In the fall of 2011, Matt Dimmer’s father was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Dimmer lived in Los Angeles at the time, and his dad, Pete, lived in Michigan; Dimmer would travel home about once a month to spend time with his father in his final days, having the kinds of conversations we all hope to get with our loved ones before they pass away.
In all that travel, Dimmer says he began to look at people in airports or on planes, and really analyze them. "You’re kind of numb, and you’re reevaluating stuff," he explains. "You kind of start thinking, ‘I wonder how many people are in my situation? I wonder how many people are in this situation but aren’t here, because they don’t have a credit card to put those flights on?’ Your dad is dying and he tells you that you grew up to be the man that he had hoped. ... I was able to have those conversations, and I just couldn’t imagine other people being denied that."
And so about a year ago, Dimmer—a creative director in advertising with no previous philanthropic or nonprofit experience—dreamed up a charity called The Extra Mile, designed to collect unused frequent flyer miles and distribute them to those who need help to visit their loved ones dying of cancer. The name is in tribute to his father, who always went the extra mile for the people in his life.
Hearing Dimmer talk about The Extra Mile, it’s hard not to experience one of those facepalm, I-can’t-believe-this-doesn’t-already-exist moments. In fact, Dimmer says, he assumed it probably did. "Being in the advertising world and using social media a lot, I jumped on Facebook and threw the question out, if anybody had heard of anything similar," he says. "And my comment thread just kind of lit up with, ‘No, I’ve never heard of that, that’s a great idea,’ and it became a brainstorming session in real time."
The end result of that session was a simple conclusion: "Oh my god, this, there’s a need for this, and I’m going to make it happen." But as anyone who’s tried to start a nonprofit can attest, it’s no simple task. "Having to learn every single piece of the law part, the CPA part, the bookkeeping … it’s a lot to learn," Dimmer laughs. "I don’t want to generalize the creative brain, but we’re not usually the most organized group of people. And holy shit, the amount of stuff you need to keep track of is overwhelming. It’s been tricky."
He was eventually awarded 501c3 status, and set about tackling the next challenge: How to accept donations of miles? "I was getting nowhere," Dimmer admits. "All the airlines have their charities that have been around forever, and not to discount those, but they weren’t really looking for another one. Some guy with a really big idea didn’t have enough credibility to sway them into action." But Dimmer is also "some guy" who saves every business card he’s ever received, and eventually the fiancée of one of his former interns—did you follow that?—hooked him up with a business school friend who started an organization called Mileage.org, a fundraising site that allows charities and nonprofits to collect frequent flyer miles and turn them into cash.
They solidified their partnership about a month ago (tweaking it so that The Extra Mile can collect frequent flyer miles and turn them into actual flights), and Dimmer’s social circle has thus far contributed about 140,000 miles to the pool. It’s a drop in what he hopes will someday be an enormous bucket of donations from people all around the world. "It’s just an idea that I think a lot of people want to be a part of," he says, almost with a shrug.
With that structure in place, he’s ready to tackle the last step: distributing those extra miles to those who need them most. Again, he faces a significant challenge. "The amount of emails and Facebook posts that we’ve received since I started this thing—I get at least one a week that I literally tear up reading. [But] I’m one person, really, at this point, so I can’t say, ‘Well, why don’t you send me a picture of your dying grandmother, and we’ll go from there?’ Ideally there will be a system of partners, companies, that can help vet the needs of those in their care."
He’s built initial relationships with both the Hirschberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and is working to formalize the selection process. He also needs to find the time and resources to accompany The Extra Mile’s first mileage recipient on their trip, and plans to bring along a video crew to document the story. "I want to make sure that’s all perfect," Dimmer says. "I’m overly sensitive because of what I do for a living, but that’s going to help the story be told for everyone who comes to the site."
So. How do you start a charity, when you’re just "some guy"? How do you find partners, resources, time away from your day job and your family and whatever else may exist in your personal life? How do you bring attention to your cause? Where do you get help? These are all questions Dimmer is asking and answering, little by little. He knows he’s got a long way to go, but he says, "As with anything in life, each thing you kind of overcome, it’s like, ‘Yes! All right! Sweet! I got that locked up. What’s next?’"
Dimmer was able to share his idea for The Extra Mile with his dad before Pete died last June. Although Matt still gets choked up when he talks about it, he admits that to some degree, pouring his heart into getting The Extra Mile off the ground has been a coping mechanism. "I haven’t connected anybody [with miles] yet, but now I know we’re so close," he says with determination. "It’s really stoked the fire, and keeps me driven. In any business, you’re pretty pooped after a long day, but a lot of times in advertising you’re just really worked over on hours. And to go home after a 14-hour day and be like, Okay, boot up the laptop and let’s do a couple hours on this tonight, because there’s a person expecting an email, or you’re trying to get a one-page PDF out to describe your cause so you can get some traction on a little tiny blog you hope someone will read. ... I kind of joke that you forget what it’s like to just not do anything. It’s part of my life now, which is good, because I think I’m prepared for whatever’s to come. And whenever I’m fortunate enough to have kids, to be able to have a bit of a legacy built on their grandfather—it means a lot."