By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

A free meal can go a long way for charities in Arizona.

Just ask Ben Humphries, who was chowing down on a breakfast plate at Biscuits restaurant on Gilbert Road.

Instead of a bill, Humphries got a card telling him his tab, the tax and tip were fully covered by FirstBank. In return, he was asked to consider “giving it forward” to a charity of his choice for Arizona Gives Day on Tuesday, April 2.

“It was unexpected,” said the Phoenix resident, who was in town to visit a friend. “It makes me more willing to give.”

In fact, the act of giving it forward brought in $3.2 million, a record, for last year’s Arizona Gives Day, according to Jennifer Purcell, community engagement director for Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, a resource and advocate for the nonprofit community.

“Arizona Gives Day is a collaborative effort to show the community’s philanthropy and to bring awareness of the nonprofit sector and the work they are doing,” Purcell said.

The statewide, 24-hour, online giving campaign takes place in early April each year and is a partnership between the Alliance and Arizona Grantmakers Forum.

Purcell said donors this year have a pick among 720 participating 501(c)(3) organizations, including arts and culture, children and youth, community development, health services, animal welfare and more.

Each year the nonprofits register with Alliance of Arizona, which vets each group. 

Annually, Arizona nonprofits have an economic impact of $22.4 billion and account for 325,000 jobs, according to the Alliance.  

Since 2013, the annual giving event has raised a total of $13.4 million for charities, Purcell said. New donors and donations have increased incrementally year-over-year, she added.

“There’s no way to predict giving,” she said of this year’s event. “All we can do is get the word out and engage people to give to a cause they are passionate about.”

And, helping get the word out was FirstBank, the program’s presenting sponsor since its inception.

“They’re fantastic partners,” Purcell said. “They fully believe in giving it forward and giving back to the community.”

FirstBank paid the tab for patrons at two popular restaurants – Diego Pops in Scottsdale and Biscuits in Gilbert.

Four bank officials such as Amanda Silva, an assistant vice president, went undercover as servers in training, informing patrons at Biscuits their bills were paid for and then explaining Arizona Gives Day.

Lloyd Melton, owner of three Biscuit locations, welcomed the event.

“Anytime we can help any charity in any way and we can afford it, let’s do it,” he said.

Melton, a longtime restaurateur, is not new to giving back. A former Marine gunnery sergeant, he gives a 10 percent discount to all his patrons who have served in the military. He estimated he gave $6,000 to $8,000 last year in discounts.

The bank didn’t promote the events because it didn’t want lines out the door, said spokeswoman Laura Slawny. The event at Biscuits was from 9 a.m.-noon.

FirstBank paid the tabs of dozens of diners in both restaurants, covering $5,000 worth of receipts, according to Slawny. She said diners were not obligated to donate in exchange for a free meal.

Last year, FirstBank employees pumped $3,000 worth of free gas to unsuspecting drivers at an Ahwatukee station for the event, and in 2017 employees went undercover as baggers at a Phoenix Fry’s market, buying $5,000 worth of groceries for customers.

“This is a fun way to remind folks about the power of kindness and how small gestures can add up to make a big, collective impact,” said Bryce Lloyd, Phoenix Market president of FirstBank. 

Biscuits regulars and Gilbert residents Kevin and Connie Rowley just got the news their $35 bill was paid. Brother-in-law Kim Rowley also was in attendance.

“It’s nice to be surprised,” said Connie Rowley.