Nine months ago, a group of Wharton students launched an online site called Givology.org, whose purpose is to raise money for scholarships and education projects in the developing world. Givology’s vision, according to chief development officer Catherine Gao, is that of a global community of individuals connected through their belief in the power of education to change people’s lives. The group, which so far has attracted more than 200 lenders, has partnerships in China, India, Uganda, Ecuador and Kenya. Gao, a Wharton undergraduate, and Maria Davydenko, a dual-degree Wharton/Penn student and the site’s chief creative director, spoke with Knowledge at Wharton about Givology and why they each donate more than 10 hours a week to this project.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
knowledge@Wharton: Catherine and Maria, thanks for coming. Maria, can you explain briefly how Givology works?
Maria Davydenko: Givology is basically structured to be a social network for the socially conscious. We have three main branches. We have the donor section of the site, and then we have students and we have projects. The site is sort of like a Facebook, but for donations. So people can take a look at students and at projects they’re interested in, interact with them and then donate to them.
Knowledge at Wharton: Catherine, how do we know that the money someone actually gives to Givology gets to the person he or she has donated to?
Catherine Gao: The way that Givology works is that we partner with very, very credible non-profit organizations who are actually on the site, in the field. For example, we have a partnership in Uganda. Our non-profit organization that we partner with is on site, and so when people donate money to Givology, all the money that goes to Givology is directly transferred to that institution.
Knowledge at Wharton: So you’ve had no problems in this area, in terms of tracking the money and making sure it gets to its intended destination?
Gao: No. None at all.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the founders of Givology doing now?
Gao: Our chief executive officer, Joyce Meng, is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Our president, Jennifer Chen, is working at a private equity firm in New York. Our vice president, Xiang Li, is at Microsoft in California. And our chief marketing officer, Jen Jia, is at Morgan Stanley in New York.
Knowledge at Wharton: So it’s quite a range of talents that they are bringing to this project. Is it all volunteer? Does anyone get paid for the work?
Davydenko: No, it’s completely volunteer. Recently, we have gotten in on a program with Microsoft, where they are going to start matching our volunteer hours with some funding. But, no, all of us are just in this for the cause.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’d like both of you to answer this. I know that there are many, many clubs and organizations and initiatives that you can volunteer with as a student at Wharton and at Penn. Why did you pick this one?
Gao: To put it simply, I find Givology inspiring. I find our cause, the people involved, the passion that we have, just so inspiring. And, to me, it can’t get any better — to know that I’m helping someone I don’t even know is an amazing thing to me.
Knowledge at Wharton: Maria?
Davydenko: I think that with many groups on campus, you can get some kind of professional development out of it. You can meet people, but there’s something different about really being able to make a difference, as a student, even just as an undergrad. Givology gives us a chance to do that. It’s a start-up, it’s something new on the scene and it’s really exciting to be able to work with a group of people who are so dedicated to education worldwide.
Knowledge at Wharton: An organization called Kiva is based on somewhat of the same premise. It posts profiles of potential borrowers. Lenders look at these profiles and then they typically make small loans to whomever they want, for whatever amount they want. It’s been called a mix of social networking and microfinance. Did Kiva inspire this organization?
Gao: Kiva was certainly one of our inspirations. When we were first getting started, we looked at their website frequently and still do. However, we wanted to put our own spin on it. Obviously, we focus more on grants and education. Kiva is more focused on microfinance. But we do look to them as one of our predecessors.
Knowledge at Wharton: And why exactly did this group pick education as their focus?
Gao: At Givology, we believe that education is probably the single most important and most sustaining force in a person’s life. If you are educated … the amount that you can accomplish in your life is just incomparable.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your website talks about partnering with non-profit organizations, local communities and schools. What are some examples of that?
Gao: For example, we just completely funded a library project in rural China. That’s one. Also there is an exciting new project that Givology just got in Uganda. A non-profit in New York is going to install solar energy and wind energy at a school there because right now they don’t have any electricity or running water. This project will help the school get on its feet.
Knowledge at Wharton: Those are great examples. I’m not sure if I understand if there are individual students that you can donate to, or is it mainly projects or organizations?
Gao: It’s a mixture of both. There are students that you can donate to and there are also educational projects that you can donate to.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can students at other colleges and universities join up as volunteers, and what would a typical volunteer do?
Davydenko: Absolutely. We are working on developing campus chapters for Givology. We currently have a prototype here at Penn, and we are trying to put together other prototypes at Columbia and Oxford. These groups would basically take on more of a grassroots effort, where they would work on translation services for profiles we receive from students abroad. They would also work on marketing ventures for Givology.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do the volunteers travel to these countries to look at the organizations they’re involved with?
Gao: I’m really glad you asked that question, because another venture that Givology is embarking on is our Givology Fellows program. During the summers, we would like to have Givology Fellows, who can be undergraduate students or even professionals, travel to our field sites, our schools, and really see firsthand what is going on there, how Givology is impacting that school and that community.
Knowledge at Wharton: So, how will this site sustain itself?
Gao: I think it’s all about the passion that we put into it. All of us are full-time students [and] full-time professionals, and even with all of our commitments in other places, we find the time. Maria and I put in at least 10 hours a week. We find the time to dedicate ourselves, wholeheartedly, to Givology. It’s really about the human resources and the passion that we [bring] — those will be our sustaining force.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think there’s more interest on the part of college students these days to get involved in global projects whose goal is to bring about social change?
Davydenko: Sustainability is the name of the game today. We’re entering into a new era in philanthropy and I think Catherine really touched on this earlier. Is there anything that is more sustainable than an education? College students today are going to be the greatest driving force behind Givology, because we’re working on getting an education ourselves right now. It really touches a nerve. We can relate to these students. We can relate to wanting to get an education, and having to work to get the financial resources to do this. I think it’s definitely topical today.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you see any link between initiatives like yours and the global financial crisis we’re in, with all the press reports about the role played by highly compensated, reckless CEOs?
Gao: There’s not enough research to show that there’s a link, although in my personal opinion, I think that could be a factor. But [mostly] it’s about the heart and energy that you put into these kinds of works.
Knowledge at Wharton: I would love to talk to you again in two or three years and see how Givology, and both of you, are doing. In the meantime, thank you very much for coming.
Davydenko: That was great. Thank you.
Gao: Thank you very much.