Interview: Givology.org founder Joyce Meng
I have more than a passing interest in how internet technologies affect they way that social innovations are made and even more so when it comes to the support of education for the less privileged. So I was very happy to be given the opportunity to talk to the founder of Givology that recently launched a site whose purpose is to raise money for scholarships and education projects in the developing world.
According to its site,
Givology is an Internet online giving marketplace that empowers individual donors to connect with students and communities in need of education support. By leveraging the internet to support education grants and projects, Givology creates a global community of people connected through their belief in the power of education.
Givology works a lot like DonorsChoose.org, where donors provide small donations through the site to fund students or educational projects that are listed on the site. Whereas DonorsChoose.org focuses on projects in the US, Givology currently funds partners in China, Uganda, Rwanda, India, Kenya and Ecuador. Like DonorsChoose.org, the main challenge is vetting the partners who work with the students, maintaining transparency of the process and regular feedback informing the donors how their donations were spent. It seems Givology fellows also regularly travel to sites to check on progress and provide support, blogging about their activities to the site.
What does seem like a small donation to donors in developed countries do go a long way in developing countries, and providing someone around the world a better way of life through internet-empowered sites like Givology would have been something hard to imagine just 10 years ago.
I remember watching on BBC News in the mid-80′s images of children dying in Africa which produced a huge public outcry which resulted in such huge fund-raising events as Band Aid, USA for Africa (who can forget “We are the world”) and LiveAID. That seems befitting for the MTV age. What many were left wondering however is after all the hype, what happened? Back then, big organizations did big fund-raising for big impact, but unfortunately these efforts were not entirely sustainable.
Sites like Givology, DonorsChoose.org, or Kiva.org are tiny in comparison, but no less ambitious. They value personal connections and take small donations, but it is these small drops that make the ocean, and the force for sustained and effective change.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Joyce Meng, and I am the CEO and co-founder of Givology. In 2008, I graduated from the Huntsman Program of International Studies and Business at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in finance and international studies and minoring in mathematics and Spanish.
Currently, I am a graduate student at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Last year, I finished a Masters Degree in Economics for Development and this year, I”ll be joining the Financial Economics program. More information about my background can be found on my site: www.joycemeng.com.
How old is your organization (givology.org), and how did you get started?
We launched the first version of our site in September 2008, but the concept was in development since March 2008. We worked really hard to develop the technology features in-house and to form grassroots partnerships with some great community organizations.
As for the story of how the idea came to be, it all started with an idea of making education philanthropy as easy, transparent, and accessible as possible, and a belief that education was dominated too much by traditional forms of donations. We really wanted to build a community and a social network around giving that was really engaging and active, not just a passive “write your check” and receive an annual update.
Our purpose was to engage donors to support talented students from across the world. Givology also came from a commitment to promote grassroots education causes and to enable the dreams and aspirations of students worldwide. For a good primer on our strategy and our philosophy, please do check out the following critical analysis paper that I wrote: https://www.givology.org/static/microphilanthropy_education.pdf
How does the site/program work?
Our aim is to make our site as intuitive as possible. Below is a general outline of the mine steps to begin donating and participating in the online Givology community:
- Create an account
- Browse student and project profiles
- Add money through Googlecheckout to your “wallet”
- Allocate money from your wallet to the students and projects you want to support
- Receive automatic updates and notifications about postings of the child or project’s progress and impact! Also, each user has the ability to message students and projects. We collect and deliver to the student or the project your updates, so your words of encouragement really makes a tremendous difference, as you can read from the student letters that we receive. All donors have the opportunity to blog and post their own thoughts to their Givology journal
We welcome people to update their profiles, read our notes from the field, where our fellows post their research insights as they travel and do volunteer work abroad, as well as join different giving team groups on the site
What successes have you had so far?
Every bit of progress is a milestone, especially as we are reaching our first year.
