle for change for a very long time. The award-winning photographer James Balog has used his passion for photography to raise awareness about the tragic reality of climate change in his documentary Chasing Ice. Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Neil Young and John Mellencamp – all passionate musicians – have banded together to create Farm Aid, an annual concert that raises money for small family farmers and better food in America.

The story of PEAKS

I want to share a story with you about how I used my passion as a vehicle for change. This is the story of how PEAKS began.

Before moving to Ithaca, I lived in Ecuador, in the heart of the Andes. I was working with a small non-profit called EkoRural. We helped indigenous family farmers overcome the devastating effects of climate change on their land and their livelihood.

On the weekends, I was happy as a clam. You see, I’m a mountain girl. I am passionate, in fact crazy about climbing rocks and peaks. I spent every weekend in the mountains. I was one of thousands of international tourists who poured into Ecuador with high-tech gear in pursuit of adventure. As I became more familiar with the mountains and the people who lived there, it became clearer to me that few climbers recognized that their trails were actually farmers’ footpaths. In fact, there was virtually no way for tourists to connect with mountain farmers, who are the stewards of a “playground” that is quickly being eroded.

One day on the trail, my colleagues Steve and Chris, suggested we raise money for every foot we climb to support the work of a non-profit. We calculated how many people we each knew, and how many dollars we could ask each of them to donate for every foot we climbed. What if we climbed something really big?

So that’s how I ended up on the top of Cotopaxi, a volcanic peak that soars nearly 20,000 feet high and is the second closest point on earth to the sun because Ecuador is on the equator.

No matter how passionate I am about climbing mountains, it still didn’t make the climb, or actually reaching the summit, very easy. It was easy, however, to feel like I really made a difference and to exceed my fundraising goal. I needed a partner in crime, and so I recruited my childhood friend Matt to join my expedition. We spent a month tracking the moon so it would be full and bright enough for us to be able to leave for the summit at midnight so that we could reach it by dawn. I worked around the clock with my friend Tony to build the first version of PEAKS’ website, so that we could publish our pictures and stories online and share them with friends and family back home. We would ask for their support in helping us reach our goal of $9,000.

The climb itself was grueling. If anyone of you has been at high altitude, you’ll know that it sucks everything out of you. Half way up the altitude was taking its toll on me and  I threw up, cursing my ridiculous thrill for summits. I walked at a snail’s pace. Then I thought about Elena, Alfonso, Bertha, Francisco and all the farmers I was raising money for. I thought about my mom, my sister, my best friend, my high school teacher and all of the people who believed in me, and who were supporting me with their donations and their wishes.  And finally, as the sun peeked over the horizon and the shadow of Cotopaxi was plastered against the sky, the summit came into view.

When I stood on that summit I realized for the first time in my life that I could use my passion to call on others to help me make a serious impact in a community I care about.

How PEAKS is helping Tompkins County reach new heights

My climb sparked many. Karyn and Eric Greenwood flew from Bozeman, Montana to Ecuador for their honeymoon, raising over $2,000 through their summit of Cotopaxi. Eric Dalski flew from Brooklyn and raised over $1,300. A team of three guys, including my friend and co-founder Steve, raised over $1,500 by running the 7 Hills Race of the Netherlands. The Brush Goats team raised over $700 by climbing the high peaks of Colorado. 

At the beginning, PEAKS was born as a way for mountain climbers to give back to the mountain farmers. But as we grew, people with other passions and causes started to ask how they might also use PEAKS to raise money. I realized that PEAKS had the opportunity to support a much broader community of passionate, caring individuals.

I teamed up with Ken Schlather and three program leaders at Cornell Cooperative Extension, who tested PEAKS in the Fall of 2011. A year later, nearly 30 Changemakers in Tompkins County had launched campaigns on PEAKS and raised over $100,000 dollars in new revenue from expanded donor networks. The campaigns included the Cornell student group Sustainable Neighborhoods Nicaragua to raise money for their trip to build ecological low-income housing in Nicaragua, the Dewitt Middle School Orchestra for a high school field trip and instruments for students who could not afford them, The Center for Transformative Action just launched a campaign to celebrate social entrepreneurs, and even Mayor Myrick and his team used PEAKS to raise money for the Tough Turtle race this past April to raise money for the Ithaca Children’s Garden.

When we took a closer look at where funds were coming from, we discovered that on average 66% of the money raised on PEAKS came from people’s out-of-state networks. PEAKS has the ability to help local Changemakers overcome the competition for local resources.

How crowdfunding works on PEAKS 

I imagine you’re wondering how a website can help you turn your passion into a real fundraising vehicle. Well PEAKS uses a process called crowdfunding, which is all about what Cory Booker is preaching: the power of people coming together to make change. Crowdfunding is the process of raising lots of small amounts of money from a big crowd of people. The person reaching out to the crowd combines personal appeal and passion with a great idea or cause.

Today, PEAKS mission is to provide easy and affordable crowdfunding resources and services to help changemakers fund the change they wish to see in the world.

For an example of crowdfunding, let’s say I want to raise money to support healthy snack programs in low-income elementary schools. I start a campaign, asking everyone I know to host a dinner party in their home, and invite their friends and family to attend with a $20 donation. On average, each person knows about 250 people. If 10 people agree, and get 10 people to attend their dinner – well I’ve just raised $2,000 dollars. Let’s hear what a few other local Changemakers have done, and see what it looks like on PEAKS:

Video montage

I would be happy to answer any questions about the finer details of how PEAKS works after my presentation or at the end of the event this evening. If you want to dig in even deeper, the Human Services Coalition will also be hosting my workshop on Crowdfunding next Tuesday at the Tompkins County Public Library. I know it’s almost full, but if anyone wants to attend you can speak with me after the event.

Announcing the Community Foundation of Tompkins County Campaigns!

I want to share exciting news with you. The Community Foundation of Tompkins County, also a big believer in PEAKS’ potential, just launched 3 brand new campaigns on their PEAKS platform: philanthropy magnified, funding the future and women, weaving a difference. I’d like to ask each of you to take one small action tonight:

- Take out your phone and make a donation to one of these campaigns via the Peaks website
- When you get home, check out their campaigns and sign up to champion one of them
- Email George and suggest how you might be able to use one of your passions to help the Community Foundation raise money for the incredible work they are doing in our county

I want to leave you with a quote by Howard Thurman, which my dear friend Katie shared with my yesterday. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” I hope you all agree with me that Tompkins County – this beautiful, diverse place rich with passion, love and the desire to create change – is ready to reach new heights!


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    In partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension, PEAKS supports changemakers working in five program areas.