On Demand Volunteerism: Tapping America’s Well of Good Intentions
Almost everyone wants to do good, but how many of us actually manage to? Apparently, only 26 percent, according to studies on American volunteerism. For many of us with full-time jobs and kids, spending a chunk of time each week at an organization, no matter how beloved, simply isn't feasible. But what if you could do something meaningful for a cause you care about, while waiting in the grocery line or on the bus to work?
This spring, a group of innovators is launching The Extraordinaries, software for cellphones that mobilizes us to do good in our spare moments. “Anyone with a smartphone can be a changemaker,” says Jacob Colker. Colker together with Ben Rigby are the creators of the Extraordinaries, which won WeMedia’s 2009 Pitch It competition.
Their invention links users with volunteer tasks or “adventures” which can be accomplished in short periods of time. Users can scroll down a list on their iPhone or iPod touch click on an action. Help a recent immigrant with English, translate a brochure for a new non-profit group, read aloud for a blind newshound or help scientists discover craters on mars. These are some of the options users might see on the initial version of the Extraordinaries application.
Eventually, Colker and Rigby hope to develop and refine those options in order to offer volunteer opportunities that relate to users’ specific interests, skills or locale. “Using GPS, for instance, will be huge in our ability to get people doing things,” says Colker. They are already teaming up with SeeClickFix, a program that enables citizens to report local non-emergency infrastructure problems—a busted traffic light or a dangerous pothole, for instance—directly to the powers that repair them. They are also looking to build volunteer networks within cities, so that residents of a city can assist others in areas like housing or job searches.
Colker and Rigby see a way to further boost volunteerism by connecting their software to Facebook. Imagine that, after devoting cell phone time on behalf of your favorite animal shelter, your good deed automatically shows up on your Facebook page for all your friends to see. From there, they could launch games and competitions. Users could win points for tasks they accomplish and build up points to a prize. Or maybe, says Colker, “the personnel department competes with, say, the marketing department at your company, and the winner gets a day off?”
“The project was immediately striking because it uses crowd sourcing and connective technology in a new way,” says Jenna Lawrence, the competition manager at WeMedia. Crowdsourcing takes a task originally done by one person or a small group and outsources it to a large, undefined group. Another bold innovator who used crowdsourcing? Wikipedia. “A crazy idea, but it worked!” says Lawrence.
What do you think?
Will it Work? Can meaningful volunteer work be successfully broken down into small tasks? It sounds like fun to help NASA hunt for craters, but what about the people who need help the most? And will it be possible to build connections to these people or groups that make us want to come back?
Post your comments below: