Changing the Way We Think About Volunteering

Interviewed by Ellie Main

This week I was lucky to sit down with Carla Smith, a marketing professional and soon to switch from the corporate sector to the nonprofit world (for more information about that transition, see our last blog post!). Full of positivity and energy, Carla and her business partner Lindsay Cooper (Coop) are going to change the way we think about volunteering by streamlining the process of finding volunteers and finding organizations who need volunteers, starting here in Austin, TX.

So Carla, why the switch? What made you decide to quit business and start a non profit?

I almost got this now or never feeling. I don’t necessarily have anything against ‘Corporate America’ - I’ve been lucky enough to work with a really cool company - but I knew if i were to stay there I would be there, and I’d build a career and that would be my focus. I had this now or never moment of knowing that I’ve acquired skills that I can apply to do good at this point in my life. I’m not scraping for the bottom-of-the-barrel type jobs to make money, I’ve built a career and skills. It was like, “alright, I have to make a decision. Do I want to jump ship and try something exciting and fun that could potentially be extremely fulfilling, or do I want to build my career using the foundation I’ve already got.” And I jumped ship.

So did you and Coop have a moment of “this is it?” How did you guys come to start this together?

We met through a friend of a friend in college and that was about 7 years ago. She lived in San Francisco and I lived in Austin (or in Tucson where I went to college), and we stayed in touch. We've always had a vibe. So then, six months ago both her and I had talked about how we were sick of our 9-5 jobs and how they felt soul sucking, in a way, and neither of us felt connected to the world or what was important. So I emailed her, and she was actually at Burning Man, and I said “I would like to invite you to change the world with me. I have no idea how, when, where, or why, anything! But let's do it. We’re both going through this feeling, let’s do something about it.”

So we decided to pick a random location in the world where we could both meet that would be inspiring for us. We both found deals to Vancouver, Canada so we flew there and spent the weekend brainstorming what we would want to do with our lives. What we ended up landing on is that we're both really passionate about volunteering and being connected in communities, but in totally different ways. She lived in Ghana for six weeks and volunteered at an orphanage and has a lot of really interesting opinions and ideas about this international volunteer tourism phenomenon. I’ve done more of the local stuff with Urban Roots and local gardens and that's the kind of stuff I really enjoy. Volunteering was the common theme we found so we decided to do something with that!

Why is Volunteering such an important issue for you? What’s the vision for your non-profit? I grew up mostly in rural, small town, ‘cornfield and tractor’ Minnesota. When you grow up in a community that small, everyone is so connected. That can be good or bad, but I was lucky in that the community I grew up in was very open minded and forward thinking. Both of my parents were college professors, so they always emphasized learning, exploring and questioning, but above all that they emphasized travel and getting outside of your comfort zone. And that’s the definition of volunteering and working in non profits, it’s getting outside of your comfort zone and doing things you wouldn’t normally do! And it becomes its own community in and of itself, within a larger community. So the vision is to create more mindful people. That’s the overarching goal. For example, I went did an orientation at The Arch. We went outside and it smelled like urine, to an extreme. The volunteer coordinator said to us, “I’m sure some of you are noticing the smell. To me, that’s really sad. When you encounter this smell, it means that a person couldn’t find a restroom to use, and they were forced to go outside. No one wants to do that, no one.” So even by just doing the orientation, I got a new perspective and became more mindful. The next time I walked past an area outside that smelled like that, that’s what I thought of. I thought “Wow that really sucks that someone couldn’t find a restroom that they were allowed to use.” I’m not saying people are ignorant, necessarily, they just don’t have this other perspective. Volunteering gives you a new perspective and it makes you a better person. The word volunteering doesn’t normally equate to bettering yourself; if you ask people what they think of volunteering they’ll probably think about giving something away, whether its time or money. Actually, there’s so much to gain from volunteering. We’re trying to make it more fun, more accessible and interesting and make it clearer what you can get out of volunteering.

How are you aiming to do that?

Our goal is to inspire and connect a group of people, who currently connect through technology. Volunteering has not evolved into what technology is. We want to take the process of volunteering, the process of finding opportunities and the process of organizations managing their volunteers into the instant world. What do you do when you need a ride somewhere? You go to your phone and open an app and book a ride. If you need a place to stay you go to your phone and open and app and you find a place. It’s all right there and that’s how everyone is used to operating, so that’s our goal. We’ve done a ton of research on this and basically people will tell you that they don’t have time to volunteer. Really, what we’ve found, is that it’s not that they don’t have the one hour a week to dedicate to something, it’s that they don’t have the mental capacity or the time to dedicate to sifting through all the applications. In some cases it takes 3 months to hear back - sometimes you never hear back. Then you go through this whole process, you do the background check, the orientation, the training, and you might not even like it. That is not how things work these days and we’re trying to fix that. And it's not the fault of the organizations - part of the problem is that non profit organizations and volunteer coordinators have to deal with archaic technology and processes because they don't have the financial resources that for profit companies do. Volunteer coordinators end up spending very little time with the volunteers, and all their time doing admin. By making the volunteer to organization seamless and tech savvy we’re freeing up so much of the coordinator's’ time so they are able to do more events, networking and create more programs. We're seeing the potential for the organization to get stuff off their plate and to use technology to create more face to face connection. It may sound counter intuitive but it really is the case and that’s such an exciting prospect for volunteers, for organizations and for what we’re trying to do.

What Austin-based non profits inspire you? Who have you connected with?

Urban Roots is one of my favorites. It’s really important to have a connecting with food and where your food comes from and the work that is put into it, and it makes you happier and healthier to know that. Urban Roots teaches that to kids, and of all the people who need this education it’s our kids who are exposed to so much fast food. We’ve also worked with a cool, quirky organization called book project who send texts and books to non violent criminals in jail so they can continue to learn and read and stay engaged. So those are a few we’ve worked with and they really make you feel like you’re making a difference. You get that connection to making a change right away.

We’re excited to be following Carla and Coop on their ‘startup’ journey, so watch this space for more information, launch dates and way that you can get involved in their cause! We at One Story are all for championing the efforts of socially and environmentally conscious individuals and organizations, through our blog and social media but mostly through the powerful medium of filmmaking. Check out our website for examples and information on the projects and productions we’ve been a part of, and if you’re interested in how we can help give your organization a voice, send us an email, or give us a call!

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