In a country with South Africa’s levels of rising inequality, people often say that they’d like to volunteer their time towards a good cause – but don’t really know where to start. REBECCA DAVIS takes a look at a new online initiative, forgood.co.za, which aims to match up people and causes in a way which makes the best use of an individual’s specific experience or assets.
“My sister is a retired HR professional, and she wanted to get involved in volunteering,” says Dr Garth Japhet, the founder of Soul City and current CEO of multimedia NGO Heartlines.
“I asked her: ‘What are your passions?’ She replied: ‘Gardening, reading, and walking’. She’s now going to be doing the garden of a children’s home.”
This kind of story is one that Japhet and his collaborator, digital strategist Andy Hadfield, hope will become increasingly common. Through their new website – forgood.co.za – they aim to provide a vehicle for people to arrange to volunteer their time in their communities by offering services which play to their strengths to deserving causes.
Forgood operates in a number of different ways. On the website’s ‘Volunteer’ page, different causes have advertised their volunteering needs. A children’s home in Jeffrey’s Bay is looking for people to help out with garden maintenance. An HIV charity is seeking someone with the necessary expertise to assist with updating their website. The South African Haemophilia Foundation has put out a call for volunteers to entertain children waiting for treatment.
Individuals wanting to volunteer their time can browse through these pages to find a cause that interests them. After registering interest, an email with your contact details is then sent to the cause organiser, who contacts you accordingly.
An individual who wishes to donate either time or goods, but can’t find a cause that fits the bill on the website, can also create an ‘Offer’. A psychologist is currently giving away 10 knitted soft dolls. Someone else has three Matric Dance dresses to contribute. One individual is offering golf classes to youngsters. There is another offer from someone who says they are “the owner of a small content and copywriting business”, who would “love to give back in some way”, by teaching accounting software or similar to a needy NGO.
On the other side of the system, ‘Causes’ sign up on the website for free to advertise their needs.
It’s early days for Forgood, but it’s noteworthy how many more needy ‘Causes’ there are than ‘Offers’ on the website thus far. CEO Hadfield is nonetheless confident that the necessary philanthropic spirit exists among the South African public to make the initiative a success.
“Giving is hard. It’s overwhelming. People don’t know where to start. The modern world is so busy, that only the truly committed have the time and energy to figure out the best way to do good and give back to society,” Hadfield told Daily Maverick. “What if we could make that easier?”
Hadfield says there is data – such as the World Giving Index – to suggest that an appetite for “giving back” is growing within South African society.
Tongue-in-cheek, Hadfield refers to Forgood as being a bit like “a dating site for the giving industry”, because it matches people with the organisations that can best make use of their offers. There is a (human) vetting process for the causes which can register needs on the site: Forgood only considers causes which have an NPO certificate or equivalent, which are more than a year old, which are active on various channels, and which ideally publish audited financial statements.
Japhet compares the idea behind the website to the kind of “disruptive” innovation offered by services like Uber and Air BnB.
“It’s all about picking up excess in the system and using it effectively, connecting it to need,” Japhet says. “We’re sitting with excess: an old tumble dryer that we haven’t bothered to get rid of. Retired people with valuable skills who are looking for some sort of purpose.”
Japhet is keen to move away from a model of volunteering which plays solely on guilty consciences or a sense of social obligation.
“That it’s the right thing to do is valid, but that’s not the approach I would like us to take,” he says. “There is plenty of psychological research that shows that being involved in your community is really good for you. I want us to get away from this ‘worthy’ stuff. It can be fun. It’s about saying: ‘There’s stuff I enjoy doing, and I have time on my hands’.”
Similar initiatives to Forgood – including websites like VolunteerMatch and Donors Choose – have existed in the USA and Europe for some time, but Japhet says there are no substantial equivalents in the developing world.
While there is no cost to individuals or causes on the site, there will soon be a for-profit, “business-facing” element to the site. When active, it will “allow businesses to customise this platform and activate it into their staff communities”, says Hadfield.
Japhet believes that the best chance of creating scale for the website probably lies in tie-ups with businesses rather than the general public.
“There is a good business case for staff involvement in their communities,” he says. “Businesses which encourage that see increases in productivity and in staff retention.”
His hunch is also that people tend to take philanthropic action more effectively in groups than on their own, which is why Forgood is hoping to see book clubs making an offer of old books, sports clubs looking to donate old equipment, and well-resourced schools passing on old equipment when it’s upgraded.
One element of the Forgood system which may cause headaches is that there is no rule compelling people to make their ‘Offers’ – of time or goods – completely free of charge. How will they prevent people from using the site as a glorified Gumtree, to offload unwanted goods for some extra cash?
“It’ll be an interesting day when the first discount service gets pushed through as an offer,” admits Hadfield. “It’ll be fascinating to watch how causes react. My gut tells me free will always work better.”
“You know what? Giving feels good,” says Hadfield. “Helping people feels amazing. It breaks your routine. It wakes you up to truths and experiences that you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. And it teaches you some beautiful, if sometimes hard, things about the country we love so much.” DM
Forgood website: www.forgood.co.za