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VolunteerLocal streamlines process for organizers and ‘happy volunteers’

The VolunteerLocal team of (from left) Jeremy Harrington, Brad Dwyer, Brian Hemesath and Geoff Wood works to simplify the volunteering process for coordinators and volunteers. Photo by Malone & Company.

Disclosure: The co-founder of VolunteerLocal, Geoff Wood, is also the COO and a contributor to Silicon Prairie News.

VolunteerLocal has a clear message for event organizers seeking a better way to orchestrate volunteer forces: if you want your volunteer process to excel, scrap the old spreadsheet.

“We know we’ve fixed the problem, and I think a lot of our big task is educating the market that there’s tools like this available,” said Brian Hemesath, VolunteerLocal’s founder. “Our biggest competition is the spreadsheet.”

VolunteerLocal, a Des Moines-based startup, aims to foster “happy volunteering” by providing web-based software that streamlines the process of coordinating volunteers for special events. Organizers can use the system to create a schedule — including the type of volunteer opportunity, the timeframe for shifts and the number of volunteers needed — and then manage the volunteer signup process, enabling volunteers to register for the specific jobs that interest them most.

Volunteers need only to submit an email addresses to register, eliminating the need to create profiles or remember passwords. Organizations manage those volunteers with VolunteerLocal’s dashboard, making the old spreadsheet method obsolete. The subscription service costs $50 per month ($350 per for a couple of big-ticket clients) and is charged only during the months that clients actively use it.

“Volunteer coordinators are typically volunteers themselves, and their time is really valuable, and (traditional volunteer signup) is a very cumbersome process,” said VolunteerLocal co-founder Geoff Wood. “So we go out of our way to make it easy for the volunteer to sign up for something, keep them happy, and then also make it easy on the person running the volunteer coordination on the back end.”

Hemesath happened upon the idea for VolunteerLocal in 2003, when the late Mo Dana approached him in search of a solution for organizing the volunteer force at the Des Moines Arts Festival.

“She came to me and said, ‘I’ve got 300-plus volunteers. I need you to figure out a way that I can manage them better over the weekend,’ ” Hemesath recalled. “So that was really the seed that planted the idea as far as the problem that needed to be solved.”

Almost immediately, Hemesath realized he had something that could be spun out and scaled. But it took a few more years before he helped potential clients realize that, too. In the fall of 2007, Hemesath approached the organizers of the Hy-Vee Triathlon at a meeting and suggested they consider using his product.

“They weren’t exactly jumping at the bit to say, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s try this out,’ ” Hemesath said. “So I didn’t exactly feel put off, but I didn’t really feel like they’d probably take it very serious.

“So I followed up that same week with just a blind email that said ‘By the way … if you want to try this service, here you go.’ (I) gave them full access to the system to create their own event.”

Fast forward to the spring of 2008. Hemesath, having never heard back from the triathlon’s organizers, was cycling through his inbox when he came upon a mass email about volunteers for the event.

“I clicked the link, and it was my system,” he said. “So without even asking any questions or … even getting in touch with me, they got in.”

The Hy-Vee triathlon used Hemesath’s system for free that year — “They were nice enough to buy me lunch,” he said, chuckling — and has been a paying client every year since. The Hy-Vee Triathlon is part of a stable that Hemesath said numbered about two dozen earlier this year and also includes USA Triathlon (a relationship born out of the Hy-Vee connection), the AAU junior Olympics, the World Masters Athletics Championships, Des Moines’ 80/35 Music Festival, Omaha’s MAHA Music Festival and that old stalwart, the Des Moines Arts Festival. VolunteerLocal also recently picked up its first international client, a seven-day event in Africa tied to Nelson Mandela Day. 

Hemesath’s baby from 2003 on, VolunteerLocal brought Wood aboard as co-founder in late 2009. Brad Dwyer and Jeremy Harrington joined the team in early 2010.

All four principals have other, full-time gigs — Hemesath at Catchwind, Wood at Silicon Prairie News, Dwyer with Hatchlings and Harrington with Voce Communications — but Hemesath hesitates to categorize VolunteerLocal as a side project. It doesn’t generate enough revenue to support full-time employees quite yet, but VolunteerLocal is eyeing several potential revenue streams in addition to subscriptions, Hemesath said.

A potentially valuable commodity exists in the database of people who have expressed an interest in volunteer opportunities, but Hemesath recognizes that VolunteerLocal needs “to treat those people’s preferences and privacy with a lot of scrutiny.” VolunteerLocal also is working to establish an affiliate marketing channel, Hemesath said.

“We’ve got a few things to work out still, but as far as I’m concerned we’re ready to take that leap,”Hemesath said when asked about scaling VolunteerLocal. “There’s really nothing in the way.”

“We’re obviously four guys very exited about what we’re trying to do,” he added. “In a way, there’s not a lot of competition, and so we’re planting ourselves, trying to prove the market.”

For more on VolunteerLocal, check out its promotional video below.

Video from Luminary Creative on Vimeo.

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