College Students Build App to Bridge Volunteers, Non-Profits

Created by a handful of graduate students at the University of Michigan, the new mobile application encourages others – specifically their peers – to volunteer with nonprofits in the community.

by Steve Marowski, MLive.com / January 17, 2020
Maneel Grover, Co-founder of the app is BackPac explains what went into designing the app and how it helps connect people to find volunteer opportunities with local nonprofits, Wednesday Jan. 15, 2020, downtown Ann Arbor. TNS

(TNS) — It often takes a pack of volunteers to help a community become more sustainable and resilient, and that’s what the BackPac app is aiming to do.

Created by a handful of graduate students at the University of Michigan, the mobile application encourages others – specifically their peers – to volunteer with nonprofits in the community.

Co-founder Maneel Grover said after learning that volunteer rates in Michigan were dropping, he and his team wanted to find a way to reach his own generation. When they started digging, they found three primary drivers of volunteering: Identification with a cause, technology and generational changes.

“One of the things we found was that in our parents’ generation, they cared about the organization,” said Grover, an MBA student at the Ross School of Business. “In our generation, it’s much more important to identify the cause that people are wondering about so they won’t just go to a random place.”

The application is about as simple as it gets – sign up, enter your zip code and it will find nonprofit events in the area. It shows the event date, time and distance from the user’s location, as well as the minimum duration of the event and a short description of what needs to be done.

Once registered for the event, users can get an email and add the event to their calendar.

Rather than using previously created content, co-founder Caio Brandao said the app was built from scratch specifically for nonprofits and volunteers.

“[Nonprofits] can reach a completely new segment of volunteers using the BackPac app,” Brandao said. “This is a convenient, no-cost and very effective solution that lets them focus on their responsibilities.”

Co-founder Brenda Pak, an MBA student at the Ross School of Business, said she had previously done work with nonprofits and found "a lot of need and opportunities for people to do good.”

She and another co-founder -- Guarav Dhir -- were looking for volunteer opportunities, but were overbooked, and some didn’t have volunteers and were overwhelmed trying to find them.

That’s when the BackPac team assembled and created the app.

“It was really an accumulation of those moments that brought the BackPac app to what it is today,” Pak said. “We’ve spent endless hours speaking to coordinators, nonprofit staff, students and volunteers to figure out their frustrations and to help alleviate some of their pain points so people could spend time doing the work and less time figuring out the system.”

Grover noticed that nonprofits’ websites were old and outdated, and for that reason, the app will continually add updates. The app has already been through a few iterations and the team is always looking for ways to improve.

Since launching in November 2019, BackPac has logged more than 300 downloads and over 225 volunteering hours so far. More than 10 nonprofit organizations use the app, and said they have been able to onboard almost every nonprofit they have spoken with. Nonprofits on the app include Habitat for Humanity of Huron ValleyFriends in Deed and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra.

So far, Grover said the co-founders have been funding the project themselves, but they have a third-party developer creating the app for them. In the future, the team is working to both “gamify” and democratize the app so volunteers can be even more selective about when and where they volunteer.

“Gamification is a fun element, providing a healthy and measurable competition to volunteers,” Brandao said. “Democratization means giving individuals and groups a choice of volunteering opportunities they care about and relate to. We hope both of these can improve volunteering rates.”

Pak added the team hopes to improve upon the technology, add nonprofits and expand across Michigan and Illinois by 2021.

To download the apps, visit the App store or Google Play store and search “BackPac.”

©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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