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Why and How Ryan Bilodeau of The Gift Card Project Decided To Change Our World with Penny Bauder

I would tell young people to imagine their life not in its current stage but in its final one. In looking back on your life, ask yourself what you would want your mark on the world to be. Once you have determined the type of impact you’d like to make on the world, then go […]

I would tell young people to imagine their life not in its current stage but in its final one. In looking back on your life, ask yourself what you would want your mark on the world to be. Once you have determined the type of impact you’d like to make on the world, then go out and do it.


As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Bilodeau.

Ryan Bilodeau is a teacher, author and homeless advocate who has spent his life working for causes bigger than himself. A political science and philosophy graduate of the University of Rhode Island, Ryan spent his college years cutting his teeth on and winning awards for marketing, advertising and event planning while working for political candidates and consulting firms in RI and around the country. He has been a guest on and contributor to local and national media outlets and advises small businesses on both offline and online marketing. After college Ryan entered seminary studies and completed a master’s degree in Theology. In 2017 he wrote “Products to People,” a marketing book that helps small businesses understand the psychology of consumers. A member of his parish’s Knights of Columbus organization, Ryan has also served on the Board of Directors of the Greater Providence YMCA and is a Horatio Alger National Scholar. Ryan is a big fan of New England sports teams, poetry, politics & hip-hop. He dedicates much of his time to helping the homeless through an organization he founded called The Gift Card Project.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Igrew up in Rhode Island alongside two sisters and surrounded by the love of my parents. From them I learned about heroic love and because of their sacrifices, I was able to attend an elite private high school. Unfortunately, both my mom and dad died by the time I was 30. The shortness of their lives instilled in me a great desire to affect as much social change as possible at a young age. My father was a romantic who taught me the value of education, and from my mom I received an example of selflessness and persistence amidst two decades of fighting a debilitating illness. I played sports, was very active in my church and had a great group of friends with whom I still talk today.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

I founded The Gift Card Project as a way to help the homeless in every community from Connecticut to California. The Gift Card Project is an idea, movement and national effort that attempts to help the homeless financially while also providing a caring self-presence.

We enlist an army of volunteers from communities around the country who can carry with them gift cards for fast food restaurants that can be given to the homeless that they encounter. The Gift Card Project asks our volunteers not only to help feed the homeless by means of the gift cards, but also to have a conversation with the individual. Pivoting out of poverty first requires a person to believe in their own dignity and self-worth, which can be difficult to perceive while being weighed down by the conditions experienced while living on the streets.

The goal towards which we are ultimately striving to reach by 2025 is the placing in major U.S. cities vending machines with basic goods that can be accessed by the homeless who have been given our gift cards.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

There has always been a soft spot in my heart for the homeless. From early on, I believed life without a roof over one’s head to be the cruelest (and often undeserved) of punishments. Motivated by this belief, I often gave food to the homeless sitting outside of stores in my hometown as a kid. As a college student, I again encountered the homeless who were flocking to our parish’s food pantry for food and for a sense of community. During this time, that soft spot grew larger and I decided to help the homeless in some capacity in the future.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

As a college student, a social visit to the city was always accompanied by the despair I felt while walking by the homeless who lined the city sidewalk. Whereas a fun night awaited me, those that I walked by were awaited by feelings of hunger and misery. It was in my late 20’s that I decided to convert my feelings into action through the promotion of a paradigm I felt was most helpful for solving this problem. I understood that the homeless persons I once spoke to at the church food pantry were not only looking for practical help, but also for a genuine interaction with others. I also felt that the practical help needed to be just that: practical. Money that could be spent on drugs or alcohol was only going to make things worse. It was in thinking about these realities that I discerned the creation of The Gift Card Project. My “aha moment” was the realization that people in every community can offer both a genuine interaction and help in the form of the food needed to survive if only people carried around gift cards to local fast food restaurants and stayed vigilant in the search for homeless in need of help. This paradigm would also remove the hesitation that comes with giving money to an individual who might spend it on drugs or alcohol. Most importantly, it would not insulate the helper from those he or she is helping like does the process of dropping off canned goods for people one will never see or interact with. Growing a movement to help the homeless must involve the winning of hearts and minds of potential givers. What better way to impart empathy for the homeless than to unite them face to face with those that can help?

