UCI News

Verifying volunteerism

Startup founded by alumna and fostered by UCI incubator aids, tracks student community service

by Lilibeth Garcia, UCI | March 16, 2020
Verifying volunteerism
Amy von Kaenel ’90, MBA ’96, founder and CEO of VolunteerCrowd, pitches the startup during a Wayfinder event at UCI Beall Applied Innovation. Courtesy of Amy von Kaenel

With University of California campuses receiving record-breaking numbers of applications – and admissions officers only able to spend a matter of minutes on each – students must try harder than ever to stand out. One way to do this is with a record of community service. Colleges value volunteer experience because it indicates such “soft” skills as problem-solving and teamwork and shows what causes inspire the applicant.

But discovering and managing service opportunities can be a challenge for busy students, parents and school counselors. That’s why Amy von Kaenel – who earned both a B.A. in economics and an MBA at UCI in the 1990s – created the VolunteerCrowd service and mobile app. The first-of-its-kind product serves as a student volunteer project marketplace and verified transcript platform. The app makes finding volunteer opportunities at nonprofits as quick and easy as finding a good restaurant on Yelp.

And for a monthly fee of $8.25, the company will track the hours devoted to every volunteer project throughout middle school, high school and even college, as well as the types of causes involved and organization feedback on a student’s performance. This information is curated in a bold, colorful and easy-to-understand portfolio of volunteer work that can be sent to potential employers and college admissions officers.

After UCI, von Kaenel worked with a nationwide teen volunteer club, where she saw students blossom as they learned leadership, collaboration and other skills necessary to thrive in any context. She also witnessed the effects of volunteering on her own three sons, who discovered their passions while working with children, in healthcare and in the outdoors and then went on to actively pursue those interests.

Not everyone, however, is looking for a club experience. “Some students just want access to academic-related volunteer opportunities. They often want to self-organize volunteer projects with friends or classmates. VolunteerCrowd is flexible and built around their service-learning needs and goals,” says von Kaenel, who wanted to extend club benefits to everyone and encourage individual initiative.

“We hope to be that platform that helps students go from lost to finding a meaningful volunteer opportunity to knowing how to sign up,” she adds. “That’s a steppingstone to adulthood – knowing how to go out and get something that you want. We’re not only providing the practical, digital solution, but also providing guidance along the way.”

The app also offers tips on professional etiquette so students can make an impression while volunteering. When a project ends, an email is sent to the organization so leaders can verify students’ hours and provide endorsements on their skills and strengths.

VolunteerCrowd was launched in the early summer of 2019 and is already making an impact. The startup has won several competitions, one of them being the UCI New Venture Competition, held last May. It snagged first place (and $10,000) in the social enterprise track. The business is also supported by UCI Beall Applied Innovation’s Wayfinder incubator, which provides UCI-affiliated startups the resources they need to prosper.

“I’d been in a number of different accelerators, and this is one of the most comprehensive,” von Kaenel says. “There are presenters every few weeks deep-diving into topics that every entrepreneur needs to know: How do you legally structure your company? How do you write a contract or perform customer research? Privacy policies. What about your accounting? What models do you use to forecast your sales? How do you go to market? How do you make the most of digital marketing?”

She also praises the Wayfinder’s innovation advisers, who work with entrepreneurs on a one-on-one basis. “I’ve had a few times where I’ve gotten stuck, and I’ve booked time with my innovation advisers and said, ‘Here are my barriers and challenges. What would you do if you were me, based on your experience?’ And I’ve gotten some great recommendations.”

Today, more than 1,400 students nationwide are on the VolunteerCrowd platform, and 80 percent are actively engaged and tracking their progress – which is gratifying to von Kaenel. “I think: What if the student didn’t find that volunteer opportunity?” she says. “Just knowing that you can change their trajectory or enhance what they’re already learning – that’s what’s really exciting.”