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How She Got There: Joyce Meng & Jennifer Chen, Co-Founders of Givology


Name: Joyce Meng
Job Title and Description: CEO/Co-Founder of Givology
College/Major: University of Pennsylvania/Huntsman Program - international studies and finance
Website: www.givology.org
Twitter Handle: @Givology

Name: Jennifer Q. Chen
Job Title and Description: President/Co-founder of Givology
College/Major: University of Pennsylvania/Huntsman Program - international studies and finance
Website: www.givology.org
Twitter Handle: @Givology

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

Joyce Meng: There’s no such thing as a typical day at Givology since we’re constantly working on new campaigns and initiatives. As the CEO and co-founder… a day can include any of the following:

  • Editorial content for our blog and newsletter; in addition, currently we’re finalizing the second edition of our book A Guide to Giving, available on Kindle.
  • Website updates. We’re constantly trying to improve our platform to help connect donors to our grassroots causes. Even with my limited coding skills, I’ll still dabble.
  • Conference calls with our grassroots partners around the world to get the latest updates, posting updates from our partners on our website (transparency is a core tenet of the Givology philosophy) and coordinating collaborative campaigns/events.
  • Social media advocacy on Facebook and Twitter primarily; we typically have seasonal campaigns throughout the year and weekly social media sessions. In addition, sometimes I’ll listen in on our analytics team calls and discussions.  
  • Our chapters are engaged in awareness-building and fundraising activities in their respective cities. I’ll oftentimes reach out to chapters to get progress updates and discuss ways to help them increase the reach of their work.
  • Interviewing new volunteers for our team. We’re 100 percent volunteer-run, and despite how large our team has grown, I personally believe in meeting and speaking to every new hire to our team. Our organization is only as strong as the people who join in.

Jennifer Chen: Givology is unique in that no one gets paid a salary, and the entire organization is comprised of volunteers. My role within Givology is to wear many hats, and the “typical” day will require me to do so. As a leader of Givology, my responsibilities are multifold, from managing people and operations and corresponding with field partners to brainstorming upcoming fundraisers and initiatives and working on marketing and communications. We are extremely flat and wide, with a network of over 100 volunteers and 10 chapters worldwide.

Joyce and I both believe that Givology has always been built on taking ideas and running with it, so we always encourage volunteers to come up with and work on their own ideas. Any given day, I could be assisting and managing a handful of projects that Givologists are working on—social media messaging, marketing and public relations work, partner management, new initiative building, fundraising, etc. Throughout the day, there may also be more operational issues that come up related to wiring money to our partners or making sure our fundraising checks have come in and have been promptly deposited. Also, I will often be talking to new and existing partners in the mornings and evenings due to the international time differences. I will also make sure to allocate “focus time,” which means at least one to two hours to any longer term projects that require more careful planning, writing, designing and/or calculating, such as an annual report, a grant, upcoming presentations and event planning.

What is the best part of your job?

JM: Knowing that our work touches the lives of so many students and their families around the world. I’m constantly inspired by the passion, resourcefulness and impact-orientation of our grassroots partner schools and education organizations. It’s truly an honor to work with so many incredibly talented and motivated people, and without the doubt, seeing how our efforts at Givology makes a difference [for] one student, one school, one community at the time is truly one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

JC: The best part of my job is being able to empower both the students and communities in areas where there is dire need and the young, eager volunteers of Givology to make a difference. When our field partners receive Givology funding, it is not just a mere check, it’s a symbol of global connectivity and potentiality. It’s an invitation to share their stories where they will be heard and responded to. Especially because holding a day job in advertising technology is so different from doing my job at Givology, I love being able to make [a] meaningful impact from thousands of miles away and make the warmth giving accessible to all, regardless of one’s age, occupation or demographic.

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

JM: Before starting Givology, I did an internship with FINCA International, primarily doing data analytics to figure out from survey data how the program impacted their clients. Later on, I had the chance to be a FINCA fellow in the field collecting data from microcredit clients in Mexico. I got the first position initially from doing research on organizations with a mission that I strongly believed in, and then reaching out to contacts listed on the website; I sent out dozens of emails and didn’t give up even when I didn’t hear back.

