A “Spark” of Inspiration for the Extraordinaries

Claire Sale's picture

Jacob Colker, Co-Founder and CEO of SparkedSparked is a brand new online micro-volunteering network where people can use their professional skills to solve nonprofit challenges. Sound familiar? That’s probably because you’ve already heard about the Extraordinaries. In 2009, the Extraordinaries, the team’s original micro-volunteering platform, was awarded a winning place in the NetSquared N2Y4 Mobile Challenge and has since seen massive growth and widespread publicity. The new Sparked platform is now the sole focus of the Extraordinaries team. I was interested to hear about all the changes that have been happening for them, so I got in touch with the co-founder and CEO, Jacob Colker, to learn more.

Learn more about Sparked in the interview below!


Q. What is Sparked? - Give us your elevator pitch!

Every seven minutes, a new skilled volunteer signs up on Sparked.com to help nonprofits get valuable work done for free.

Sparked.com is a site where talented professionals complete brief skills-based projects for nonprofits, entirely online. As you read this, employees from Google, Kraft Foods, Frog Design, and more are sharing their skills and having an impact -- right from their computers, right now. And, individuals volunteers are just as welcome to come in and help out.

In this economy, sometimes the best way to raise money is to not spend it in the first place. Instead of hiring costly consultants, nonprofits can get stuff done on Sparked.com from incredibly talented people, for free.

Allow me to hone in on that for a second. NONPROFITS: Get free work done by the same highly-skilled talent pool that works for the world’s biggest brands. And, do it with almost zero management effort on your part.

Q. How does it differ from the Extraordinaries? And why did you make those changes?

Overall, volunteers continue to be incredibly attracted to the idea of using their spare time to have an impact. However, from our experiments in the first year, users would lose interest with image tagging and other simple tasks after some time. Ultimately, we learned that users needed deeper social mechanics built into the system, they needed more challenging work to hold their interest, they needed a broader goal to work towards, they needed clearer milestones to aspire to reach, and they needed to see the immediate impact of their results.

Similarly, nonprofits continue to be attracted to the idea of hundreds of thousands of new volunteers getting involved from all over the world. With tests over the first year, we were successful with specific types of nonprofits but did not strike the right value proposition for a wider range of organizations. For example, image tagging is valuable to museums and libraries. To date, we’ve had over 300,000 image tags submitted for nonprofits like the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. However, image tagging isn’t a high-priority for nonprofits that don’t have a curatorial focus or existing image database. Ultimately, we learned that nonprofits needed skills-based labor to help them get work done that they would normally hire outside consultants to accomplish.

In early 2010, we began to receive cold phone calls from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) managers at several major corporations. These companies faced challenges with engaging their workforce in employee volunteering and they saw micro-volunteering as real solution to their pain points. Realizing the opportunity to deliver highly-skilled labor to nonprofits (a real need) in a micro-volunteering context, by the same employees who work for the world’s best brands (high quality), we decided to dig deep into the possibilities through new research.

Over three months, we completed approximately 200 hours worth of qualitative interviews with CSR managers, employees, and nonprofits to better understand each of their pain points and learn how we might be able to help corporate employees micro-volunteer their skills for nonprofits. (Special thanks to Steve Blank for his guidance in his book).

For nonprofits, we found that most organizations need more highly skilled volunteers (design, translation, research, marketing, public relations, and tech), but many nonprofits don’t have the capacity to manage more people. Additionally, many nonprofits face dire budget challenges in this economy, but yet they still plan to spend anywhere from $40,000 to $250,000 to outsource work to consultants. Nonprofits that do have the capacity to manage more people but still choose not to, do so because of a desire to avoid the arduous volunteer handholding process. Nonprofits don’t want to deal with interviews, hiring, management, personal issues, and more. They want work done fast, efficiently, and with minimal time investment on their part.

For companies, we found that many skilled employees are incredibly busy and simply don’t have the capacity to make volunteerism a regular part of their lives. Most employees would be willing to participate in traditional company service days once or twice a year, but not every week. Further, for millennial employees that were raised on texting, video games, and social networking, the experience of cleaning up a park isn’t all that attractive.

From this research, we went back to the drawing board and asked the question: “How can we continue to facilitate micro-volunteerism in a way that is convenient to the volunteer, but that chiefly delivers high-value (but low effort) labor to nonprofits, and is centered around a sustainable business model?” The answer to this question would ultimately become www.Sparked.com.

For much of 2010, we have been building and iterating on this new approach to micro-volunteerism. Sparked stays true to our original mission to make it easier for people to volunteer, and it stays true to the original spirit of micro-volunteerism (enable nonprofits to get volunteer help in easy bite-sized chunks). But, the key distinction is that we're shifting our definition of micro-volunteerism from “a few minutes” to the less confining definition of “during spare time.” Further, the value proposition has been adjusted to reflect the true need in the nonprofit community – highly skilled expertise – including creative design, job description review, new product brainstorms, new website focus-grouping, and media relations strategies.

To be clear, this is not traditional online volunteerism. We’re not a telecommuting option. We don't vet. We don't train. We don't make people go through hours of interviews. And, anyone is welcome. Wikipedia doesn't require people to interview and jump through hoops just to edit a page and neither do we. Our focus is on convenience and quality -- and we use modern social mechanics to make that happen.

Old Extraordinaries Logo  New Sparked Logo


Q. Why did you change the name?

We love “The Extraordinaries” and the name has been extremely good to us. But, it’s not the easiest to spell. As our company matured, so did our outlook on the importance of a short, memorable, and easy-to-find .com. So, we made the switch. But! Know this... at any moment, a member the Sparked team might jump into a phone booth and come out wearing a blue spandex outfit with an E across the chest.

Q. Re-branding is hard work! Do you have any lessons learned from the process?

  1. Hire Quinn from FussFactory.com She’s incredibly talented and experienced.
  2. Have patience. It takes forever.


Q. Can you share any interesting case studies with us?

Hundreds of nonprofits from all over the globe have already begun to increase capacity by leveraging Sparked’s talented pool of volunteers, including the Grameen Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, the United Way, the American Red Cross, Room to Read, and First Aid Corps.

Among the hundreds of successful examples include website search engine optimization help for Accountability Counsel, third-world water well drilling research for a Masaai village in Kenya, copywriting edits for the SETI Institute, focus group reactions to a new website design for Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, catchy tag-line development for the United Way, media research for the Grameen Foundation, and more.

Q. What’s next for Sparked?

Employee teams from Kraft Foods and Frog Design were among the first to sign up to lend their expertise to nonprofits. Teams from technology giant Google began micro-volunteering this past Tuesday. And, teams from SAP are set to start using the system in the next two weeks.

In today’s economy, where almost a third of the nonprofits in America have had to lay off staff and one in five has been forced to reduce services due to funding cuts (according to The Economist), free help from qualified professionals is more valuable than ever.
We’re working every day to help nonprofits get more done, without spending more money.

Q. How can people get involved with Sparked?

By the time you finish reading this sentence, a nonprofit could have already created an account and started posting challenges, or an individual could have started working on their first solution. Stop reading this and go sign up! It’s free.

To learn more and get involved check out the Sparked platform at http://www.sparked.com and follow @SparkedCom on Twitter.


Thanks so much to Jacob Colker for sharing the Sparked story with us! We hope you will consider volunteering and sharing opportunities for volunteers on the site.