Everyone wants their work to mean something. We crave a sense of purpose and seek out companies that give us a chance to drive meaningful progress. So much so that, according to one study, three-quarters of millennials would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company.
But millennials aren’t the only ones who want meaningful work. In fact, 88 percent of employees believe it’s no longer acceptable for companies just to make money; companies must positively impact society as well. And 93% of employees today, more than ever before, believe that companies must lead with purpose – especially following the challenges of COVID-19.
Ben Sampson and Andy VandenBerg created WeHero to empower companies to lead with purpose through employee volunteering. WeHero works directly with the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department of a company to plan and execute volunteering experiences for their employees. They’re the connective tissue between nonprofits and companies, supporting both parties to create high-impact volunteering programs.
When You Mix Entrepreneurial Spirit with Social Impact
Both Ben and Andy have always had the entrepreneurial itch. Ben founded a few small ventures over the years and then went into product management for a while. Andy came from a traditional finance and investment background. Both wanted to create something that would help make the world better. Andy says, “We were trying to find a way that we could do what we enjoyed while helping people along the way – and all of that in the business world.”
Along that journey, they stumbled into the world of corporate social responsibility. Ben says, “At the time, I had no idea there was even a job solely dedicated to social responsibility at companies.” They started looking into it more closely and realized they could make a real difference in that space.
There were three or four big technology players in CSR who had invested a lot of money in the development of their tools. Andy says, “They’re awesome businesses that we couldn’t really compete with. It actually pushed us into choosing something where the customer would get value immediately. We couldn’t wait for a year of development to test out product-market fit. We had to get something out right away.”
“We didn’t have a background in CSR, but it was to our benefit in a sense that we had a lot of fresh ideas that we could bring to the industry,” Andy says. “To Ben’s credit, he realized right away that we didn’t need to raise money for what we wanted to achieve. We looked at the cash conversion cycle and determined that we could do this ourselves. And it’s rare to have a business like that.”
Ben and Andy focused on developing products and solutions that were profitable from the very beginning. Andy says, “We could not go out there and compete in the platform space against all these large CSR platforms, because we didn’t have the funding to build those types of solutions.”
The founders started WeHero in 2018 to solve many of the challenges experienced by CSR managers or teams. These individuals were given several tasks within their company, including managing corporate volunteer experiences and events. Setting up a corporate volunteer event for thousands of employees was difficult and often a huge time suck for this department (often spearheaded by a single person). Ben and Andy realized they could provide hands-on support in engaging the company’s employees and achieving social impact goals.
Ben says, “The other problem in corporate social responsibility was that many of the volunteer experiences were flagged as busywork.” Andy adds, “Not only was it pretty boring, but employees also didn’t feel like they were making a difference with their volunteer hours.” Essentially, employees’ volunteering activities were unengaging and lacked impact.
As two industry outsiders who were passionate about helping nonprofits, Andy and Ben took a different approach to employee volunteering that got companies very excited.
Impact Is the Key to Successful Volunteering Experiences
“Similar to how we were looking for meaning in our work before we started WeHero, every employee out there is looking for the same. Companies feel and have a responsibility to enable their employees to give back in a meaningful way,” Andy says. 71 percent of employees want their company to provide opportunities for them to help make a positive impact on social and environmental issues.
The general standard for reporting is volunteer hours. Most companies aren’t reporting on the actual impact that was made but how many hours each employee volunteered. With those volunteer hours, what was actually accomplished?
With every volunteering experience that WeHero does, they measure the impact and share that directly with the company. This includes reporting how many hours were volunteered, what the carbon offset was, and what the impact was.
The founders say it all starts with working with excellent nonprofits. Ben says, “If you work with the right nonprofits, you can typically get access to really good data. For example, we have an experience where volunteers put together water filters for Wine to Water. These water filters give people access to clean water. Employees build the water filters and then we deliver the completed water filters.”
