By Sindhu Nagaraj
By profession, I am a Software Engineer and I love engineering. Despite my tendency towards math and science, I have always wanted to volunteer and give back to society through social work. I found an amazing opportunity to do this when I secured a volunteer software engineering internship at an award winning-website: UniversalGiving. My decision to intern with UG was sparked by my interest in helping a friend’s family that runs training programs for people interested in social work and teaches them social entrepreneurship in India. I also wanted to know what I can do as a software industry professional to continuously involve myself in bringing social change and initiative. With these goals and interests in mind, I decided to interview the CEO and Founder of UniversalGiving, Pamela Hawley. Pamela is a stalwart in the field of nonprofit and social entrepreneurship. She instills a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm while in the office. She is also an avid improv artist and just got back from Chicago after a week of shows and training there. I spoke with Pamela about nonprofit organizations, their challenges, and the future of the industry
Q. What inspired you to start UniversalGiving?
A. UniversalGiving is something that gradually developed in my heart at a very young age. I was on a family vacation in Mexico when I was 12. We were around this marketplace in Mexico, which had a lot of children. My father and I happened to pass by this path where we saw a lot of poor and begging children. At that point, something really impacted my heart. And I decided that I would spend my life helping children and people all across the world. That is how I became motivated to volunteer – first in my backyard, and then all over the world.
Q. In what area or field do you think that there is a dearth of volunteers? Is there something that concerns you the most?
A. There are so many issues out there. There are water shortage issues just outside our office doors in California. Food is incredibly important. Education and its related opportunities are important. The way I view solid, good philanthropy is that it has to be holistic. If you have the best food program out there, and you do not have a good school to send the children to, they are nourished, but their minds are not nourished. If you get them to school and they have not eaten well, they do not have the needed stamina to go to school to nourish their minds. So I really do think that philanthropy needs to be holistic. We need jobs, education, and good food, shelter, health and water. All of these come together in a very seamless fashion. It is all very interconnected.
Q. How often do you hold fundraisers and crowd-funding events? How successful are they?
A. We are going to hold a very big fundraising event in November. This event will be our first event of that kind, and we are super excited. We do a lot of individual fundraisers; for example, Patxi’s Pizza put on a sponsorship for us. We work with a lot of the local restaurants. But a lot of our funding comes from corporate services and individual donors and donations from people who shop at Amazon, via the Amazon Smile program.
Q. Do you think that students from different backgrounds should learn something about managing a nonprofit organization? Do you think we should have courses in universities that help them learn about social entrepreneurship?
A. I think these courses should be available. Everyone has different interests. I really want people to follow what they love to do. I had to struggle a lot to find out what I love do. If you want to be a great biologist, or a flight attendant or a corporate client’s service associate, you should do that. For me, it is not just about learning social entrepreneurship. I love social entrepreneurship. I think for anyone who is interested in learning about it; it should be available to them. They should know what it is, just like I have a basic understanding of what biology is. I don’t think that everyone has to go and take these courses, but it is good to have some exposure. I had a lot of exposure to other industries when I was younger to understand what I wanted to do.
Q. How do we get more people to do social work and entrepreneurship?
A. One way to let more people know about these fields is to speak and converse more about them. I think you really cannot underestimate the power of individual story. I think social media is another great platform. You can even promote causes through personal relationships. You can pass on so many inspiring stories to your family and friends. That’s how more people will be exposed to it. Having said that, there are so many different things to converse about that are all connected to impactful philanthropy. We can always learn more about different cultures and nations, and become better managers and leaders. To be a good social entrepreneur, it is not enough if you just do good social work. To run large or smaller business very well, you need to have a lot of compassion, you need to plan things strategically, and you need to do all of this with your heart.
Q. How important is it for every employer to have regular CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives? And how have these initiatives helped organizations like UniversalGiving?
A. Companies can really get involved in CSR through giving and volunteering. The heart behind CSR has a lot to do with volunteering. People are giving their minds and hearts to these things, which help create long-term relationships. When they start with volunteering, they also start giving. So it works very well that way. I think companies have a profound impact and ability to give and volunteer. I think CSR initiatives create better companies with better cultures, and can help companies to increase their brand value and employee happiness and retention. There are a lot of good business reasons to engage in social initiatives.
Q. What kind of writing and how much writing are required for your job?
A. I think every CEO is different. Some CEOs are big on public speaking and they do not do much management. Others write a lot. If you look at Warren Buffett for example, he might have written only 5 articles in his lifetime. I do think that we should be strong communicators and be able speak to the public and to our team. Having said that, every CEO does not have to be an extrovert: there are a lot of introverts out there who are phenomenal public speakers. I think that, no matter your personality, your biggest responsibility as a CEO is to be a very clear communicator. Your team should be clear on what your directions are.
Q. At UniversalGiving, how much time is spent working in teams, and what skills are needed to work in a team?
A. To work well in a team, first of all, you need to be a very good listener. You need to listen well, think positively about the intent of the other person, and expect the best from them. You have to look at the main long-term objective and the short-term goal to get there. You have to be clear, proactive and take on big chunks of work. But you should not take it on if you cannot deliver on it. I believe that it’s better to under-promise than to under-deliver.
Q. How does the company value independent thinking and leadership skills?
A. They are both important because even if you are not leading a business unit, you are a leader. Everyone is a leader at every point in time because you are leading your own tasks and actions, and these provide examples for other people. I think leadership skills are something that everybody should be working on, whether you are trying to become the president of the company some day or whether you are leading a business unit. I think we are all leaders and that this is true for everyone.
Q. What can engineers do to help non-profit organizations like UG?
A. Engineers can do amazing things. Whether we have a website or not, they can help us with our systems, and the system helps us conduct outreaches to people and to scale, so that millions of people across the world can use our programs. Through the work that our engineers do for UniversalGiving, they help us scale to so many people across the world.
Q. What is the best part of running the organization? What are the challenges of being a social entrepreneur and running a non-profit?
A. I think the best part of running an organization is working with our team. The team at UG is amazing. We recruit wonderful people from different backgrounds with diverse qualifications, and it is an absolute joy to have them. The team is so positive and brings so much energy and life into the organization. The second part that I really love as well is the amazing people we are able to meet and engage with. We meet and reach so many people across the world everyday. The third part that I love is the strategies we try to bring in. Challenges keep rotating. It could be anything from bringing the right people into the organization, to fundraising, to building and scaling new features and products. Sometimes, when we have a new product, it is hard to get the word out.
Thank you, Pamela, for helping me to learn so much during my time at UniversalGiving! -Sindhu