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My journey to being a social entrepreneur started early. At the age of 12, I was on a family vacation in Mexico. We were in a typical tourist square in Mazatlan: I remember trays of silver jewelry for sale, the smell of burritos and high-spirited Mexican music.
What I saw next changed my life. My father and I peered down a cult-de-sac and saw starving, begging, dirty children. The word UNACCEPTABLE imprinted itself in my mind. That scene has driven me ever since.
I started volunteering in soup kitchens, with welfare recipients and clothing donations, at suicide crisis hotlines, and GED tutoring programs. I even studied at Gallaudet to learn sign language to teach a course so that I could communicate with deaf people. I wanted to know about every need so I could understand how to help. All of this was in the United States.
I admit I was obsessed.
One day my view of volunteering radically changed. I was reading the newspaper and thought, "why is the El Salvador earthquake crisis buried on page 27?" Because I was able, I booked a flight to El Salvador to volunteer. We took deliveries of food, clothing, and bedding in the back of a pickup truck to remote parts of the mountain above one of the hardest hit towns. These villages were so removed that the UN’s World Food Program wouldn’t go into them. Torrential rains caused landslides. Volcanic fluid flowed into their river and water supply. Their homes were collapsing. We did what we could. The needs were still greater.
After this trip, I wanted to make international volunteering and giving available for everyone. Volunteering on my own was no longer enough.
People should know about and be able to do something about these crises. Many are unknown, but they happen every day. An abused woman who has six children and no job training in a remote town in Indonesia. An eight-year-old girl stolen from her parents and trafficked in Egypt. A child in Kenya, one of thousands, who is hungry when she goes to bed at night. None of this is acceptable to me.
In the heart of Silicon Valley in 2002, I launched UniversalGiving, allowing people to donate and volunteer with top performing, vetted organizations all over the world. The organization connects millions of men and women who want to make a difference with global/local NGOs all over the world. Universal Giving has enabled giving for the masses - and has taken out the guesswork about where your money is going.
Early on our goal at Universal Giving was to break the outdated model of volunteering. Instead of the volunteer center giving you a list of volunteer opportunities, the people themselves choose.
We needed an online marketplace for international giving. So we created Universal Giving. People could choose where they wanted to give and/or volunteer according to their own interests, such as giving $10 to send kids to school in Guatemala, or building a sustainable food system in Costa Rica. We believed when the volunteers can choose, their passion sticks.
But we also knew that a marketplace isn't enough. Giving involves trust. That trip in El Salvador and many others in India, Cambodia, and Ecuador showed me amazing, local leaders on the ground. It also uncovered tremendous fraud and incompetence. So I set up a simple six-stage Quality Model that allowed people to know their organization was vetted and trustworthy. Today that Quality Model spans 24 stages and is used by donors and companies alike.
We base our Quality Model Vetting off of venture capitalist thinking: It has to be a great idea, have a strong marketplace and be run by great leaders. This isn't just about vetting the financials for links to terrorism, which of course we do. It's about investing in and reviewing the local leaders that know their communities' needs and live it day-to-day. People then give directly to these NGOs. No bureaucracies, layers, or delay in providing aid. That's why we also give 100% of every donation to every NGO. Why create more barriers to giving?
We also know that people who volunteer are two thirds more likely to give. Universal Giving provides giving and volunteering together. The donor gets efficiency by having the ability to give financially and of their time. Universal Giving’s NGOs also benefit - they receive donations and expert volunteers through one comprehensive service. Today more than 11,000 global volunteers have been matched all over the world. That's more than 18 million dollars worth of volunteer time donated.
I remember the day I knew it would take off. It was a letter from ten-year-old Nathan:
“I read about UniversalGiving. In our fifth grade we have a philanthropy project, so I raised money through my lemonade stand. It's coming to you to help the world.”
His donation went to vetted NGOs such as the Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation, sending children orphaned by the Ebola virus to school in West Africa. Through UniversalGiving they've sent hundreds of children to school, and built digital libraries for children who have never seen a book, watched a movie or received tutoring.
From Rhonda Staudt, leader of the Shirley Anne Sullivan Educational Foundation:
"We serve some of the most disenfranchised populations on the planet, stopping trafficking of children. Working with them in their most vulnerable moments it is crucial they are portrayed with dignity. I have never seen images of children in what we would deem unflattering. This ONE part of UniversalGiving's service might be the most important aspect of our partnership—and the fact that you recognize and promote our work in this field."
We constantly learn from our NGO Partners. We present giving on our website as positive and proactive, and we take it one step further by promoting their work on our blogs, social media and newsletters. For us, this isn't just about facilitating a one-time transaction. We want our donors to connect with the issues and NGO leaders, long term.
Then you've got the other side of the marketplace: The heart of the volunteer. Twenty-two-year-old Jimmy Diefenderfer took a trip to Cuba with our NGO partner Globe Aware. He worked at a tuition-free school for adults training to become barbers, a tree-planting sanctuary preventing landslides, and a center providing affordable meals for seniors. Jimmy told us, "I didn't expect to swing an axe, decorate a parachute, and dance with grandmothers all in the same week!"
Sometimes it's even more drastic. Our volunteers change careers or move to another country to serve. The impact isn't just on the NGO. We believe our volunteers are equally affected.
These stories are what we strive for. But social entrepreneurship can't stop with the heart - you have to have a sustainable business model. So we launched UniversalGiving Corporate, helping Fortune 500 companies create and scale their global philanthropy and corporate social responsibility programs worldwide. We set up CSR Strategy, vet NGOs, and disburse millions of dollars to organizations all over the world. Our clients Gap and Cisco pay us to do this. That's why we don't take a cut when you give. UniversalGiving Corporate also increases employee giving and volunteer rates, strengthens their global brand, increases employee retention, and builds a loyal client base. It has to make sense for the companies, too. So, 100% of each donation will always go directly to the NGO - we figured out how to be sustainable through our corporate partnerships to make the greatest impact.
That's true social entrepreneurship: creating a public service that helps the world, and offer it for free. Then, find a sustainable business model. We’ve got the heart, the head, and the resources to enable giving for the masses.