“One water filter gives ten people clean water for ten years. That impact metric is so much more powerful than ‘this employee volunteered for two hours.’ We share how many people’s lives were changed because of that water filter experience that the volunteer participated in. Not only are employees making a real impact, but it also improves their experience of volunteering.”
It’s a new way of looking at volunteering and only the best nonprofits can tell you the impact that you are having. That’s why WeHero spends so much time finding the right nonprofit partners. Once they’ve found the right partner, they work with the nonprofit very closely to build repeatable programs, creating experiences that thousands of employees can go through at any time.
These nonprofits often can’t engage volunteer groups every day of the week. “But when we are doing that for them, when we are educating more people about their cause, it builds relationships between these companies and nonprofits. It lends for more long-term support for the nonprofit too,” Andy says. “We’ve seen so many nonprofits that didn’t have corporate volunteering as an option. And we’ve seen how it can just transform their entire nonprofit from an impact and fundraising standpoint.”
Juggling Full-Time Jobs and a Growing Side Business
When it comes to WeHero’s launch strategy, Ben says, laughing, “To be honest, we had no strategy.” They started the business by putting up a landing page that gave companies information about how they could build them a corporate volunteer experience. They also set up ads that directed to the landing page, just to see if there was any interest in it at all.
“And sure enough, companies started reaching out to us. And not just small companies, big companies like Visa were interested in the service and getting that type of support. Very early on, we knew we had found product-market fit, so we started investing in growing the business,” Ben says.
In March of 2018, WeHero did its first volunteer experience in San Francisco. They supported the victims of the tsunami in Indonesia, working with the International Medical Corps to get people disaster relief supplies.
“At the time, Andy and I were both working on WeHero as a side project alongside our full-time jobs. Our approach was to keep testing our offering and see how big of a market opportunity there was for our service and whether we could make a feasible business out of it. Our strategy was essentially to just get more companies to try our volunteer programs and add more experiences to our options,” Ben says.
As a business, their first big goal and measure of success was to be able to work on WeHero full time and leave their current jobs. The founders worked hard to grow the business just to be able to make it their full-time job. Andy says, “We wanted to get to a sustainable business where both of us could fully invest our time to help it grow.” Looking back, they say it was also one of the biggest obstacles they had to overcome.
Ben says, “It was incredibly stressful for Andy and me to maintain almost two full-time jobs, getting pulled in different directions, until the point where we could finally take the leap. And knowing when to take that leap was so difficult. We wanted to make the conscious decision when it came to making the switch.” After one year, Ben switched over to working on WeHero, and six months later, Andy did the same. Once that happened, the business grew incredibly fast because it had all of their attention.
But alongside all that stress, the founders reflect fondly on that time as well, how excited they were about the impact they were making. Andy says, “Now we are less involved in the day-to-day activities, but in the beginning, every volunteering event made us so stoked. When we would deliver thousands of water filters, for example, that was absolutely crazy. In the past, Ben and I had both been involved in efforts to give back and donate money, but the scale of what WeHero could do was epic.”
Scaling The Business of Employee Volunteering
When the founders started WeHero, they were both living in the Bay Area. This gave them closer access to some of the largest tech companies, allowing them to build an incredible customer base right at the start.
Ben and Andy started traveling to do in-person volunteer events outside of San Francisco to reach a larger audience. But what allowed them to scale their business faster was shipping volunteer experiences. They discovered that many employees just don’t have the time to volunteer. It’s hard for them to get out of the office for several hours during the day to go to a food bank, for example.
Ben recounts, “One of our tech clients wanted to do a volunteering event for their engineers, but the team was split between San Francisco and Seattle. The company was struggling to have both teams come together. They asked us to come up with a solution. So we shipped the necessary supplies to both locations, set up a video conference, and guided both teams through the activity at the same time. They were essentially volunteering together.”
That’s when the founders realized they didn’t have to fly all over the country to lead employees through a volunteer experience – they could ship them out instead. (And keep in mind, this was long before COVID made video conferencing and remote activities the norm.)
