As satisfying as volunteering is for many of us, the time commitment can often limit opportunities to do good.
And though the Internet, through websites like VolunteerMatch.org, has made it easier to match needs with those willing to provide solutions, the idea of micro-volunteering had few broad-minded advocates until Jacob Colker. In 2007, Colker co-founded, with Ben Rigby, the San Francisco-based organization known as the Extraordinaires. Later rebranded as skillsforchange.com, it featured one of the first smartphone apps enabling volunteers to donate a few minutes of spare time to charitable community groups and other nonprofits in need.
“For the most part, traditional volunteering opportunities require a commitment of time, but we created a marketplace where it was easy for nonprofits to post tasks,” says Colker, a Rolex Laureate. “And you could volunteer to do something that took as little as five or ten minutes.’’
The tasks vary widely. Blogging. Fundraising. Design work. Accounting. Research. Brainstorming. Language translation. Moreover, a few minutes of time here and there add up: Today the organization has a network of more than a million volunteers and 50,000 nonprofits.
“At the time, it was totally transformative—one of the pioneers of crowdsourced volunteering for the common good,’’ Colker says.
To date, skillsforchange.com has helped complete more than 16,500 projects for nonprofits all over the world.
Being named a Rolex Laureate for his efforts helped legitimize and grow the program from small experiment to crowdsourcing powerhouse. “It told us we were on the right path and encouraged us to push further,’’ Colker says.
While crowdsourcing has long since matured, Colker, now 33, still marvels at what the early days were like. He recalls one Arab family’s poignant request for language assistance while their child underwent cancer treatment over a two-month period in Ohio.
“They were going through a terrifying situation—an Arabic translator would have cost thousands of dollars,’’ he says. “Within 20 minutes of posting a request for help, someone logged in from Jordan and spent a couple of hours translating documents into Arabic. That was really beautiful.”
Now a Seattle-based serial entrepreneur, marketer, angel investor, and former political operative, Colker is still involved with the project but no longer runs it.
He credits Rigby, now CEO of Sparked.com, for much of its success.
“I was the guy who took it to market and adjusted it to make it more useable, but Ben was the technological mastermind,’’ Colker says. “Without him, it wouldn’t have happened.”