“It comes down to a simple choice, get busy living or get busy dying.” – Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption
Head of Technology for Start Now
Head of Strategy for Start Now
Head of Communications for Start Now
Start Now is a volunteer community platform that connects volunteers with volunteering opportunities from nonprofit organizations. It allows volunteers from schools, corporate organizations and the public to create their own profile through which they can coordinate, track and schedule volunteering commitments across different organizations. Non-profits can also utilize the platform as a volunteer management tool, interacting with their volunteers on a much more personal basis.
Started by two long-time friends Ivan and Keith in 2011, Start Now has since burgeoned into a 6-man team consisting of Xinyi, Huey, Kar Yong, Clarence, Keith and Ivan. The organization has continued to grow in terms of reach too – despite just 4 months of operation, Start Now is now a partner with 55 non-profit organizations, and its volunteer base is an 18,000 member strong army. Start Now is currently in talks with various secondary schools and tertiary institutions to test their system, and is collaborating with the National Youth Council for the Community Service Marathon and the Shine Youth Festival. These are exciting times for the organization, and here we meet with the young minds behind the enterprise: Keith, Ivan and Xinyi.
How did Start Now come about?
IVAN: The project was built on past experiences in various segments of our lives. There were two main experiences that were really memorable. One was during our Community Involvement Programme (CIP) trip to an old folks home in secondary school. The experience was not very pleasant because we hardly got to understand the organization, and did not have the opportunity to help as much – there were 40 students cleaning a small room.
The second experience I remember vividly was when I was in Temasek Junior College. I wanted to do more volunteering hours but there was a lot of paperwork involved with the school, and there were problems tracking the activities that we did. If I wanted to volunteer as a student, I had to go through a lot of administrative work between the non-profit organization and the school, and hence there was a huge wastage of time on both sides of the equation! Even an ad hoc event like Flag Day required so much paperwork to be done. I thought to myself, there must be some way for everything to be automated.
So now with the opportunity and internship experience I had with a non-profit organization, Keith and I thought that we could try to solve this problem. By automating and computerising certain processes on a ‘cloud’, we hope to make it as simple as possible for everyone, and to lessen the burden for the student, teacher and non-profit organization. That is the genesis of Start Now and the core foundation for us. We aim to find opportunities for volunteers to volunteer with non-profit organizations.
If we could put Start Now in a tweet, Start Now …
KEITH: connects volunteers with volunteering opportunities.
What has been the most challenging part about running Start Now?
IVAN: Because each of us function in different roles, we all face different challenges. For the non-profits side, the main challenge is not the free adoption system, but the many complex features and requests that they want. If there is a wish list, it can go on and on, but there is a need for us to moderate, as we need to make it as simple as possible for the volunteers as well.
KEITH: We have to find this middle ground, and knowing our strengths and weaknesses allows us to pivot and market the system to the right target audience.
How have your parents reacted to you guys choosing such a different career route?
KEITH & IVAN: They’ve gotten used to us already, and are quite immune to it. (laughs)
XINYI: Based on the stories that they’ve told me about their past, their parents have not only tahan-ed them, but they have also been very supportive and even partake in their entrepreneurial activities. Keith was just telling me yesterday about how when they were in secondary school, the only thing they did every night was to print t-shirts and their parents will help to iron the t-shirts. Remember the flower exchange between schools on Valentine’s Day? They were actually the ones behind the idea.
IVAN: Our headquarters were at my aunt’s place and it was a logistical nightmare. Basically, our family members are quite ‘desensitized’ to us. (laughs)
What surprised you the most about starting this social entreprise?
XINYI: The most surprising thing for me is the amount of people who want to help. It’s quite surprising to see how many people are in this sector, who want to make a change and have a voice in this society.
There’s a rise in the number of people who want to do social work overseas. While overseas CIP is great, do you think we’ve been forgetting our local Singaporean community?
KEITH: As someone who has taken part in a project overseas, I believe there is a lot of work to be done there and it is great that there has been an increased interest in doing overseas CIP.
But what Start Now is focusing on at this point of time is to foster a volunteering spirit in our local community, and get people to recognize the issues that are already present in Singapore. As you start to volunteer with welfare organizations or non-profits in Singapore, you realize that there are issues in Singapore that could use the social innovation that a lot of youths are doing in developing countries. So why not start here first?
That being said, there is a large quantum of change in terms of the impact of a project overseas rather than locally. You could increase the daily income of the poor in a developing country by 4 to 5 times through a project, whereas in Singapore, it might just increase by 10%. However, the 10% here is just as important as the 4 to 5 times overseas.
It is a difficult conundrum but what we are trying to encourage in our community is the idea that if you’ve got a free weekend every week, get involved in our society. Our system will prompt you with activities that might be available according to the time, location and preference.
IVAN: It’s not just about the money and results. The impact one creates as a volunteer will help to build stronger bonds within our community.
As minister Heng Swee Keat pointed out, community service in Singapore is the key to creating an inclusive society and getting people to understand that we are Singaporeans. This is the focus of the new ‘Values in Action’ scheme. We want people to take ownership of issues in the Singaporean community, and we hope Start Now plays a contributing factor to ensuring that.
Volunteers are a powerful resource; they give so much and so freely without expecting anything in return. How do you guys keep the magic going for them?
IVAN: A platform for IT is only merely a toolset and it cannot solve human issues. Our toolset can reduce the barrier and burden by pulling people together, but it has to be a collective effort to build that relationship and keep that magic going.
If you take a look at our platform, volunteers are affiliated to the non profit organization so that they feel a certain sense of belonging. Messaging, email, social media functions are integrated to help non-profit organizations create an engaging relationship with their volunteers.
Start Now’s mission is to make it as easy as possible for everyone to volunteer, but the greater accomplishment is when everyone, be it the volunteers or the non-profit organizations, play a role and takes the initiative and effort to cultivate a positive relationship with each other.
KEITH: There are many things that we can input into the system to keep the magic going but at the end of the day, as much as we want to connect volunteers, the magic can only be sustained if the toolsets are being well utilized. A non-profit organization needs to create a certain understanding with the volunteers on why they are volunteering as well. Even a thank you note to recognize their efforts really means a lot to a volunteer.
Do you foresee an ending point for Start Now?
IVAN: There is no ending point. Even if we accomplish something, it is merely the end of the first chapter. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ‘‘It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’
KEITH: Our vision is to be the leading volunteer community platform in Asia. There are 229 million volunteers in Asia (not including India) who volunteered in February alone. So our goal is to reach out to people who have not volunteered before, people who are volunteering but can volunteer more through convenient opportunities, and people who are advocates for the volunteering movement. We also want to make volunteering good for schools and companies as well. In Singapore alone, there are many organizations out there and we want to help to raise the volunteering rates in Singapore.
What is one thing that youth in Singapore should do and one thing that they shouldn’t?
IVAN: I am not against planning, but really, just do it and start now.
KEITH: Don’t hesitate and stop finding excuses. There is a huge time frame since we are young and the opportunity cost is lower, so we should go out and get that experience.
– Profiled by Khairul Rusydi