Jacob Colker is a 27-year-old, San Francisco-based web entrepreneur with a passion for mobilizing volunteers. In 2008, with business partner Ben Rigby, he founded The Extraordinaries, a web-based platform that allows users to donate small amounts of their free time to causes in which they are interested. With 40,000 people already signed up, this Internet platform is set to revolutionize volunteering by appealing to a huge new audience.
Centres of Energy
Colker is keenly aware of the potential for social change provided by today’s fast-evolving information and communications technology. When he managed political campaigns in California, Illinois and Maryland a few years ago, he became one of the first field directors in the United States to successfully leverage social media in a state-wide election.
“I love being around events that have energy,” enthuses Colker. “Volunteer days and political campaign rallies all have incredible energy. And the people at these events have a sense of hope and excitement about the ensuing impact. But I realized the biggest constraint for people today is time. If we could make it easier for people to have those experiences in a few minutes wherever they are, we could increase engagement and impact.”
The Right Time
Free time, he observes, usually comes while waiting for a meeting to start, in the back seat of a taxi or taking the train home. In those mundane moments, nearly everybody is within reach of a computer or mobile phone. “This tech-minded culture seemed ripe for on-the-fly activism! Micro-volunteering is perfectly suited for the Millennial Generation. They are used to text messaging, to Twitter and Facebook. For them, going out and cleaning up a park is not necessarily attractive. But, as we introduce them to the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing good, perhaps it might build awareness and encourage more acts of volunteerism.”
Making it Easy
The website set up by Colker and his team is simple and practical to use: by uploading and publishing a bulk of tasks in need of completion, participating non-profit organizations suddenly have access to a legion of online micro-volunteers, people who donate small snippets of free time toward worthy causes. Thanks to the web-based platform, a micro-volunteer can utilize any thumb-twiddling minutes to help NASA identify galaxies, solve a marketing problem or translate a C.V. for an immigrant trying to find work.
Crowdsourcing at Work
Like other successful Web 2.0 platforms, The Extraordinaries rely on crowdsourcing, the act of outsourcing tasks to a committed community of supporters. Wikipedia is perhaps the most famous practitioner, but, whereas the online encyclopaedia uses the collaborative work of its volunteers to write its database of articles, The Extraordinaries rely on users to help — virtually — those in need, no matter where they are located. For example, just days after a devastating earthquake ravaged Haiti in January 2010, Colker and his colleagues developed a system that allowed users to tag news images coming out of that country, then match those categorized images with pictures of missing people. Over the course of two weeks, thousands of volunteers donated their spare moments, a collective effort that resulted in the identification of 24 survivors.
Adding Up to Good
Colker says that sceptics, especially those reared on traditional forms of volunteering requiring extended, uninterrupted periods of service, might label The Extraordinaries a high-tech method which simply cuts corners. How can two minutes of typing on a keyboard really amount to anything benefiting the greater good? “Fair enough,” responds Colker. “But sprinkle these ‘do good’ moments throughout the week, then multiply that figure by the many thousands of registered users currently comprising the network, and suddenly you're dealing with an enormously effective movement. Our intention is not to devalue time-tested volunteering organizations or take away their supporters; rather, we want to engage those who never would have volunteered in the first place, and make it easier for them to get involved.”
Colker is looking to corporations to partner with his web-based programme, and for more non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to join his network. By working with The Extraordinaries, Colker says a business can boost its company culture by increasing the opportunities that employees have to take part in skills-based community engagement. Colker explains that this allows employees to further develop their skills and to bond with team members as they collaborate to solve problems. “NGOs also benefit tremendously as The Extraordinaries deliver the talents of major corporations, including marketing, design and logistics experts, to help them accomplish their mission and solve problems. Put into effect, the results could be staggering; we expect to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars worth of social impact over the next few years. Imagine if NGOs around the world had the talents and expertise of highly-paid corporate professionals at their fingertips, 24 hours a day.”
In the United States in 2009, an impressive 63 million people volunteered — using traditional ways to give their time, such as volunteer days — to help their communities, providing 8.1 billion hours of service. Jacob Colker is now providing the many millions of Americans who don’t volunteer an easy, effective and stimulating way to do so. And not only Americans. With his Rolex Award, he intends to increase the ways the platform can be used to help others and greatly boost the number of subscribers worldwide. “With today’s technology, the potential for millions — or even billions — of people to jump in and collaborate is very real. We need to use that for social good. Our approach is to help make it so easy that in the same amount of time it takes you to check Facebook or watch a YouTube video, you could actually do something worthwhile.”
Published in 2010