Sonali Ratnasinghe is still in college, but she’s already serving as the executive director of the General Services Foundation, a nonprofit she started with her friends, Shayna, and later Vrutika, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The group saw that it was more important than ever to positively impact the community, as well as seeing a need among their peers who wanted to create a change in their community but didn’t have the necessary resources and guidance to do so.
With their backgrounds in service and existing connections with nonprofits, the small but mighty team created the General Services Foundation in September 2020, where they would be the ones to teach up-and-coming community leaders at the high school level. Since they were high schoolers at the time, it was easy for them to connect with other high schoolers and understand their needs – they were part of the demographic they worked with! Sonali and her partners have worked tirelessly to provide opportunities for those around her and have succeeded in raising $35,000, collecting 30,000 items and serving 30+ nonprofits!
Read on to learn more about Sonali’s story and what inspires her about youth engagement.
Describe what your organization does.
My role is really about bringing people together to the nonprofit sector. So providing students the accessibility, understanding mentorship, resources and funding to really provide support to the the nonprofit sector, while really understanding what they want in terms of potential career development, or just creating a lifelong passion for service. So we’re teaching young people the “how” of the community.
What makes you passionate about youth empowerment?
People always like to ask me what my favorite cause is, and at the end of the day, there is no favorite cause for me. I realized that youth empowerment was important to me, but I didn’t want to choose one cause to focus on. So, I made them all my mission. The hope behind this is that any student will be able to find their place and their niche in the sector.
We’re teaching high schoolers how to hold drives, fundraisers and initiatives of all types to really do more in their communities. One thing we realized was that a lot of organizations out there are only getting students in the door just because it provides volunteer hours. But there a lot of students looking to have much higher levels of engagement and don’t have the resources to do so. So we’re really the people who bridge that gap and actually provide more of a support system.
We do this through two programs. We have Act and Advance, which is much simpler, for those just starting out and getting an idea of different areas of the industry, able to try different projects for different nonprofits and put in as little or as much time as they want. We also have the Young Nonprofit Fellowship, a program for dedicated students in service. These are for students who are looking for nonprofits as a potential career direction. They’re able to go through a fellowship process. And we connect them with a nonprofit to intern with while they develop professional skills and personal skills. This helps them take what they’re learning experientially further.
What do you hope to do after graduation?
That’s three years away! But I do know that I have lots of interests in both business administration and public policy. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with that yet, but my hope is that it’s community-focused and people-focused. I’ve loved working with different corporations, small businesses and policy makers who are asking, “How can we best get involved in community engagement? How can we best serve and actually listen to those with the need?” Learning from those with lived experience is something I hope to do for my entire life.
Why is it important in particular for youth to get involved?
The youth are our “now.” We always hear about how youth are our future, how they’re going to be impacted by the changes we make and what we do or don’t do. In reality, they’re here now! They’re going to be the ones moving the needle forward and they have opportunities and resources that previous generations haven’t. There’s so much hope for this new generation. Sometimes we have higher expectations set for us, but rightfully so, and I’m excited to see what differences we can make.
What’s your advice for people who want to start volunteering?
The double R’s: research and resources! There’s so many free research opportunities on different platforms to learn about what the nonprofit sector is really about. But also, learning about what your community is doing in particular and how you can get involved. Every city has local affiliates that share several volunteer opportunities throughout their city and state. There are so many different ways to get involved. Volunteering and donating aren’t your only options. You can think about your purchase power, voting, rallying… there are so many different ways and you just need to figure out your niche.
Additionally, use the resources you have. Actually set up conversations with the people around you, with nonprofits, with businesses, with the community, to see how you’re able to do more. Listening to the needs of the community is really what it’s all about.
How can people help?
You can visit our website and social media pages to learn more about the ongoing projects and initiatives we currently have!
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sonali? Find local volunteer opportunities.