Joyce Meng and Jennifer Q. Chen Show Anyone Can Pay It Forward With Givology

 

The idea of Givology came to Joyce Meng in a dream in 2008, when she was still an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. A child of Taiwanese immigrants, Meng was always acutely aware of the value of education and humbled by the knowledge that millions of children around the world do not grow up with the opportunities she had because of their lack of access to education.

She wanted to create a nonprofit that would help link philanthropists to grassroots academic programs that were working effectively to make quality education accessible to children whose families may not otherwise be able to afford it. But more than that, she wanted to start a movement of giving that would inspire people like her to give back to communities in need around the world. A college student at the time, she understood that many people — youth, especially — may not have much money, but they have the desire to donate what little they can afford, the time to volunteer and the passion to be a part of a greater humanitarian cause.

“Philanthropy should be democratic,” says Meng, now 27. “Oftentimes, if you’re not a big [donor] with big dollars, non-profits don’t give you transparency, and you don’t know how your money is being used. But even if you just have $5 to give, you should have the same choice of where your money goes. Givology is based on the concept of making an organization fully transparent and to give everyone involved a voice.”

She immediately reached out to Jennifer Q. Chen, a fellow classmate in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business who was doing her thesis on rural education, and a partnership was born.

They drafted a nonprofit business plan for what they always envisioned to be a 100 percent volunteer organization in the Penn dorms and libraries. They did everything themselves, from building a website to passing out informational flyers, and launched Givology in less than a year, in December of 2008.

Looking back, Meng says it took a good two to three years for them to figure out what they were doing. But part of the reason they’ve been able to achieve so much in such a short period of time is their fearlessness and willingness to dive in full force. “You don’t know what’s going to happen until you do it,” says Meng. “It’s hard to pre-plan everything, but you can always adapt and change, figure out what works and learn from what doesn’t work.”

Meng and Chen have been very diligent about vetting various educational projects and choosing ones that they can confidently give their stamp of approval to, in terms of impact per dollar. “We want to work with truly innovative organizations who know their community better than anyone else and can therefore create targeted programs that address the heart of the problems,” says Meng. “Good intentions are not enough. We really care about the actual impact that they’re making and that there’s oversight and a good team behind them.”

These projects range from teacher training in Pakistan to student scholarships in rural China to programs for indigenous girls in Guatemala that pair them with mentors. Meng is also inspired by schools like Somaliland’s Abaarso School of Science and Technology, which has successfully placed top students from throughout Somalia with full scholarships into prestigious colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Uganda’s Circle of Peace School, which she actually visited during the second year of Givology, where she learned that a mere $50 donation can send one kid to school.

 

Five years later, Meng and Chen’s work on Givology has earned them much respect and recognition. They had an early supporter in The New York Times international development and human rights columnist Nicholas Kristof, and in 2011, they were approached by the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation to launch a partnership between the two organizations. Meng and Chen even made Forbes’ 30 under 30 list this past January.

Today, Givology boasts about 200 volunteers and 23 chapters, and they’ve raised almost $400,000 for 50 grassroots partnerships in 28 different countries. Their team of “Givologists” help with everything from organizing fundraising events and launching new chapters to building their social media presence and writing newsletters — even translating letters from their much-championed pen pal program, which allows the donors to communicate directly with the students they sponsor, so that donors see where their money is going and students know that there’s someone out there rooting for them to succeed.

“There something very pure about being a 100 percent volunteer organization,” says Meng. “Everyone volunteers in high school and college, but then people drop off afterward. But it doesn’t matter if you have crazy workdays. Everyone has something to give, and we all strongly believe in the idea that small dollars and small hours can be aggregated into a powerful force of change.” (Most of the Givology team, including Meng and Chen, are juggling their Givology work on top of busy day jobs.)

Despite their success, the Givology team is always looking forward. Each year, they embark on a new project to get the word out about their organization. Last year marked the publication of their first book written and self-published collectively by Givology volunteers, #GiveInspiration: How to Give Effectively, which is both a handbook for effective giving and an overview of lessons they’ve learned over the years.

This year, they are launching a Givology product line. They’ve recruited artists passionate about their cause to contribute graphics that will be made into T-shirts, posters and other merchandise.

“Young people can do so many things, but often aren’t given the opportunity,” says Meng. “But everyone can give back, and we should make giving part of our daily lives.”

For more information on how to get involved, go to Givology.com.

STORY BY ADA TSENG

 

This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here!