- Helping hundreds of kids through student and projects and knowing we change their lives, reading about how our small contribution makes a difference – really helping change the nature of education philanthropy and supporting great grassroots work
- Raising $10,000+, forming 18+ grassroots partnerships in 7+ countries, sending fellows to 4+ countries in the world to research and conduct due diligence on education issues, building an innovative technology platform, running a successful internship and volunteer program, starting chapters in 3+ universities and 2+ high schools in 2009 and hoping to expand
- Getting selected as one of the top 100 student-run enterprises by the Kairos Summit
- Winning first place at the Education Without Borders “Technology” theme
- Featured in Knowledge@Wharton, Nicholas Kristof’s NYT blog post, Philly Inquirer, Penn Gazette, Seattle Times…
- Raising ~$10,000 and on track to $20,000
What has been your biggest challenge?
One big challenge is encouraging repeat donations and getting the word out. People generally get very excited about Givology and our concept, but then they sometimes forget to visit the site again, message the students they have helped, or continue to be part of the community.
We’re a 100% volunteer network so we depend on the time and skill contributions that each individual can make. Sometimes coordinating our network of 15+ team members and 50+ volunteers can be very difficult, but we’ve adopted the processes to get people engaged to work together on different projects.
Our organization is very young and still growing tremendously. The benefit of being a purely volunteer-based network is that all the donations raised online go directly to our partners.
In terms of efficiency and low administrative costs, we’re definitely top rated! We’re really committed to being lean and making the biggest impact – no admin or overhead cost so that we can make greatest impact. In light of the financial crisis, we know it’ll be a challenge to meet our target of $40,000 by next year, but we believe that with effort, we can do it!
How do you work to promote trust between the user and Givology?
Transparency is one of our core principles. To promote greater disclosure and information sharing, we have quarterly student updates of scanned letters, photos, videos, transcripts. For an example, you can visit our student updates section: https://www.givology.org/studentupdates/, or click under each student’s profile “View my Updates”.
We also have messaging so the donor can pass on a short letter of support and see the student’s response and a fellowship program in which our fellows visit our partner sites, make sure everything is going correctly, and then post blog posts online, acting as the “eyes and ears” of our organization.
We have a rigorous due diligence process to select grassroots partners – for more details about the selection process, you can visit the partner application page on our site.
Most importantly, we’re constantly monitoring, and are not afraid to admit when things go wrong. For example, a few of our sponsored students dropped out of school due to financial pressure at home. We refunded the money to all the donors and sent them a message informing them of the unfortunate event. Even though we do our best to encourage students to stay in school, we understand that the harsh reality may force them to choose otherwise.
We believe in transparency and are not afraid of sharing the difficult challenges that arise with our donors. This new era of social networking has given us so many tools to reach out and connect to our community – we have twitter, facebook, notes from the field, givology news to keep people updated and engaged. It’s not just about donating, but building a community around giving and creating dialogue to promote trust and greater development.
What is the future for Givology?
Future? For us, we have so many ambitions! The great thing about our technology platform and our organizational strategy is that it is fully scalable. We intend to expand to many new geographies and partners, start more chapters at schools and regions throughout the world, build out our volunteer and supporter network, increase traffic to our site, improve our technology platform, among many other goals.
We have lofty dreams, but we strongly believe that internet microphilanthropy and building a community around giving can make a tremendous difference. Concretely, we’re targeting $20,000 for 2009, $40,000 for 2010 and $70,000 for 2011 and beyond, with more than 5,000 registered users by the end of 2010. But most importantly, we want to make sure that we’re innovating and listening to what people are saying so that we can adapt in connecting and supporting meaningful education projects throughout the world in areas of great need.
We want Givology help thousands of talented students realize their dreams, as well as empower communities across the globe to harness the talent of their young.
- Givology entry in Wikipedia
- Givology: Using Social Networks to Connect Education with the Developing World, Feb 2009 interview with Catherine Gao, chief development officer for Givology in Knowledge@Wharton
- Givology – democratizing giving to benefit students, Oct 2008 article in Asian American Giving