There are entire industries that have historically been the backbone of our economy but are struggling to maintain appeal and engagement in a modern world and the daily lives of mainstream America. However, their services are essential to our communities.
Community financial institutions are one; nonprofit organizations are another. Both have seen a continued decline in support as society has evolved into the Digital Age. I believe passionately that both of these industries play a crucial role in civic life. That’s why I founded Swoovy with the goal of providing a platform — and innovative business strategies — to help them change their trajectory and enter the modern era.
How It All Began
I spent the early part of my career in advertising, working on campaigns to breathe life back into legacy brands such as Coors, Clorox and Charles Schwab. In 2008, I joined Kasasa (previously BancVue), an early stage fintech company whose mission was to help community banks and credit unions compete against megabanks. These smaller institutions had historically fueled the majority of small-business loans across the country but were seeing a sharp decline in new account holder growth as a perception grew that larger banks had superior technology and resources.
As BancVue, Kasasa had developed an innovative SaaS platform for these community financial institutions that allowed them to offer products to consumers that could out-compete any large bank offering — such as reward accounts earning interest over 5 percent on free checking or savings. But the technology by itself was not enough. Without the resources larger banks were able to leverage to advertise and engage in the market, it was an uphill battle trying to change the public perception that these did not have the products that a modern customer would need.
I led the research, brand strategy and rollout of a consumer brand, Kasasa, that would be a cooperative model for our community bank and credit union clients — allowing them to benefit from shared resources and drive awareness and credibility around a national brand that their local branch carried. This brand strategy resulted in over a 70 percent lift in new acquisition for the early clients and a continued change in trajectory for those that joined the brand coalition. The Kasasa brand is now nationwide with more than two million consumer account holders, and it’s the fourth largest banking branch network in the country. Our team earned two Finovate “Best in Show” awards, an ADDY award and five Marcom awards — and I remain immensely proud of the work we did together.
Why Only a Quarter of Adults Volunteer
In 2018, I noticed a similar trend within the nonprofit sector: While nonprofits are hungry to get more volunteers in the door (and a large part of their operations is heavily dependent on that help), volunteerism rates have been declining sharply over the past two decades.
I felt strongly that the cost of not having support for these organizations is an extremely high price to pay. Without the necessary volunteer support for nonprofits, some of the most vulnerable people in our communities will not get the care they need. I learned that nonprofits share a similar challenge to the community financial institutions: They largely attract an older demographic, and, at the same time, they lack the resources to develop the kind of marketing and brand-awareness efforts that will connect and engage a larger market.
This decrease in volunteerism is not a demand issue. A full 90 percent of adult Americans say they want to volunteer, according to the Stanford Center of Longevity. The problem is that only one in four do.
While Millennials are cause-driven, their time spent volunteering is lacking. In many instances today, if someone wants to volunteer it’s a multi-step process to get involved — and it’s mostly offline. Often, you have to:
- Find an organization that interests you.
- Email or call them to get details on volunteer opportunities.
- Fill out an application and go in person to take a background check if you’ll be working with seniors or children.
- Wait for approval.
- And, finally, attend an in person training or orientation.
If people do have a few hours to volunteer on a Saturday, they often bail during this process. And on the backend, the nonprofits are often managing volunteer engagement and recruitment with spreadsheets, hand-written notes and phone calls — none of which is scaleable or conducive to engaging a younger, technology-driven audience that is accustomed to getting involved with a click of a button. Millennials connect with brands they know, have an appetite for and are easy to engage with digitally.
The Swoovy Solution
Applying a similar strategy of combining a technological solution with a brand strategy that could connect with people in their modern lives, I launched Swoovy, a platform that aims to modernize the way nonprofits recruit volunteers by making it easy and enjoyable for people to weave service into their everyday lives and relationships. The Stanford Center of Longevity notes that the top reasons why people do not volunteer are:
- Not enough time.
- Not enough information.
- No one asked them to go.
With that in mind, I saw two opportunities that would lead Swoovy’s strategy to market: efficiency in the process of finding and signing up for a volunteer opportunity and having someone to go with. My hope for Swoovy was to not only eliminate the pain points in trying to find ways to get involved, but also the internal struggle people feel about making a decision about whether to spend their limited time outside of work, school and life commitments to foster personal relationships — or spending it helping others.
Looking at outside industries for inspiration, I realized that strong partnerships are the key to solving the problem. Within the health and wellness industry, accountability partners drive success. Everyone’s familiar with the “wingman” who helps you to do that thing you’ve always said you’re going to do.
Initially, we introduced Swoovy to the Austin market as a dating app that connected single people to go on a date volunteering at a nonprofit. This provocative approach caught the attention of the market, and with very limited marketing spend as a startup, Swoovy has grown close to 4,000 users and has supported over 100 nonprofits in the area. I chose this specific online dating market first because of the large population of singles now using dating apps who are willing to dedicate time to finding a meaningful relationship — but are often still seeking a better way to connect through shared interests and make the most of their time. My research also uncovered the fact that dating experts have frequently recommended volunteering as a great way to establish and grow a relationship.
According to the Independent, Millennials alone spend over 500 hours on dating apps a year. Just one hour of volunteer time is worth an estimated $27.20 to a nonprofit, so when you crunch the numbers at scale you find that, if app-based daters went on one volunteer date a month, we could infuse billions of dollars into the nonprofit sector and have a massive positive impact on society.
Taking Group Experiences to the Next Level
After its initial launch as a volunteer-based dating app, it became evident that the efficiency Swoovy was providing in matching people with volunteer events was indeed one that interested a broader audience. Corporate and faith-based groups started reaching out to Swoovy to seek information on available volunteer opportunities, and couples over and again told our team during community events that they would like an app like Swoovy to easily find volunteer opportunities and have a new kind of “date” together that could help them strengthen their relationship and get involved in the community. We later validated this market with a quantitative study conducted by a third-party research firm. Building on these key insights, we launched an experience called Couples, where for less money than a cup of coffee, you can subscribe to have a joint account and view and invite each other to endless volunteer “dates with impact” — and we’re even offering at-home options today.
In addition to the Couples experience, we have now launched a desktop experience for Groups, which was the direct result of efforts by four female University of Texas entrepreneurship students who I guided as part of a summer practicum course. The students felt so passionate about bringing Swoovy to their collegiate and fraternal groups that they spent their summer project doing just that.
The Latin Economic Business Association became the first group to sign on, and it found that the platform has saved it time in finding service events — and has kept the group connected even in this difficult start to a semester.
“With a new semester upon us and many of the pressures around virtual classes, there are challenges for organizations to stay connected and also continue service work we feel so passionately about. While it was already difficult and time consuming to identify volunteer opportunities, this adds another layer. We were excited to learn about Swoovy for Groups; it will be the perfect way for LEBA to continue to stay active in the community and as an organization — with virtual volunteer opportunities as well as in-person events that follow safety guidelines.” —Maria de los Angeles Villarreal, LEBA Community Service Coordinator
Through Swoovy, LEBA completed a virtual walk to raise awareness for the Alzheimer’s Association, raising $500 along the way. As a group, they’ve also prepared more than 32,000 meals at the Central Texas Food Bank.
With the pandemic in play, we’ve quickly pivoted to work with nonprofits on promoting virtual volunteer opportunities, launching in-app video and voice chat for singles to stay connected, and providing group volunteer social hours for corporate teams looking to stay connected and do good.
If we can find the right investors — who are driven by a genuine desire to drive positive social change — we believe we can catapult into a new phase of growth not just within the Austin area but beyond.