Having Trouble Expanding Your Startup? Try Using Volunteers

Oct 15, 2013

Are you an entrepreneur working to solve community problems? Volunteers can help. Check out this post by Jay Cranman, vice president with the Points of Light Civic Incubator.

Civic Accelerator participants brainstorm.

What do you think of when I say the word “volunteer”? If you are like any of the hundreds of people within the startup community that I’ve spoken with over the last 18 months, this probably doesn’t bring up an image of high-growth, scalable startups. Volunteering isn’t sexy in the modern world of big data, the cloud, the sharing economy and other more notable themes impacting our startup community today. But maybe it should be.

Consider this. Could you be more effective if you had access to the same marketing, technology, financial and legal talent as more established organizations do, and it was free? Not everyone can quit their day jobs to change the world, but they might volunteer their talents to help you create extraordinary change. Volunteers can also help with the most basic tasks – serving meals, sorting donations and answering phones.

Volunteers can be convincing advocates for your startup. Their personal commitment to your mission makes them tremendously effective at sales and fundraising. They can help you stay connected to the community – they know its assets, important players and underlying challenges.

People have always been at the center of change – and people want to help more than ever. It is intrinsic to human beings. We see this every day at Points of Light in the 250 communities where we have HandsOn Network Volunteer Action Centers – from neighbors helping neighbors to corporate employees lending their talents to nonprofits.

People are using their purchasing power and voice, in addition to their talent and time, and thinking more holistically about how to engage with their communities. All together, Points of Light mobilizes 4 million people annually in 30 million hours of service, across 270,000 projects in 25 countries. Not bad, right?

But there’s a flip side. In 2012 alone, people across the U.S. spent more time watching a single episode of “American Idol” than they spent volunteering at one of our action centers.

I don’t say this to discount in any way the hard work and accomplishments of our organization, but rather to make a point. There is a tremendous underutilized asset pool in communities across the globe – people’s good intentions. Therefore, anyone who can turn those good intentions into real action will have an abundance of inexpensive, scalable and renewable resources at their disposal.

As any great entrepreneur can tell you, where there are vastly underutilized assets, there is an opportunity for value and wealth creation.

Two years ago, we launched a program at Points of Light called the Civic Accelerator (@PointsofLight #CivicX for anyone who wants to follow us on Twitter). Our goal was to drive innovation in the civic sector. What can we do to get more people using their time, talent, voice or money in new and different ways? How can we update – and possibly upend – what it means to volunteer, and in the process solve some of the pressing social and environmental problems facing our communities? Or more simply, how can we get people to “do something” more than text to vote for the next Kelly Clarkson?

After 18 months on this journey, I’m excited to say that I’m optimistic about the 19 investments we have made in civic ventures. There exist today a number of innovative and disruptive ways for people to get engaged.  

Do you want to be a “citizen scientist”?  No worries, Public Lab is here for you. Do you want to help raise money for a community park?  Great, Neighbor.ly is here for you. Want to make a film for good? Check out Jubilee Project. Want to spend a week volunteering in Ghana? Then sign up with UBELONG. All of these organizations didn’t exist a mere five years ago, and they are all poised to scale rapidly over the next five years as they solve social problems by turning people’s good intentions into real action.

Startups that don’t put people at the center of their product or service could be missing a tremendous opportunity. As we know, people are the only renewable resource in the world. We also know that managing (lots of) people can be hard. How might you and your team effectively engage more people in achieving your company’s mission?

We’d love to hear your stories and offer our own insights and advice around getting more people to “do something.” Please send your thoughts to [email protected] or comment below.

This post originally ran on the Startup Atlanta blog.