Growing up outside Des Moines, Carson King long has been familiar with the phrase, “Iowa nice.”
Then last Sept. 14 — and in the days that followed — he experienced it firsthand, and embodied it himself, after the sign appealing for beer money that he made and hoisted behind ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew before the annual Cy-Hawk football game flooded his Venmo account with donations.
Recounting the whirlwind experience that started with $600 for his Busch Light supply, morphed into thousands for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, and ballooned to more than $3 million in just weeks, the self-proclaimed “accidental fundraiser” on Thursday — as keynote speaker for The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference — shared lessons he’s learned in the year since.
For starters, doing small things can make a big difference.
Social media is a powerful tool.
And Iowa isn’t just nice. It’s strong.
Since King’s impromptu Children’s Hospital fundraiser ended last October, he’s launched his own nonprofit — the Carson King Foundation — which he described as a sort of “see a need, fill a need” service for Iowans, including those with disabilities, veterans, families facing long hospital stays, and the thousands of Iowans slammed by August’s derecho, for example.
“This term kind of got coined, ‘Iowa Strong,’” King said during his address. “That’s a very real thing. People see a need, and they come together to help.”
King officially incorporated his foundation in December 2019, launched it on Super Bowl Sunday in February, and was frank in speaking about it Thursday.
“This was the worst year to start a nonprofit, if I’m really honest with you,” he said. “Because you can’t do in-person events. You can’t do anything. You have to get really creative and think of all these different ideas to be able to fundraise.”
True to King’s see-a-need mind-set, though, he launched his first fundraiser when the pandemic forced Iowa into lockdown — keeping many people trapped at home facing new and aggravated mental health concerns, in some cases, without access to resources.
By partnering with Iowa Love, which created T-shirts it sold for the cause, the foundation raised nearly $41,000 to distribute among mental health organizations in Iowa, which King called “incredible.”
“I didn’t think we’d get to $40,000 on the year,” he said. “And our first fundraiser beats that. That was so cool.”
When King, like so many, was directly and personally impacted by COVID-19 — losing his new job as director of outreach and advancement for a children’s charity in Waukee — he found himself, again, opportunistically situated to help when the Aug. 10 derecho blasted the state and left hundreds of thousands without power, water, and shelter in some cases.
King had been working construction, so after the storm found himself physically helping those in need — patching roofs and pulling trees off homes — while also employing his newfound fundraising skills. And he saw again, just like the fall before, how other-centered Iowans can be.
“We saw this sense of community,” he said. “And everyone coming together to help each other … ”
Even when King last fall thought he would be “canceled” during his unexpected fundraiser — after a reporter unearthed offensive tweets that King posted on social media years ago — Iowans embraced his regret and apology.
“People kind of realize, you know, people grow and change and become adults,” he said. “That’s part of the process. They make stupid mistakes, and they learn from them. And they move forward and become great people.”
And even that humbling experience King has used in a philanthropic vein — giving advice to teenagers during speaking engagements across the state in recent months. He warns them to be wary about what they put online. He alerts them that nothing in the virtual realm can be erased entirely — including Snapchats, which are devised to disappear in seconds.
When he warns them all those messages exist somewhere, “The entire room just goes … They have no idea.”
“It’s really dangerous just how unaware a lot of these kids are,” he said, but added his experience also taught him “how powerful social media can be.”
“And it taught me that small acts of kindness really go an incredibly long way.”
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