The second opportunity came from working hard, doing a good job and being in the right place. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” I strongly adhere to this philosophy; the big career opportunities come when you work hard and gain experience one step at a time.  

JC: My first “job” in nonprofit and education was not a paid role or a structured program. My most relevant experience was during the summer of my sophomore year, when I traveled to an extremely poor [region] in Northwest China called Ningxia. I traveled to a tiny local village and spent a week living with the families there, documenting their stories, videotaping their accounts and later writing it all up for my senior thesis on the quality of rural education in China. It was a grueling week without hot water or toilets, with only a few pieces of meat per day (which the locals saved for me) to eat. The families slept on stone beds lit by a fireplace carved out beneath the beds, which was the same fireplace children had to kneel by to read and complete their homework after the sun set. It did not matter to the families that they could not afford many amenities at home. It only mattered that they could save enough money each month to pay school tuition.

By high school, only 20 percent of the families were able to keep paying for their children’s education. I left the community with 1,000 dollars and a promise that I would do something about this after I was able to return back to what seemed like a different realm of comfort and fulfillment. It was shortly after Ningxia that I started to venture into education nonprofit entrepreneurialism.

What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?

JM: I started Givology because education really changed my life, and I strongly believe that education is one of the foundational, quintessential elements to poverty reduction. As an online giving marketplace for education, we relate to our donors via our website and our social media networks. Since we launched more than five years ago when crowdsourcing was a relatively new concept, we had to build a lot of our infrastructure from scratch. In retrospect, we probably would have used a different online database platform with a CMS system to make our website much easier to update, as well as take advantage of the many open-source features now readily available. We’ve come a long way from our initial launch design to Givology 3.0, but we’re constantly looking for ways to improve.

JC: From start to finish, Joyce, myself and a few other founding members back at Penn spent six months ideating and creating the first version of Givology. In hindsight, I wish I did more research about other education ventures of Givology’s nature–both for-profit and nonprofit. The industry of microfinance within education specifically is very small, always changing in terms of regulation and market receptiveness, and the people within the industry are fairly open to sharing advice. In fact, as students, we would have had an easier time approaching and requesting a few minutes of time from other more seasoned entrepreneurs and industry leaders. Only recently did I realize that there were a few Penn alumni who started a national for-profit peer-to-peer student lending platform and that they had once looked into international expansion but found many legal challenges to doing so.

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?

JM: Oh, we’ve certainly made our share of mistakes at Givology! The key is to learn from the experience and move on. For us, transparency in connecting the donor to our grassroots causes is essential; we require regular student and project updates to make sure that the money we give is spent properly and to keep our donor network informed.

When we first started out, we were still experimenting with our screening and interview process with potential partners. Needless to say, a few of our initial partnerships didn’t work out in meeting our criteria for transparency of impact and communication, but we didn’t know until later on. Out of our own pocket we refunded money to our donors since we refuse to compromise the quality of our network. Since then, we’ve added additional steps to increase the rigor of our partnership interviews and to address the key questions surrounding the measurement of impact and the ability to communicate in the field. I think this is what makes Givology truly unique—we may get dozens of applications each week for a potential partnership, but we enter into new partnerships now at a pace of one or two per quarter. Donors can rest assured that we’ve applied the most rigorous screening standards to ensure that we’ve identified truly innovative, lean and impactful organizations.  

JC: One mistake I have personally made at Givology was the set up of our Google grant. The initial application process was not arduous, but it required a lot of paperwork and follow-up. I had to work closely with our CFO to get everything in order. However, the night before the deadline, there was miscommunication about who was compiling and submitting the final application. We ended up missing the deadline and delaying our grant by a few months. Needless to say, we both felt responsible and guilty but as a result, we signed up for file-sharing and project management software hosted on the cloud to avoid email ping-pong and lost documents. We also built a much better rapport after the incident and worked on being clearer in our communication thereafter.