Ben and Andy said it just made the most sense to bring the volunteer experience directly to the company. Employees would then be able to volunteer during their lunch break, as well as learn about an amazing nonprofit – and be done within an hour. That’s how WeHero started to take off, providing experiences all over the US.
Once WeHero started getting out there, the founders focused on how to become the dominant player in corporate volunteering in the US. They invested in building more programs, figuring out how to ship at scale, and how to reach more companies. When they started, they were doing around four to five volunteer events a week. Now they do 15 to 20 volunteer events a week.
WeHero focuses on having great client relationships with bigger companies, supporting them in an in-depth way – rather than trying to support 50,000 different companies superficially. Andy says, “Ben and I always say that we’re not the smartest people in the world, but we listen to our customers. The challenges they have, we try to solve.”
Many companies that work with them now look to WeHero to plan their entire volunteer strategy for the year. The in-house CSR department will work with WeHero to plan out and execute their 12 or 18-month strategy. WeHero gets the fun job of finding the best nonprofits out there to do an engaging volunteer experience with.
The Unique Industry of Social Impact
“This industry is so new. We’re part of an incredible trend. Companies are increasing their budget for corporate social responsibility each year,” Andy says. “As a result, our industry grows quite rapidly and there are more and more competitors coming into the space. We’re constantly becoming aware of new players, what their differentiating factors are, and whether we partner with or compete against them.”
“But this industry is unique in the way that new companies coming into the space are also laser-focused on social impact and social good. And even with companies that we compete directly against, we still get on the phone with them. We talk to those founders and understand what their objectives are.”
“In the end, we all have the same goal of wanting to enable people to make an impact. That’s what makes this industry and competitive landscape so interesting. We work with people that compete directly with our business. But we’re always looking for synergies and ways that we can support each other,” Andy says.
Those large CSR platforms that have been around for a long time aren’t really WeHero’s competitors. A lot of them are now their partners. WeHero wants to enable the action and that action will eventually be recorded in a platform for the entire company to see. So they have a partner relationship with those types of platforms to showcase and visualize the impact of our volunteering experiences.
Funding For The Business
Was outside funding ever on the table? Speaking candidly, Andy says, “Investors focus on earning a great return on their money – which is totally fair – but we are building a two-pronged business, where we want to do well, but we also want to do good in the world. And by doing well, we can do more good. For WeHero, it’s all about building out a team that is as excited as we are about making an impact.”
About funding, Ben says, “I think our lives would have been more stressful. It would’ve been difficult to be tied to one direction or product-market fit that we needed to heavily invest in. Being bootstrapped, we have pivoted our business a number of times and continued to diversify and add new products. We have the freedom to do that rather quickly. Andy and I come from backgrounds where we’ve raised funding or have done investments and have seen the strain that it applies to a young business. We wanted to take a different path with WeHero.”
One of the unanticipated challenges they faced was COVID-19. Ben says “When the pandemic started, our business took a hit and it was scary. But since we could ship volunteer experiences, we pivoted our strategy from shipping to offices to shipping to thousands of homes. That way, everybody who was working from home, could also volunteer safely and make an impact that way. WeHero grew rapidly because of that shift.”
“Being bootstrapped allowed us to move and adjust quickly. We were able to pivot within two weeks to get up and running and start serving clients that way. So while it was a big challenge, it turned into a huge opportunity for us.”
Since its conception, WeHero supports over 132 companies with their volunteer experiences (with most of those companies being in the Fortune 1000). This has resulted in over 40,000 employees volunteering with WeHero – and they’ve achieved all of this with a small team of 14!
Ben’s closing thoughts, “My favorite part about entrepreneurship is that you’re working on your dream rather than somebody else’s. Showing up for your own dream and having that freedom to do it in your own creative way is so special. I think of startups as a form of art. Some people are talented musicians or writers, but for Andy and me, this is our art form. WeHero is an expression of ourselves.”
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