Project Helping is a young, non-profit that uses the joy of purpose created by volunteering to improve mental wellness.
Tell us a little about your organization and yourself
The organization Project Helping was started based on my personal experience of struggling with my mental wellness. I was in a corporate American job and it was a very good corporate job. I was really struggling at that time with my mental health and, for me, a big piece of that stems from an existential crisis of what am I really going do with my life to help people? What am I going do, that I can kind of leave behind and say I did that for the world? So, at that time I kind of stumbled into volunteering. I was invited to volunteer by someone else. I had never done it. And I was really moved by the experience of helping someone who would never know I was helping them and could never repay me.
I started to volunteer a lot. I joked that I kind of got hooked on volunteering. I volunteered a lot, and realized after some time, that the reason I was volunteering is because it was really good for me. It was a fantastic outlet for me and a way to improve my mental wellness. That realization certainly inspired me to try and share that experience with other people. I wanted to formalize what I had gone through in a very accessible, simple organization that people could get involved with and use the act of helping others as a means to improve their own mental wellness. So really we're in the business of trying to help people find their purpose. Such a powerful piece of dealing with - you know, your life - and some of the mental wellness struggles that everyone at some point is bound to encounter.
I think one of the things that gets overlooked about volunteering and about helping other people, is the incredible benefit it has for the person that does the work or for the person that does something for someone else. There's immense health benefits that go along with that. I started Project Helping based purely on the anecdotal evidence of, "Hey this worked for me. I believe deeply it'll work for other people." Fortunately, there's a lot of fantastic scientific research that supports what we're doing. But it isn't why or how I started the organization. Really, our mission's simple:
“We create engaging, fun, social volunteer projects to leverage the health benefits that volunteering has.”
We also try to make those events ridiculously easy to sign up for, so that we take down all the hurdles for people to get involved in the community. It's that simple. That's really what the organization is. It’s a focus on putting people in a position to help themselves by helping others.
What do you look for when hiring or recruiting staff and volunteers?
I say a lot that you don't get involved in the world of mental health by accident. The first thing that we look for, “is there a passion for the cause?” Especially in staff and people that are kind of working with us, but not necessarily our volunteers that are volunteering as a means to improve their own mental health.
Mental wellness is a difficult world to work in a lot of times. There's a lot of forces at play. You mention the stigma piece, and that's a massive, massive piece that we fight against all the time. So first and foremost, I try to find people that are really passionate about mental health and passionate about the work. I wish that no one ever had to struggle with their mental wellness, but it's not a reality. So, people that intimately understand it because either they've experienced it, or because they've been touched by someone close to them experiencing a mental health issue. That's a very important piece of how we hire.
The second piece of that is culture and, once we've determined that, we really spend a lot of time on making sure someone is a culture fit. I think that you can teach a lot of skills, but you can't really teach someone how to fit into your culture. So, those truly are the two big things we look at. We want someone that has a passion for the cause and then someone that culturally will be a good fit for what we do.
How do you manage marketing your brand and getting your cause out there?
In the non-profit world, in particular, it's really easy to get wrapped up in how things have been done before. It's easy to get wrapped up in the emotion of a cause and the fact that what we do, what every non-profit does, is really important work. And I think that sometimes it's easy to lose sight of actually creating a brand around that. I think people tend to rest on, "We do really great things so, people will inherently be drawn to what we do." I think that's a huge piece for a lot of non-profits.
The word "marketing" is something that they don't really put a lot of time into. And I get it. We're all very passionate about our causes and that's where the majority of our time and resources go. But the best cause and the best non-profit is not really beneficial unless people know about it, they can come participate and use the amazing services that these non-profits offer. So we really focused early on creating a social or a digital presence. We have board members that are amazing at this. We have an FDO marketing expert and a social media marketing expert on our board. I would venture to say we spend more time than most non-profits on creating a really strong digital presence. None of that works, and none of that is possible, if you don't have a very clear vision for who you want to be as a brand. So we spent a lot of time early on making sure that we understood who we were, which is a modern, simplistic, light, approachable, fun brand. And that sounds a little unusual, I think, for an organization that's based on mental health to say light and fun and approachable. But that's a big part of the stigma, too, is that a lot of organizations are so set on how things have been, that we were okay with trying to buck that trend a little bit, if you will.
What unique and innovative ways do you take advantage of to attract younger age groups to your cause?
Well again, I think a lot of that goes back to the brand itself. I mean that's who we are. I think generally we're a younger group running a younger company. So we have unique approaches to that, but I think the majority of younger people at this point, obviously, spend their time on social media. They find things via Google. They spend their time on the internet. So our focus of having a strong presence there was, I think, the biggest factor in us being able to attract a young demographic, and our demographic is very young. Surprisingly, even to us, the majority of the people that volunteer with us, the majority of the people that participate, are under 30. At least that's our average age. So we definitely attracted a younger audience. Really bi-focusing on creating a brand that is more modern and also be present on all avenues of digital marketing.