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

For me, the famous question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound” is a rhetorical one because it is ultimately irrelevant. Your idea can be the best in the world, but if it isn’t shared correctly then awaiting its manifestation is a fool’s errand. The first step I took in starting a new organization was the establishment of a website and a social media presence. It is impossible to recruit followers or volunteers of any kind if there isn’t a tangible product to market. Within days of releasing a professional marketing video and launching a credible website, charity-minded family and friends came forward with a desire to help grow The Gift Card Project.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

About a year into its formation, The Gift Card Project began getting noticed by people around the country who also had a desire to help the homeless and who found our approach to be both helpful and realistic. In my opinion, the most interesting event that happened since the creation of The Gift Card Project was when I received e-mail queries from individuals in Hawaii and Chicago during the same week as striking up a conversation with a stranger in a supermarket who had heard of The Gift Card Project. Receiving validation of our promotional efforts in multiple forms and from people in multiple cities around the country was a truly surreal experience.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Analogously, The Gift Card Project is to helping the homeless what “Pay it Forward” is to doing good deeds. Although our long-term plan is to place vending machines with basic goods to help the homeless in cities around the country, it is the case now that we are simply encouraging people to follow our paradigm of helping the homeless in their own communities.

This approach apparently went over some people’s heads.

Within a few weeks of our soft launch, I began receiving emails and Facebook comments from people asking me where on my website they could buy gift cards. These messages became a running joke among my friends who rightly pointed out that I needed to be clearer and more thorough in describing the GCP in our online literature. How embarrassing!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

When witnessing strangers donate on Kickstarter and lawyers willing to do our paperwork for free, I realized quickly that I had a team on which I could rely. As important as their money or their time was, the knowledge that I had a system that supported both me and the mission was fantastic. Support like this is invaluable.

I also count as a mentor my late mother. Her hundreds of emails and voicemails still in my possession served as sage advice from beyond the grave so to speak. My mother was very religious and, as such, always encouraged me to move forward in my selfless pursuits. The emails she sent to me while I was a busy graduate school in Boston were replete with constant encouragement. This sort of encouragement is what assisted me more than any donation.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I will never know the name of the gentleman standing on the corner outside of CVS in my hometown but will forever remember his face. This individual was someone to whom I gave a McDonald’s gift card once in 2012 and then again almost a year later. While his station in life seemingly did not change during this year, he was nonetheless able to eat a warm meal on both of the days I helped. The second time I gave him a gift card, his face lit up. I admittedly did not remember his name, but he remembered me. The look in his eyes suggested a sense of feeling loved. One of the goals of The Gift Card Project is to help the homeless remember that their dignity is not reduced because of their temporary state in life. This gentleman remains for me a microcosm of why The Gift Card Project exists.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I created The Gift Card Project in response to what I see as a failure of many communities and politicians to help the homeless. The GCP’s very approach to helping the homeless in fact allows the problem to be addressed through means that intentionally transcend the limitations of politics. Any individual in any community in America has the ability to buy a fast food gift card and strike up a conversation with a homeless person in their vicinity. What I think would be a helpful government initiative that would lower the size of the pool of homeless needing help in the first place is the conversion of abandoned factories and mills into buildings that could house the homeless.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. A good idea is, in itself, not enough to make manifest without an effective ability to market it. I can think of 5 non-profits with great ideas and 10 political candidates with great stage presence who failed not because they lacked a message but rather the money required to amplify it.
  2. You cannot do it all yourself. Find a trusted team, and delegate accordingly. People form non-profits in order to affect widescale change. The number of moving parts involved in this endeavor is just too big for any one person to accomplish. I learned this the hard way when I launched a social advocacy group in college.
  3. Your efforts might not always be successful. What matters, instead, is that you are faithful to your mission. No one forms an organization with the intent on failing. But as long as one stays faithful to the vision, then one can never truly fail.
  4. You cannot help everyone and might fail miserably if you try. There is a reason why new non-profits are popping up every day; none of the previous ones have completely solved the problems for which they were formed. After college I tried forming several organizations aimed at fixing multiple problems in my state. I spread myself too thin, and in the process solved none of them.
  5. Bring into your team a few individuals with opinions that differ from yours. There are things you do not know that you do not know. Your blind spots are only going to be seen with the help of others who view the world differently. A friend of mine looks at life itself in a prism that is completely different, and has helped me greatly in my efforts to market things to people.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell young people to imagine their life not in its current stage but in its final one. In looking back on your life, ask yourself what you would want your mark on the world to be. Once you have determined the type of impact you’d like to make on the world, then go out and do it.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to break bread with Shane Claiborne, an author who wrote a book that helped inspire The Gift Card Project called The Irresistible Revolution. Shane is a Christian who has worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and has formed several groups that help Christians live out the gospel in the world. The book had a profound effect on my view of the notion of charity in that it challenged me not to be insulated from those I am helping. By coming face-to-face with the poor and vulnerable, we can better understand and empathize with those suffering. In his book, Claiborne argues that it is more comfortable (and easier) to attend a charity banquet than to help bathe the homeless like did Mother Teresa. The Gift Card Project was formed with this paradigm in mind, bringing not only practical help for the homeless person but also producing a genuine and face-to-face interaction.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIN

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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