“We can sit here and complain about it all we want, or we can try to do something about it. GoVoluntr is that for us.”
Founders Young Han, MJ Fogelstrom and Kevin Zittle are full of energy and passion. Their enthusiasm is certainly contagious. The source of their joy is an activity that has become bottlenecked into a an arduous chore. However, GoVoluntr does not buy the idea that volunteering is a drag, only applicable to soup kitchens. The site is on a mission to prove volunteering can be anything from helping pour wine at events, to live tweeting at a conference for a nonprofit. Whether you are new to the volunteer world or experienced, GoVoluntr wants their users to feel excited, rewarded, and to most importantly, have fun.
Han’s story is a familiar one in Silicon Valley. He sold his first business at 23, had two other ventures, and worked for Starbucks and Apple. Busy figuring out the next business edge, he never volunteered until Starbucks encouraged him. His life changed after visiting Hope Services, a nonprofit that assists people with developmental disabilities.
“It was very eye opening to me because I never had any experience with people with developmental disabilities. Then I started wondering, ‘What else didn’t I know about the world?’ ‘What other communities are out there that I never paid attention to?’”
Han started getting involved with everything from senior nonprofits to environmental nonprofits. “It got to the point where I was volunteering more than I was working. I was actually volunteering 40 hours a week and it was insane. I just loved it…I started sleeping better. I started becoming happier. My life changed immediately. I’ll never stop volunteering because it’s a part of me now.” After deciding to leave Apple, Han got together with Zittle, an Apple colleague, and Fogelstrom, whom he met while volunteering, to figure out how to volunteer for a living.
Fogelstrom’s parlay into the volunteer world is the product of Bellarmine College Preparatory and Santa Clara University, where his Jesuit education left a lasting impression on him. He credits his passion for volunteering to the schools’ focus on social action. With a background in city government, Fogelstrom quickly recognized the need to connect people seamlessly with the social sector.
There is often a great separation between the have and the have-nots in the South Bay. The startup is the marriage of San Jose soul and Silicon Valley technology. GoVoluntr wants to use the successes of Silicon Valley technologies to help the community. The website serves as a platform to match volunteers with opportunities. Schools, governments, and nonprofits can post volunteer prospects on the Opportunities Page and users can sign up for shifts with a mere click of a mouse. The site incorporates social networking and aspects of gamification, such as badges and leveling up, seen in sites like Facebook and Foursquare. This is to encourage involvement and to make it fun. As a volunteer accumulates hours, they receive “VPins” which they can turn in for perks, like concert tickets or even as a monetary donation back to a nonprofit. Users also get certificates the next day, thanking them for their service and verifying, for work or school, that they volunteered.
The incentive aspect of the company receives much attention, but Han and Fogelstrom are quick to point out that there is nothing wrong with applying the same strategies, used by the private sector, to increase productivity and morale for their employees. “We wanted to do incentives to really attract, engage and reward people who do good in the world,” explains Han. “Why not? We should be recognizing these people. They’re going out of their way to help someone else in need. If anybody should be acknowledged, it’s the people that are volunteering in our communities and making our world a better place.”
If you look at the business card of GoVoluntr, you will see “Professional Do Goodr” as the job description. In fact, users of the site can also use this title. Volunteers can be strategic about how they donate their time. Organizations don’t just need people distributing food, they need help behind the scenes, such as HR, sales and social media. It is a chance to work on your professional skillset while making an impact on the way an organization functions.
It can be easy to feel pessimistic about the world these days, but Han counters, “We can sit here and complain about it all we want, or we can try to do something about it. GoVoluntr is that for us. Anything can be done, and nothing is impossible. You just have to want it enough.”
Written by Kathryn Hunt
Photography by Daniel Garcia