It began as a simple idea in late 2000. A group of friends decided to get together around the holidays to volunteer and make a difference in their community.

One of them was a teacher, so the rest thought it would be nice to donate school supplies and add some fresh paint to Norwood Elementary. It turned out to be fun.

"Folks thought that was a great time," says Joe Hansbauer, a 35-year-old Newport resident. "We wanted to keep it going."

It morphed into a non-profit organization with friends recruiting friends. They called it Give Back Cincinnati.


Eleven years later, the nonprofit boasts 5,000 members representing 400 companies.

"Since then, we've been rolling along," says Hansbauer, who has been Chairman of Give Back Cincinnati for five years. "Obviously, the original idea was to get friends to give back. But we also wanted to create the environment for young, creative people to get involved and want to do this."

So the idea spread as giving back to your community became an even more cool thing to do. Representatives from dozens of area businesses were there. You could network, make friends, rub elbows with others in big-name companies and take on leadership roles within the group "” almost like leadership training bootcamp.

Among the highlights are the annual Paint the Town event, the community-wide Thanksgiving Day dinner at the Duke Energy Center, as well as area clean-ups. There are about 20 events each year with 10 on a large-scale. Volunteer events occur on weekends and can include anything from cleaning, painting, construction and fundraising. While volunteer projects are planned for every other month, social events are scattered in between, in part to help bring volunteers together.


"We believe a social aspect with our events is key to our overall mission," says Give Back Cincinnati President Ryan Cowan. "Incorporating a social aspect encourages our volunteers to network with one another. Our hope is that our volunteers form friendships with each other, and use their passion for volunteering as a common bond to build their friendship upon. Ultimately, the more friendly faces you see around town, the more likely you are to call Cincinnati home for an extended period of time."

While the organization focuses on local efforts, Give Back Cincinnati also recruits talent from other areas. People in cities
such as Columbus, Indianapolis, Seattle and Washington D.C. have asked about starting their own versions of Give Back, Hansbauer says.

"But we've never looked at starting a franchise," he says. "We're about attracting and retaining people. We are 100 percent volunteer, and nearly all of our funding goes in to community engagement activities. Some people are interested in coming to Cincinnati because of those opportunities."

Therein lies the power, he says.

"Seeing 175 people come out to paint an elementary school that they have no attachment to "”that means a lot to me," Hansbauer says. "Those people are there because they want to be."


Johnmark Oudersluys had a decision to make.

It was summer 2004. Should he stay with his company, Chiquita, in Costa Rica, or should he move to its headquarters in Cincinnati?

Whatever he decided, it would change his life. Oudersluys needed to do his research. A native of Kalamazoo, Mich., Oudersluys began looking for a sense of what life was like in Cincinnati, including what opportunities could be had for a young professional. One of the things he found was the Give Back Cincinnati organization.

He decided to make the move.

"I went to the first (Give Back Cincinnati) event, talked to some of the leaders, asked how I could get more involved, and joined the board the next year," says Oudersluys, 35. "When I started with the group it was about 1,200 people; now the organization has grown to 5,000 members. Some of our events have grown into initiatives that require year-around planning: Fall Feast, Give Back Beyond, Paint the Town, and Fuel, which we have under our program umbrella."

It is those events that are changing the area communities for the better.

"I am a sucker for the big bang events," Oudersluys says. "There is nothing like seeing over 1,000 volunteers mobilized to paint dozens of homes in a neighborhood in a single day during Paint the Town "” the immediate transformation is amazing. Fall Feast is another event where thousands of people come together to share a meal during Thanksgiving.

"The hope is that the long-term impact of those events, bringing people together, breaking down socioeconomic divides, and people knowing that others care for them in the community, will continue to create positive ripples in our city," Oudersluys says.

Of course, he is a bit biased. Ninety percent of his friends "” people he spent time with during those big events "” are people he met through Give Back Cincinnati. Then again, he also met his fiancé while volunteering with Give Back on a trip to help rebuild New Orleans.

Ryan Cowan, president of Give Back Cincinnati, says he loves the single-day events.

"I'm partial to our Hands On events," he says. "Volunteers can plug-in and make a difference." All the supplies are available, the work is planned out, breakfast and lunch are provided, and there is an after-party to celebrate the success of the day.

"The best part about these events is that you go into a building or neighborhood that needs a few touch-ups, then at the end of the day you walk around and all of the hard work the volunteers did is visibly noticeable. Everyone can walk away feeling great about the work they did that day. Once the hard work is done, volunteers meet up and continue to build the newfound friendships they started during the day at the after-party."

Matthew Lafkas, a 29-year-old Cincinnati native, also met his fiancé at a Give Back Cincinnati event.

