Business Rx: How should a start-up train its volunteers?

July 27
The entrepreneur

Brooks Gabel wanted to create the resource that he felt he didn’t have as a young gay man struggling with how to come out to parents and friends. He turned to the Web to connect with others in his situation, but found most sites and chat rooms were all about dating and hooking up. A year later, he collected his thoughts about his experience and came up with the idea to create an online pen pal resource for other people like him.

Gabel’s first step was to start a blog to share his own story where he wrote about how it felt to be a college swimmer coming out at the University of Maryland. By April 2014, he had grown the blog into a full-fledged social network and Web resource, with 22 volunteers by his side sharing their personal stories with others looking for support on JustLikeYou.org.

The pitch

Gabel

“JustLikeYou.org is a U.S.-based social initiative providing a free and anonymous social network for people 13-years-old and older going through the coming-out process. By developing technology, coordinating lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/questioning/ally competency trainings, and connecting users from the network to their local communities, we are working to eliminate the burden of coming out. Users interact with our network of volunteers who have gone through the coming-out process before to ask questions and share stories as they explore their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

“People are finding out about our site through other social media platforms and word-of-mouth. As Maryland students, we have really developed a great support system on campus. We also have a T-shirt that we’re using to market the site with our slogan ‘#LoveIsLove.’ The slogan is something many people will stand behind and has grown into a visual display of support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and ally community.

“We did an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign earlier this year to generate awareness and raise funds. Right now, we’re generating funds through retail sales of our T-shirts and other premiums. We’ve also gotten one-time funding through business competitions, which has allowed us to grow our volunteer base.

“Volunteer training represents our most expensive cost because we need to make sure they have adequate training. We take pride in our in-person training. We need to get to know the volunteers that will be online interacting with users. We keep training sessions small (usually 12-20 people) and all activities are geared toward sharing your personal story in different ways. We train volunteers in ‘Net speak’ and how to communicate online with people who may identify differently in terms of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We haven’t found a way to move this training online yet. Moving it online makes it scalable. That’s what we’re looking into now. Our other option is setting up a train-the-trainer model so we can bring the in-person training modules to other major cities throughout the country.”

The advice

Melissa Carrier, assistant dean and executive director of the Center for Social Value Creation at the Robert H. Smith School of Business

“Part of your challenge is to understand the ‘secret sauce’ of JustLike­You.org. If your volunteers are most critical, what aspect of your model contributes to your success? You’ve had success with in-person training. Let’s think about the components of the in-person training and break them into scalable parts.

“With the train-the-trainer model, you could create a regional map of the U.S. and pick hub cities based on where you are currently getting the most participation or where you want to get the most participation. Then you can bring volunteers to those hub cities from, say, a 300-mile radius so you are not excluding more rural locations. This model develops regional communities and would allow you to train trusted people in each hub city to run subsequent training sessions. You won’t necessarily have the same penetration as you would if you developed an online training module — where anyone, anywhere could participate — but it will let you keep the components that you’ve identified as really important.

“If you’re having a lot of success on university campuses, that could be how you choose your geographic hubs. You could work with university hubs or even community colleges to host trainings and cut your costs. But at this point, you are still so early stage that you really need to be in control of what you do, as opposed to trying to partner with an existing organization or conference that covers similar themes. You’re building this brand and it’s really important that you do it in a way that maintains your competitive advantage for what you’ve built.

“In five years when you’ve grown much larger, you may need to figure out an online training component. But as many experts say, there is a gap where technology right now is ahead of culture. This means that even though technology makes it possible to replace in-person human interactions, people still want and need to connect in the same room. Keep reminding yourself of that. That could change in a few years, but for now, meet the culture where it is and hold your training session in-person.”

The reaction

Gabel

“The in-person part of our training has been critical in establishing an inclusive, open-minded and positive culture. Often people have separate ‘cyber’ personas and the images, comments, and profiles people post online reflect that ideal. As part of our mission, we at JustLikeYou.org are committed to connecting users on the site to local support groups so that the sense of community becomes tangible. We want the same for our volunteers sharing their personal experience with coming out as well.

“I also think that using universities as hubs for training could work very well. The college environment fits very well with what we are doing and the majority of people that are using the resource are currently 18-24. That may be an easy channel in, we just have to be mindful in our marketing efforts to ensure we aren’t excluding people that aren’t directly affiliated with that particular university. I think we can start by holding more trainings in the [Washington] region, where we are based, and build out from there.”

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