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Tell me your story

Imagine: 150 seconds to win $75,000. On Feb. 1 at Steinmetz Hall, 10 local nonprofits competed in the ninth annual Victory Cup Initiative Storytelling Showcase, a “Shark Tank”–like competition in which each nonprofit had two and a half minutes to share their story, with over 500 Central Florida residents and business leaders voting on the winners of a combined $175,000.

Victory Cup Initiative is the brainchild of Ashley Vann, VCI’s chief executive officer. During a 10-year financial planning career with Merrill Lynch in Atlanta, Vann noticed that many people with resources were willing to generously give but were not sure where to start or whom to trust. Returning home to Central Florida, the Winter Park native began taking courses at the Edyth Bush Institute for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership. She was quickly impressed by the need for nonprofits to share their work in compelling ways that would spark interest in potential funders. Vann created VCI as a way to connect the two groups.

“Within one minute or two minutes of meeting a nonprofit leader, you can feel their passion, and you can understand why they’re doing the work that they do. But they might not be doing the best job of explaining it in a succinct, efficient way,” Vann said. “We try to really help them hone in on their messaging. Along the way, we also have additional programs and leadership labs, where we’re just trying to kind of be cheerleaders and community champions for the work that they’re doing.”

Ninety-two nonprofits applied in September 2023 for this year’s competition. In October, 154 business leaders and community champions reviewed the applications, provided input and scored the applications with an online rubric. Each application was reviewed 10 times, and each evaluator reviewed five applications.

At the end of the 30-day evaluation period, the 10 finalists were selected. This year’s finalists included Central Florida Vocal Arts, Commission 127, Community Legal Services, Conservation Florida, Elevation Scholars, Family Promise of Brevard Inc., Franklin’s Friends, Shepherd’s Hope, Special Hearts Farm, and The Verb Kind — a mentoring program for youth inside juvenile detention centers, which took first place and received $75,000.

“I feel like I just won American Idol — this is amazing!” said The VERB Kind’s executive director, Haley Hunt, in a press release. “Victory Cup gives us the opportunity to be seen. So many people don’t know the hard work that goes on behind the scenes — I’m so grateful!”

Commission 127 finished second, receiving $50,000, and Special Hearts Farm received $45,000 for finishing third.

The remaining seven nonprofits each will receive at least $25,000 due to matching donations from Jayne and Tom Sittema and the Devine Family Foundation. According to a press release, each nonprofit also received a new iPad.

Past winners say the value of VCI extends well beyond the financial donations because of the training they receive in presenting and crafting their message into a compelling story, their increased visibility, and the network of meaningful connections they make in the nonprofit sector and Central Florida business community.

“It’s opened the doors that I assert, either never would have been opened, or it would have taken us several more years to even know that the doors were available to even knock on,” said Jan Edwards, CEO and founder of Paving the Way Foundation, a nonprofit committed to empowering communities to disrupt the cycle of child trafficking and the 2023 first-place award winner. “It’s the foundational community piece that is so exquisite and extraordinary.”

The 2022 first-place winner, financial literacy nonprofit 8 Cents in a Jar, gained two new board members and two financial stakeholders in addition to the first-place prize money.

“Most of the times, people just assume, ‘Okay, nonprofits need money,’ which is true,” said 8 Cents’ founder and executive director, Lashea Reaves. “But there are a lot of nonprofits who go out of business, even having a lot of money. So, just to receive that kind of support of, ‘Nope, I see things that you cannot see yourself,’ or, ‘Allow me to just help you to reconstruct this story so now everyone can understand it.’ Life changing.”

To donate, volunteer as a community evaluator, or share your talents with a local nonprofit, visit Or encourage your favorite nonprofit to apply for next year’s showcase. VCI will begin accepting 2025 applications in September. Applicants must be registered 501(c)(3) organizations; headquartered in Orange, Osceola, Brevard or Seminole counties; and have current profiles with the Central Florida Foundation.

Date Published: February 11, 2024

Author: Lynne Mixson

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