What tools, such as social networks or other apps, have been the most helpful to you?
From a social media standpoint we focus on the big ones. We have a great following on Facebook. We're growing our presence on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I mean, LinkedIn we're still not as strong on, but generally the big ones we're really good at. We're a very virtual company. We don't even have a physical office space that we necessarily call home. We're completely virtual and intend to stay that way. One, we use all things Google, pretty much. We use Google Drive and Google Hangouts to collaborate. We pretty much use everything that we can find to collaborate. We use Basecamp as a task management tool and Eventbrite to manage all of our events and volunteer projects. Of course we use HireVue to onboard our volunteer event leaders. We really try to find anything that we can that allows us to work virtually. Salesforce, Basecamp, Eventbrite, HireVue or WorldVue, of course. And then all things Google, that's really kind of where we live.
There's a couple of pieces to that. One, there's amazing companies out there, like Google for example, that gives us AdWords dollars as a non-profit to spend. I mean, that's incredibly valuable to us as an organization. That we get 9,000 visitors a month to our website is in large part due to Google
How do you find Collaborative partners?
AdWords. There's so many, you know? Salesforce gives Salesforce away to non-profits. We have this amazing tool on the backend to manage our contacts, our opportunities, our donations and our volunteers. It's an amazing tool. There's so many great companies, and obviously, we use WorldVue all the time. So, great companies that are seeing the value of what non-profits do and really providing world-class productivity tools at little or no cost. It's just incredible what the opportunities are out there for non-profits to be productive, nimble and responsive. It's always mind-blowing to me the amount of help we're able to find out there from great companies like you guys.
How has your role changed since you came into the position?
I try to talk about this a lot, and I sometimes struggle with exactly how to paint the picture. But in any story you have the character; you have some sort of guide; you have some sort of call to action. Early on, in starting the organization, which I think lends itself to a lot of change-- early on I was the character, and I was being called to action by my experience in volunteering. And the call to action for me was to create something for other people to experience what I had experienced. Now that we're a couple years in, that role has changed and I've turned into more of the guide. First it’s guiding our company. But, really more than that, guiding the people that want to participate, calling them to act and calling them to volunteer as a means to improve their own mental wellness.
The whole personality of the organization has changed from being called to act to now being the person that is - and by person really the organization - that's calling others to act and experience what I experienced. Philosophically, and from a high level, that's certainly the biggest change in role. The other piece is, as an organization grows, there’s a lot less time for me spent working in the business and a little bit more time spent working on the business.
Early on there's obviously a lack of resources to spend a lot of time doing all of the day-to-day things and all of the other regular pieces that need to be done to make the organization function. When you have amazing people, like we do, that help with the day-to-day pieces and really make Project Helping run from one day to the next you participate less in the day-to-day and more in working on the high level strategic vision, planning and growing the organization.
What is one of the biggest mistakes you see non-profits making today?
It's kind of referenced in what I said before, I think that a lot of non-profits rely on the fact that they have an amazing mission and an amazing cause, and that they're going to help people.They rely on that really to be their call to action. They rely on people to kind of find them and see what they've done and just assume that when people do, they'll inherently want to be involved. Whether that's as funders or volunteers or people that need their services.
So, I think the biggest mistake is assuming that because you do great things for the world, that you don't need to market that, and you don't need to tell your story and you don't need to spread awareness around what you're doing. I think that's the biggest piece. You constantly have to be working on your brand as a non-profit. The other piece of that is the word "non-profit" in and of itself is very misleading. If it were up to me, I would change the word "non-profit" to "tax-exempt business." Because, it's a business, and it has to be run like a business. And you have to be thinking about marketing; you have to be thinking about sales. Whether you have a product to sell or not, you're selling your cause and your organization. You have to look at it a little bit more like a business and a little bit less like a cause. Because the better your business is, the more sustainable your cause is. So that to me, when you look at it like a business, comes back to the sales and marketing piece. You have to always be working on your brand.
It's actually a topic that I'm incredibly passionate about. I'm really passionate about the non-profit business model and how non-profits operate. And I think the future of the non-profit world is one in which they're run more like businesses, where non-profits realize that the things that they do have value, and they're not compelled to just give away everything that they do because they feel like they have to as a non-profit. We have a very unique model from the standpoint of we've actually created a technology platform of our own that's geared at inspiring more, or socially activating more people to get involved in the community. There's a monetization to that platform for us. And I hope that that's kind of the future of the non-profit world; running them a little bit more like tax-exempt businesses, where we can create more of a sustainable business model, where we're able to create revenue, and run our business like a business. The benefit of that being we can scale our cause and help exponentially more people. So, I hope the future is a progression in the business model of non-profits.