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This contest may be about showcasing the journeys of successful startups, but founding a nonprofit is just as challenging — usually more so — and requires a special brand of recognition. Especially when the founders have never even had a job.
Meet Simone Bernstein. Recognized by Forbes as a top innovator, she’s the winner of L’Oreal’s Woman of Worth prize, has a column on Huffington Post and is a regular speaker on the nonprofit conference circuit. She’s also 20.
As the founder of growing nonprofit VolunteenNATION, Bernstein has encountered her share of professional situations and challenges. This only makes it more impressive that she started the organization with her brother when she was 12 and he was even younger.
Today, VolunteenNATION is a national online network that connects teenagers with volunteer opportunities across sectors. More than 4,000 organizations are listed on the site — from hospitals to animal shelters to tutoring clubs — and over 10,500 students have found opportunities so far. But, as Bernstein makes clear, this is only the beginning.
The idea for the site first came to her when she herself was looking for a volunteer opportunity.
“My dad is in the Navy, and when he was deployed overseas, I realized he was serving my country and giving back as an adult, and I knew I wanted to give back as a kid,” says Bernstein. “I actually had a really hard time because most organizations only want volunteers over 18. My friends had the same problem, and I wanted to find a way to help.”
While Bernstein did finally find volunteering gigs at a daycare center and hospitals in her native St. Louis, she wanted to do more so that other kids could do the same. So — with $48 in babysitting money as startup capital — she joined forces with her younger brother, Jake, who had some technical skill. Together, they built a simple website for teens to find organizations willing to work with young people at volunteers.
“A lot of people don’t realize the value of youth volunteers, so part of our mission is to encourage more organizations to take on youth volunteers,” says Bernstein. “Young people are the most motivated and energized volunteers. They have fresh ideas and the time to give.”
Bernstein soon realized that running a sustainable nonprofit would take more than a website and an idea. In addition to recruiting teens to go to the site, she had to actively convince organizations that teens make good volunteers — enough for them to list openings on the site. She spent after school hours in meetings with prospective member organizations, and started to build Volunteen’s now-thriving social media network.
“There was a lot of failure early on,” Bernstein says. “A lot of emails were never returned, a lot of calls not taken. But we kept going and putting our efforts forward. We made it clear that this was an organization for teens by teens, and it started to resonate.”
As operations grew in the St. Louis area, she ran into accounting and legal needs, especially when it came to registering as a 501(c)3. At that point, the site had enough word of mouth that she was able to track down in-kind donations for these services. This included web development expertise from a firm in Atlanta that helped them build a professional site.
“It was definitely a learning experience when we had to ask people to lend a hand,” says Bernstein. “We realized that we couldn’t do everything ourselves, and we would have to continually ask for help that wouldn’t always be right around the corner.”
This was a task complicated by their obvious youth.
“Since we’re so young, it’s been a challenge walking into some of these places like nonprofits or hospitals and convincing them to listen to us,” she says. “The first time I walked into a meeting to raise funds from a big corporation I was 17 and they asked me if I was someone’s daughter. I had to tell them I was the person they were meeting with.”
Through it all, Bernstein has had to juggle her own school work and extracurricular activities, in addition to running Volunteen. She’s done a good job too, currently enrolled in a competitive 8-year medical program at St. Bonaventure University in New York. She’s already been accepted to medical school at George Washington University — a career that she was inspired to pursue during her hospital volunteering jobs.
Seeing other students her age succeed thanks to Volunteen has helped keep her going.
“A lot of people think when you volunteer you’re giving back but really you’re the one who gains so much,” Bernstein says. “So many of the teens we work with realize this, and we get to see a lot of smiles from people who have had a chance to work with an organization that fits their interests.”
As the organization grew in the St. Louis area, Bernstein and her cohort started getting calls from new demographics — schools looking to promote volunteer opportunities to their students, parents seeking placements for their kids, and an increasing pool of donors looking for ways to pitch in. This momentum, combined with some glowing press attention, eventually propelled them to the national level.
This wasn’t easy either. In fact, Bernstein says, Volunteen had to go through some pretty intense growing pains. It’s one thing to operate in a region when you can see people face to face. It’s a totally different animal to market a website and a mission to millions of teenagers with different interests and habits throughout the country.
To overcome these hurdles, Volunteen introduced an ambassador program, recruiting at least 2 students from every state in the union to coordinate promotion efforts and services at a local level. Fueled by the organization’s social media networks, the ambassador program has become very popular, and Bernstein says that they are finally seeing the effects of their grassroots strategy.
“We know there might be mistakes along the way, but the important thing is we’re learning and growing together,” says Bernstein. “We hope that the things we learn and the things we do will make us a stronger organization.”
Now the organization is branching out into other programs. Bernstein and her crew have started running social entrepreneurship workshops for kids interested in starting their own social good orgs and enterprises.
“One goal of Volunteen is to teach kids how to use their own creativity and put their own thoughts into action to build something,” she says. “That way if they can’t find something to do in their community they can start something themselves. As peer-to-peer mentors we can talk about our experiences and how it is possible to do something like this.”
Even more recently, Volunteen has introduced a program for students on the autism skills, enabling them to harness their skills and put them to work in volunteer positions. It’s important to Bernstein that all students coming to Volunteen have the ability to find something that speaks to them. She foresees more specialization like this in the future.
When asked where she sees Volunteen in five years, Bernstein has a ready answer.
“We’re really hoping we can create an international site,” she says. “We already get a lot of emails from people in Canada and Mexico and Europe asking for this.”
But, because Volunteen is emphatically run for and by teens, Bernstein knows she can’t be at the forefront forever.
“It’s very important to me that the organization be run by youth, but I hope to help and mentor the young people who do run it in the future,” she says.
But not to worry. We get the feeling this is only the first act for Bernstein, who has big plans lined up. In addition to medical school, she hopes to earn a master’s in public health and pursue social entrepreneurship as a full time career.
Check out the full Concept to Reality series here.