After more research and after speaking with more students, organizations, and people I knew who had worked in the nonprofit sector, it became apparent that the problem was significantly more complex than I had initially thought. I learned that one of the traditional problems with volunteering is that volunteers, regardless of their high-level skill sets, typically engage in low-level, menial tasks. Although these tasks are important for non-profits, volunteers tend to quickly drop out due to dwindling interest. The high dropout rate among volunteers creates a vicious cycle; organizations cannot risk delegating real responsibility to volunteers who are going to quit mid project, which leads to the continued delegation of menial volunteer tasks, which in turn perpetuates the high dropout rate.
So, I was left with the question of how I could bring students together with non-profit organizations in a way that helps ensure a sustained commitment and a mutually beneficial relationship. I realized that the “internship model” could provide an excellent solution. With an internship, a student would have a stake in staying on board the non-profit for the duration of the commitment. Internships are powerful resume builders, but not if you quit halfway. Internships also provide students with opportunities to gain real-world experience and at the same time leverage the skills they have developed in school to directly impact organizations (so they would be less likely to become bored). Non-profits could bring on interns to redesign or develop a website, create and run a marketing campaign, conduct important research, help with accounting, or any number of other tasks that could seriously impact future success.
With some initial clarity on my idea, it was time to turn to certain questions of implementation. Would I make my venture a non-profit or a for-profit? Would I strive to match students with both non-profits and for-profits? I struggled with both of those questions for months before I came to any solid conclusions. As I mentioned before, one central tenet of Social Entrepreneurship is the notion that your solution should be scalable. In my mind, scalability requires a financially self-sustaining model. Often, non-profits are seriously restricted by the myriad unknowns associated with future donor funding. And often, non-profits that do fantastic work are forced to scale back or shut down because they lose government grants or donors decide to go another way. Not only does the non-profit model make it difficult to predict and manage growth, but it leaves organizations vulnerable to the threat of destruction irrespective of the extent to which they generate social impact. There are strong arguments on the opposing side and certainly many benefits to forming a non-profit organization, but the above rationale ultimately tipped the scale in my decision to make InternMatch a for-profit venture.
My efforts to deal with the question of whether or not to exclusively serve non-profit organizations coincided nicely with a class I took my senior year at Columbia on social responsibility in business and investment communities. Taught by Professor Jack McGourty, a Columbia dean with a unique interest in engaging with and giving back to the Harlem community. I learned, for the first time, the importance of small, locally owned businesses in the process of community progress and economic development. I was also at the point in the development of my idea where I realized that I could not create an online Platform with the level of sophistication that I wanted and get away with charging non-profits a nominal fee without going totally broke. If I included businesses, I could anticipate much greater total volume, which would in turn allow me to keep the Platform not only affordable, but tremendously valuable.
The internship model, becoming a for-profit company, and working with small and medium sized businesses who face similar brand and intern outreach issues as non-profits, all honed InternMatch as a platform and business…