What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

JM: Surreal moments happen all the time as we step back and look at what Givology has accomplished in the last five years. Scaling our website from only dozens of hits per day to now over 30,000 per day, growing our presence at the University of Pennsylvania to now over 18 chapters globally, publishing our first book and selling over 5,000 copies, building a network of now nearly 50 partnerships in 28 countries from starting only initially with one partner in China... it’s surreal reflecting back about how we’ve grown as an organization from just an idea in a dorm room while keeping to our idealistic goal of keeping Givology 100 percent volunteer-driven.

JC: Two years ago, we were contacted by M. Night Shyamalan’s family foundation as a result of a personal recommendation by a Givology donor and volunteer. I had to read my email twice at that point. Both Joyce and I were ecstatic and humbled to be supported by the foundation. The fact that we had such a strong recommendation organically and that we had not done any marketing to establish such a partnership was what made this event so special. I was so inspired and impressed that we had reached a point where word-of-mouth recommendations started to propel us forward.

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

JM: At Givology, we accept volunteers and interns of all backgrounds and experiences as long as they can demonstrate passion for the cause and sufficient time availability to follow through on our projects. However, the candidates we quickly promote in our organization typically have three common characteristics:

  1. Reliability in execution: Our best performers follow through on the things they say they want to do with a realistic view on timing, and truly take ownership of their work. They care about the quality of their output and see themselves as true stewards and ambassadors of Givology. It’s not simply getting a project done haphazardly and quickly just to be finished, it’s about paying attention to quality and making sure it’s done right with all our stakeholders, partners, students and schools in mind.
  2. Ability to work independently and dedicate sufficient time: There are many challenges to working with an online organization: principally, the ability to keep oneself on track even when there is no direct in-person supervision. Our best performers have the discipline to keep to a schedule, and will take the time to ascend the steep initial learning curve... I always tell my team that Givology is a truly flexible platform that enables each core team member to leave his or her imprint on how we operate: the more time you put in, the more you get out. It’s truly a linear relationship.
  3. Effective communication and leadership: Our best performers communicate very effectively with the team. They demonstrate strong leadership ability in motivating their peers on the team and have an “entrepreneurial” spark in proposing new campaigns, ideas, and changes to make Givology more effective. Age, prior experience, background... none of this matters. It’s all about what each person can do.  

JC: We look for a few things. First, they have to be a self-starter and want to take their own initiative and be a mini-entrepreneur within Givology. They [may] not have big ideas but they want to actually get their hands dirty and try them out. Whether they fail or not fail is less important to us.

Second, the candidate wants to do Givology for the right reasons and to truly help out our partners in need, whether that is directly having contact with partners and students in need or using his talent to work on operational projects that lay the foundation for Givology to be able to help our partners. They will work hard on any task and will see that it gets done well.

Finally, the candidate has to be a strong remote worker. Givology is 100 percent volunteer-based, online and distributed across all geographies. Communication over email and phone is essential for collaboration at Givology. Because there is limited face-to-face management, it is also hard to hand-hold anyone, and the candidate has to be an independent worker.

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

JM: As shown in Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel-Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, the fear of regret in decision-making often leads to suboptimal choices. When thinking about a career change, fear of regret can often result in paralysis/stasis as we worry about losing what we have in our current job more than valuing what we may potentially gain from the new opportunity.

From experience, some of the most rewarding milestones I’ve achieved have come from taking more risk. With a good education, you will always land on your feet. If you’re unhappy at your job, be proactive and do something about it; since we spend so much time at work, it’s imperative to do something that you enjoy. It’s always the most rewarding to take the plunge and do something that you are truly passionate about—the “safe” and “comfortable” path may be easier to take now, but years later, you’ll be so much happier finding your own way.

JC: For someone in his or her twenties, the most important thing is to self-reflective and self-aware. When I had been frustrated with the number of hours I had been working in investment banking, one of my mentors advised me to look at the life of my boss’s boss and assess what I liked and disliked about it. If there are more things I like than dislike about it, I should stick with my job regardless of the short-term pains. If the contrary is true, it is time to seriously consider another job or role.  I took that advice at the time and evaluated the lives of several senior leaders. As a result, I realized that I chose a job that other people wanted and not one that I wanted myself. It was only then that I forced myself to explore on my own.

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