"I got involved with Give Back Cincinnati out of college when I was looking for a way to become more involved with the Cincinnati community," Lafkas says. "I enjoyed the fact that it was guilt-free volunteering, which fit my schedule well as an auditor at the time. I was able to volunteer when I had a free Saturday and everything was planned for me. Over time, I became more and more involved, until I found myself on the board of directors and helping with many aspects of the organization."

That is the attraction, Oudersluys says. Making a difference "” on your schedule.

"We feel it is important to make an impact but also to have fun," he says. "More importantly, we know that relationships drive our organization. Those relationships fuel my investment in the community and make it a lot of fun to work on projects with new and old friends." 


It takes a certain kind of person to be a member of Give Back Cincinnati, says Joe Hansbauer, chairman of the organization.

"These are good-hearted individuals looking to make an impact in their communities," he says. "They're social, they want to meet other people in their area. Some want to be leaders. They want to help improve the city and the surrounding area."

Hansbauer says 90 percent of the group's members are between 22-35 years old, and that 60-65 percent of members are female. Folks are local and not. Only two of the group's eight-person executive team hail from Cincinnati (Sean Stallo, vice president of operations, and Tricia Giessler, membership director).

"I'd say that's pretty representative of the rest of our organization," says Communications Director Lauren Doyle. "Many of our members are not native to the city, but have adopted Cincinnati as their second, and often permanent, home."


Most importantly, Hansbauer says, members' commitment to volunteering grows to the point that many choose to work in the nonprofit sector, or start businesses to help others. Some start their own nonprofits.

Hansbauer knows exactly how this feels. After working at another business, he caught the volunteer bug and ended up interviewing for "” and landing "” the Executive Director position of, an online system that allows high school students to find and sign up for service opportunities. The organization works with the students' schools to track their service hours.

"My involvement in UGive was directly related to my involvement with Give Back Cincinnati," Hansbauer says. "I wanted to move from the corporate world to something different. There's a tremendous amount of corporate and business talent at Give Back. If we can pull some of that across, it's needed in the nonprofit world. Compassion and heart are
definitely important, but we also need a focus on business and strategic planning. Those talented people can make a huge impact."

Paying it Forward

There are other examples. Give Back founder Ryan Rybolt helped start Infintech, a company that processes electronic payments. Matthew Lafkas, who served on the Give Back Board of Directors, started Vestige (re)Development Group, which focuses on industrial redevelopment, particularly in Over-the-Rhine.

Member Brent Nawroth leads the group's Paint the Town effort, and was recently named the Outstanding Adult Volunteer of the Year by the Ohio Community Service Council. Other members serve on boards for, among other entities, the InterFaith Hospitality Network's Board and the Cincinnati Ballet. Johnmark Oudersluys, who has served on the group's Advisory Board and Operations Board, is executive director of the CityLink Center, a faith-based community of integrated social and health services.

"Members of our group have passions that usually perpetuate continued involvement beyond our years with Give Back, whether that is serving with a program or different organizations," Oudersluys says. "(Two other members and I) recently launched an enterprise, Distinctly Local, to help highlight local businesses, drive young professional retention, and drive economic vitality of the small business sector. A group of us also started Crossroads Church's GO New Orleans trip, which has now brought over 1,250 people in three years to help rebuild New Orleans."

Oudersluys says Give Back Cincinnati teaches leadership "on the fly," and that it "connects the social entrepreneurs of the city."

Lafkas says the group encourages leaders to stick with a project from start to finish.

"Leaders have to build new relationships with partner groups, plan events that have never been accomplished, find ways to fund these activities, organize the labor force and equipment "” the list of unknowns can go on for days," he says. "(Give Back Cincinnati) encourages our leaders and volunteers to take charge and deal with obstacles in real time. I love knowing that I am helping, but I enjoy simply seeing how many folks are active and adding value to our community. The passion for this city is undeniable once you begin speaking to all of our citizens."


Other than an interest in having fun and volunteering, Give Back Cincinnati wants nothing more.

Members are individuals interested in volunteering time and energy in community projects while having fun and meeting new people. No obligations. Period.

According to its website, Give Back expects:

"¢ Open mind and positive attitude. "Because you might get dirty and you might have to paint a locker room with someone that you don't know."

"¢ Dedication to the group and the activities. Give Back doesn't expect members to be at all the events. But, it says, attendance at one or two would make organizers happy. Three or four would make organizers ecstatic. Five or six would, well, you get the idea.

"¢ Spread positive word of mouth about Give Back Cincinnati to friends and colleagues. "The more the merrier, and the more we can accomplish," organizers say.


Twitter: @givebackcincy

Ryan Cowan, president
Sean Stallo, vice president of operations
Beth Hofherr, vice president of programs
Lauren Doyle, communications director
Tricia Giessler, membership director
Jonathan Huang, development director
Chris Greenwood, treasurer
Keith Willhaus, board administrator/historian