Two students have embarked on a volunteering online platform to help non-profits manage their volunteers better.
By ELEANOR YAP
Ivan Chang and Keith Tan, both 23, have known each other since secondary school. Not only have they stayed good friends, they have also tried their hand in various businesses/projects together including an apparel printing business, an events management business and a flower project. Though some of their businesses have been less than “a disaster”, the fourth time may be the charm, which is what the two are banking on.
They have embarked on a startup that hopes to simplify the volunteer-NGO relationship by providing volunteers with an easy online platform to find service opportunities, and NGOs and other organisations with a simple way to find the volunteers and manage them.
Called Start Now, the startup is being funded with a S$50,000-grant from SPRING Singapore, as well as pro-bono mentoring support and consulting services from the Grameen Creative Lab @ NUS (National University of Singapore). The startup has a number of business professionals on its advisory board, including “Toilet Man” Jack Sim from the World Toilet Organisation.
The idea of the business came when Chang was volunteering at Make-A-Wish Foundation Singapore, which he had been with for six years. He found that there was a much needed gap to be filled in the area of volunteer management. “My main job at Make-A-Wish was administrative, where I certified a flurry of different forms for different student volunteers who had to call repeatedly to get their forms sent back to them,” he said. “The school then had to key in all this data just to produce a certificate for graduation. And I thought, there must definitely be a better way – for all of this to be digitalised and continued beyond school. Shouldn’t there be a certified profile of any volunteer’s work available online that does not stop just because he has ended school – maybe, a LinkedIn for volunteers?”
He added: “There were also other gaps that I noticed. Firstly, there were volunteers who were over-taxed and volunteers that were under-utilised. This was because there was no real ability to track the history of each and every single volunteer. This was what I wanted to change. All this stems from a systemic demand-supply gap caused by an information chasm.
“Organisations didn’t know when the volunteers were free and volunteers were not notified about volunteering events that took place during their free time. So we created a matching engine that would actively notify volunteers of events matching their preferences. We wanted to help volunteer managers know their volunteers better and we think technology can help with that.”
He shared these challenges with his buddy Tan through Skype (while Chang was at the time in Australia) and Start Now was given birth. The platform helps not only volunteers but also NGOs by giving them the tools to manage their volunteers into groups, enabling the organisations to schedule them quickly and without the need for spreadsheets. For the schools, the teachers will be able to manage their CIP programmes through the platform which will connect the students to suitable volunteering opportunities and allow the teachers to track and report easily. Tan mentioned that for the latter, they are looking at partnering the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC).
Companies can also find benefit from the site as it offers tools so they can manage and report on employee volunteering and allow them to build up their strategic partnership programmes. Another highlight to the Start Now platform is it integrates with social media like Facebook, allowing the various stakeholders to notify volunteers of an activity and get them involved.
The service is currently free to the volunteers, non-profits and schools, but companies will need to pay a yearly fee for using the Start Now services that could range from S$3 to S$12 per user account. Start Now will be introducing a feature into its platform called Collages for companies in March 2012 which will also require them to pay for it. It will automatically create a photo and memory collage of stories and volunteer-uploaded photos of the activities the companies have participated in all on the site, instead of them needing to create a new site or having to manually do up a newsletter to showcase their volunteering activities.
Said Tan, who found his passion for social entrepreneurship while developing Singapore Polytechnic’s (SP) award-winning project Mission Sevapur in India (where the SP team would travel to India to initiate schemes that would generate funding for Inba Seva Sangan (ISS), a non-profit organisation that runs a number of programmes in Sevapur to benefit the population): “It will be interactive with companies being able to comment on the site, as well as the non-profits that the companies are working with.”
Start Now has been up-and-running in December of last year with an official launch slated for Social Business Week (organised by Grameen Creative Lab @ NUS) on February 20, and they have already begun using social media to rope volunteers to join in their cause. That was how the third “core” team got roped in – Xinyi Cheng, currently a final-year Mass Communications student from Nanyang Technology University (NTU) and a former classmate of Tan’s, who has been tasked to handle the communications side for the startup. “I took a course on CSR and studied sustainability reports of MNCs. Since then, I have wanted to have control of my time and to do something meaningful,” shared Cheng. (Two other volunteers have joined their cause as of press time – Ang Kar Yong, its creative director and Huey Lin, its head of new media.)
Many non-profits have already come onboard Start Now. Tan shared that in just four days, the team have signed up 42 non-profit organisations in Singapore and they are looking also beyond Singapore’s shores. He added that he would like to see the platform targeted more overseas as “we don’t want to go head-on with NVPC (and its portal SG Cares which does volunteer matching) as they are working on something in the pipeline that is similar to us and they already are doing a good job”.
Next month, Start Now will be working on partnerships with students in universities in Beijing (calling the chapter site kaishi.com starting with the prestigious Peking University) and Manila (University of Philippines, Manila). “We found through our research, Beijing has a low volunteering rate of 4 percent, while Manila with a high volunteering rate of 33 percent to 36 percent. We also already have people on the ground to work out the partnerships with the universities. It is a huge market in Asia – there were 229 million and that doesn’t include India,” said Tan.
By end of this year, Start Now hopes to include Vietnam and Thailand, however, all this would depend on available funding. “Or else, we will have to stay in Singapore and shore up the funding,” said Tan, who has taken a year-off from his architecture studies at NUS to concentrate on Start Now.
And with the injection of funding, the founders’ wish-list is to extend its branding to start several new sites including “Buy Now” for products made by non-profits and “Work Now” showcasing companies with good CSR. Said Tan: “Funding has been a challenge, as well as finding people passionate about social causes to help us.”
However, the team continues ploughing along as they believe wholeheartedly this is a good thing to do and spurred by the positive responses on the ground about Start Now – “The non-profits have been telling us that this is exactly what they need.” The two founders, along with their team, are committed to focusing full-time after all three have graduated.
Shared Cheng: “For us, it is really about doing good, but doing it well enough that it can be a sustainable business that carries on and expands to do better things for more people. While finances are still a challenge for now, we believe we will soon find our balance as we learn along the way.”