SponsorChange: How PA Students Can Volunteer to Pay Off College Loans
In theory, volunteering is simple, especially for students. You find somebody who needs help, lend a hand, and make the world a better place. But 29-year-old Carnegie Mellon graduate Raymar Hampshire saw the gaps in this happy scenario.
How do you find an organization tahat fits your new skills and busy schedule? How does the organization (or your school) track the work that you do? And how can you possibly spend time working for free when your budget is wobbling under tuition or student loan payments?
Reaching for answers, Hampshire and his brother, Robert, launched SponsorChange
in Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County in the spring of 2009. SponsorChange, now based in Pittsburgh, combines the cutting-edge principles of crowd-funding and microfinance to make volunteer work viable for Pennsylvania’s students.
“We’re trying to provide the skill and talent that nonprofits desperately need,” says Raymar Hampshire, an Ohio native who received his bachelor’s degree in Business Management from Wittenberg University, and then spent about four years as a Wealth Manager at Merrill Lynch. He notes that in recent years, these organizations are making do with less and less. The other side of the equation is helping students develop their career skills while reducing their financial burden.
According to Hampshire, Pennsylvania was a natural home for his start-up: SponsorChange is perfect for a state that has an unusually high proportion of colleges and universities as well as non-profit organizations.
The initial concept for SponsorChange, however, began in the Volunteer State when the two brothers had an epiphany on a road trip together in the summer of 2007.
“It was a moment where my brother and I were travelling through Tennessee,” Raymar Hampshire remembers. They were discussing 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Unus
, micro-financing, and entrepreneurial sponsorship.
“We wanted to know if we could actually help students,” says Raymar, who arrived in Pittsburgh in 2009 for a “phenomenal” nine-month Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs
, interviewing hundreds of community leaders and working as a cross-sector consultant.
Their idea won $50,000 from the Anne V. Lewis Post-Graduate Fellowship in Social Innovation at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz School
(where Robert Hampshire is an associate professor). For now, that money helps to fuel the company.
SponsorChange operates a growing newsletter base of about 15,000 subscribers, primarily in Pennsylvania. Some are non-profit organizations, some are “sponsors,” and some are potential volunteers, known as “change agents.”
The plan is simple. SponsorChange’s platform connects interested students with a variety of projects at suitable non-profits, based on the students’ degree programs, interests and aspirations (Hampshire compares the matching process to that of an online dating service). The jobs range from organizational development to food distribution models to web design, and, taking students’ hectic class and work schedules into account, the projects never require more than 40 hours of work.
Meanwhile, SponsorChange raises funds to reward the students’ work: each project completed entitles the student to $1,000 towards a student loan, and participants can do up to six projects a year.
“The goal is offering [students] a viable [way] to actually give back their time to something meaningful, but also pay down those loans,” Hampshire says. So far, SponsorChange has matched 26 students, nearly a quarter of whom are from Carnegie Mellon, with different non-profits.
“But there’s a number of other folks who are just waiting, chomping at the bit to get started,” Hampshire adds. Scaling up is the company’s next challenge.
Having abandoned initial plans to incorporate as a 501(c)3 non-profit, Hampshire explains that SponsorChange will be a for-profit company and is currently filing for B-Corp
status: “we take a modest broker’s fee for our service.” The organization also has a wide range of community partners.
The immediate goal is to expand the program to other campuses statewide, including the University of Pittsburgh, Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, and Penn State. He envisions partnering with six new universities, and he hopes to triple the number of participating schools by the following year.
“The more we can establish relationships with universities, the better we can streamline the matching process to figure out what students are interested in based on their major, and figure out how to match those skill-sets to non-profits in the community.”
The benefits are not just for participating students and non-profits. Hampshire’s platform “allows universities to better track the work that their students are doing,” which is valuable to the institutions for internal as well as PR purposes.
The program is also a good chance to catch alumni attention.
“This may be an opportunity for universities to engage their alumni as project sponsors,” Hampshire says. Especially if the projects are for causes the alumni support, “they can give money to sponsor a current student of their alma mater, and that money goes to pay off the student loan of the volunteer.”
In the future, Hampshire wants to adapt the platform for use by corporations (many of whom are currently involved as sponsors) to track and reward their employees’ volunteer efforts.
Hampshire is also positioning the company to benefit from the federal government’s increasing awareness of exploding educational costs. In the summer of 2010, he headed to the White House as an Outreach Specialist for the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
, helping religious and secular groups join forces for nation-wide issues like mentorship and struggling schools. A Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management drew him back to Pittsburgh, and he graduated from Carnegie Mellon last year.
“Congress is thinking, how do we make college more affordable? How do we make it more accessible to everyone? There’s so much legislation right now on student loan debt.” Ultimately, he hopes SponsorChange’s mission will allow us to “reshape and rethink how we approach not only volunteer service, but also what we’re doing to help students out, in terms of paying back their debt.”
So far, Hampshire says the program has resulted in job offers to participating grads and increased independent volunteering among SponsorChange alums.
“My vision is really to create a lifestyle of serving, so that long after the program is over, people are still passionate about giving back their time.”
ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the 21st century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs here. Send feedback here.