HeroCard program linking business and volunteer groups is again on the verge

Since 1997, officials of Community HeroCard have tried to build a program that encourages customers to patronize local businesses while supporting their favorite nonprofit. Now, a spokesperson said, enough businesses have signed up so that consumer card sales are finally poised to take off.

Many participating businesses and volunteer organizations are still waiting for results.

How it works

Jen Guarino, vice president of the privately owned Community HeroCard Data Inc., said that for a $20 one-time membership fee, people receive a HeroCard from participating merchants or participating nonprofit organizations.

The nonprofits or businesses pay $20 for the card; the nonprofit gets up to $8 back when a customer buys one.

When customers use the card, merchants swipe it like a credit card. However, part of the purchase is then split three ways.

For example, say you spend $50 at a participating store that agreed to contribute $10 (20 percent) towards the program. Of the $10:

  • $4 is credited to cardholders. That credit can only be used at participating businesses.

  • Cardholders get another $4 credit if they volunteer at a participating nonprofit. The nonprofits track volunteer hours and report the totals to CHC. If cardholders don't volunteer, the $4 goes directly to their chosen nonprofit.

  • The remaining $2 goes to CHC to run the program.

    Guarino likens the program to a frequent-flier program. However, she said the HeroCard is better, because it gives consumers credit back, which encourages shopping at local businesses. "The only way they can spend [the credit] is to go back to the participating merchants," she said.

    Guarino said the program also encourages people to volunteer; even if they don't, they contribute money to their chosen organizations just by shopping. "It's the fundraiser that keeps on giving to the cardholder and the nonprofit," she said.

    Recent gains

    Jeanie Cunningham, a Hennepin County Senior Planning Analyst working with CHC, said over 1,000 hours of volunteer work has been reported by participating nonprofits since January 2002.

    "We're showing forward movement; that's where we want to go," she said.

    Cunningham said the county received a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to put technology into neighborhoods. The county contributed $298,000 from the grant to CHC to cover computer purchases and help fund web access for businesses and organizations to track results.

    "More businesses are becoming more receptive to the Community HeroCard program," Cunningham said, "More community organizations have been coming aboard."

    Guarino said card activity has gone up 520 percent in 2002, but she could not provide customer numbers. She said over 4,500 cards have been purchased by businesses or nonprofits; 2,250 are actually in shoppers' hands.

    She said approximately 1,300 Southwest residents have the card.

    For nonprofits, spotty results

    There are mixed reports from many volunteer organizations and participating businesses.

    Rick McFerrin, director of Two Wheel View, an organization that creates youth biking opportunities, said his organization has doubled cardholding users affiliated with his program since last fall. However, he said, CHC has not produced an increase in volunteers.

    Two Wheel View purchased eight cards for $10 each (which became $20 per card on Aug. 1); CHC later donated two more cards. He said he has been giving cards away to volunteers as a reward and to bring more people to the program.

    Mary Ann Maple, director of childcare and volunteer services at the Redeemer Residence, 625 W. 31st St., said CHC brought her a much-needed volunteer, who eventually became an employee. She said she is extremely grateful for the program, but that it needs improvement. She said it should be easier to explain the benefits to those unfamiliar with the program.

    Business usage

    Ted Lowell, co-owner of Caff Tempo, 4161 Grand Ave., and Acadia Caf, 1931 Nicollet Ave., also said the program needs improvement. His businesses rarely see customers using the card.

    "They're nice people. It seems to be a good idea, but it doesn't seem to have taken off," he said.

    Lowell said the program needs more awareness.

    Guarino said her company recognizes this and is kicking off a marketing campaign. CHC will be setting up information booths on weekends at some participating businesses and placing ads in local


    Larry Brown, co-owner of Art Materials, 2728 Lyndale Ave. S., said he has a handful of people using the card at his store every week. He said although the usage is low, he is still optimistic that the program will take off. "It can only go up," he said.

    Aaron Jaszewski, manager of Pizza Luc, 3200 Lyndale Ave. S., also said the usage has been infrequent.

    "We probably have five customers who come in regularly and use it," he said.

    To encourage people to buy the cards, Pizza Luc offers a free slice of pizza with the purchase of a Community HeroCard.

    Jaszewski said the business is collaborating with local nonprofits to promote the cards and draw more people into the program.

    "It needs to be advertised a little more. I think it will eventually pick up," he said.