Written by Anne Field, Contributor, Forbes: She covers for-profit social enterprises and the people who fund them
Hyper-Local Web Site For Do-Gooders Around The World
A hyper-local web site that links up people in a community looking to help with individuals or small nonprofits looking for help: That’s the concept behind Think Good, a six-month-old social enterprise in Boston founded by two tech startup veterans. (Note that the enterprise is still in beta, and that link takes you to a place-holder, not the real web site).
To give you an idea of just how local we’re talking here: The tasks could be anything from shoveling an elderly neighbor’s driveway to helping at a local food bank. Also, there’s a big emphasis on the tiny, struggling nonprofit with a tiny budget and big needs. “These are understaffed groups with antiquated processes,” says partner and founder Ann-Marie Bland, “While at the same time being socially responsible is becoming more of the fabric of our world.”
Still, while the enterprise is barely off the ground, the founders’ ambitions are nothing if not large. “Our long-term goal is to be the social responsibility brand and build the largest community of ‘do-gooders’ who live the brand,” says Bland.
How would it work? Helpers would fill out a profile online with such information as their skills, how far away they’d be willing to drive and so on and people or places looking for help would post their need ( or call the office). Then an alert would be sent to appropriate potential volunteers to see who would be interested in lending a hand. If you don’t sign up to get an alert, then you can just periodically browse the site to see what’s there.
A long-time member of tech companies, (including Viaweb, the business co-founded by Y Combinator co- founder Paul Graham that was sold to Yahoo YHOO -1.26%! in 1998), Bland first got the social enterprise bug after 9/11, when she joined the staff of Connected Living, which aims to address a digital divide we seldom hear about–the one involving senior citizens who don’t know much about computers. “They were being left out of the conversation,” she says. It was the first time she’d worked for something that left her feeling really good about what she was doing every day, that she was making a positive difference.
About a year and a half ago, she met co-founder Jeff Ernst, who had been involved in a number of early stage startups, including Talent Reef, a social recruiting platform, but also made a significant commitment to volunteer work, including a church group that sends high school students to Mississippi every year to continue with post-Hurricane Katrina recovery work. He was stunned not only by the “euphoria” he felt while doing such work, but also the change he saw in the teenagers he accompanied. “I got to talking to my daughter about how we could bottle up that feeling throughout the year,” he says.
That’s partly where the kernel for an idea came from. Bland and Ernst decided the best answer would be a web site that would connect people in specific communities looking to help or looking for help–small tasks, either for an organization or for an individual, that could be done throughout the year.
With dozens of people already expressing interest, the partners decided the wisest course of action was to start small. Thanks to a critical mass of interest among residents of Portland, Me., they’re starting a pilot there.
Then they hope to fine-tune the concept and create “a Think Good in a box,” says Bland, that can be replicated easily in chapters in any community.
One key tool, they hope, will be something they call their “Inner Circle.” That’s a group of individuals, schools, nonprofits and other volunteer “do-gooders” (their term), who participate in weekly calls to discuss improvements, changes, what’s working, what isn’t, and share their stories. So far, they’ve had 40 people sign up, including someone from Malaysia and a group from India.
The question, of course is , with such lofty ambitions, where will the revenues come from? For now, Bland and Ernst are kicking around a few ideas. First, through discussions with their Inner Circle, they’ve learned there’s a desire to get together in person. So they plan to create workshops, retreats, benefit concerts, and conferences. They’re also toying with the idea of designing branded apparel; they say they’ve been approached by organizations interested in associating themselves with social impact enterprises. Then there’s the idea for a point system (called social good currency), which would accumulate based on individual activity and could be exchanged for donations to charities.
Certainly, there are a lot of sites using the web for social good. (I recentlywrote about Reciprocity & Co., one such effort aimed at crowdfunding). But the hyper-local and national–even international–focus of this one sets it apart from at least some of the others.