Think it’s impossible to develop an idea so good that people will want to give their time freely to support it? Social entrepreneur Greg Overholt of Students Offering Support (SOS) has proven without a doubt that it is possible. More than that, SOS has inspired over 1,500 volunteers and raised $500,000 since 2004, all focused around one common goal – to educate students while providing resources to bring education to Latin American communities, too. We wanted to know the secrets behind Greg’s success.
Tell us about SOS. How, when, and where did it start?
Students Offering Support is a social venture made up of proven exceptional students who are working toward something more engaging than the typical volunteer experience. They are helping hundreds of students locally which raises thousands of dollars and empowers children in rural communities throughout Latin America to gain access to education.
SOS started as a simple student club at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario (just outside of Toronto) in 2004. I was a sophomore student and generated the support of a few of my peers in my program to get it going. I wanted to bring together students in my unique double degree (business and computer science) and with their help, build something more than just another charitable organization. I wanted to use our teachings to create a business for good – an idea which I realized later is coined social entrepreneurship.
What started as Laurier SOS back in ’04, grew to a see the second SOS chapter in ’07 (my senior year), 11 chapters in existence in 2008 (launched nationally upon my graduation), 15 in ’09, and now 21 campus chapters across Canada in ’10-’11 (with the first US chapter already underway). We are a national family of over 900 influential student volunteers working towards raising $300,000 this year for the 16 development projects and trips planned this summer. The biggest chapter still exists where it all began at Wilfrid Laurier University. They have more than 80 volunteers and are on track to raise $115,000 this year helping more than 3,000 students prepare for their exams.
A campus chapter can employ 15-100 volunteers who teach 1,000-5,000 students in SOS’s Exam-AID group review sessions. In each session, SOS volunteers prepare a 2-3 hour interactive presentation which takes a group of 20 to 200 students over the material for an upcoming exam. These sessions cost the student between $10-$30 for the session and include a take-home package. Each chapter can raise between $5,000- $100,000 in one academic year. The student volunteers then not only work with our Latin America NGO’s to determine, devise, and fund sustainable development projects, but they get the opportunity to build it and witness the change their time and effort can have on two week outreach trips at the end of that SAME year.
Who are your volunteers and how do they fit into the social entrepreneur schema?
Volunteer sophomore, junior, and senior students who are great communicators, who excelled in a particular course (calculus, economics, accounting, biology, etc.), and want to give back and help others teach SOS ‘Exam-AID’ group review sessions. As volunteers (vs being paid), they are all passionate about the work and put more care, effort, and enthusiasm into creating the most engaging Exam-AID possible. We recruit them as any other student club would, communicate the opportunity and the impact they can have. By being a volunteer tutor (or volunteer executive), with 10-20 hours of prep/teaching time, you get to help 50-300 students improve their grades and raise $1,000-$7,000 in ONE exam alone!
We have some courses that raise $15,000 per term due to the work of passionate volunteers who realize the impact they can have as an SOS volunteer. They (and their coordinator/executives) are single-handedly funding new schools/projects by helping hundreds locally – the realization of this win-win is contagious.
If we paid for our tutors, the model would break. It wouldn’t be about students offering support – it would be a tutoring business. We would be able to find tutors, but when money becomes a motivator, our ability to ensure volunteers are there for the right reason would be compromised, creating sessions that lack the passion that volunteers bring.
How do you choose the communities with which you work?
We work with a small set of NGOs who we have worked with for several years that support a wide array of communities across Latin America. We work with them throughout the year to identify communities, perform needs assessments, identify the steps towards self-empowerment, and define the scope of the next project needed in order for our students to fund and build them for the upcoming summer. It takes months and sometimes years to properly get to this stage, but by collaborating with local organizations and the communities, we ensure that the $500,000 we have raised to date is being spent effectively and not being wasted on unnecessary overhead and poorly developed projects.
Are students given opportunities for hands-on involvement in your overseas projects?
Certainly! It is the last step of SOS’s ‘360 degrees of volunteerism’. Unlike traditional organizations that often follow up with donors one to three years after the funds have been donated for a project, we know that our generation want to see, first-hand the impact of their efforts. In order to do that, we forecast our financials and capacity 12 months out so that our students can raise money from September to April and go on their chapter’s two-week outreach trip to the community they are working with either in May or August of that same year.
Volunteers have to pay their own way to attend, but given our low- overhead practices, the cost of an SOS outreach trip is 50-60% lower than other organizations that run international volunteer placements (and we have various scholarship/bursary programs for our volunteers to further decrease their costs). In 12 months, raising $20,000 by teaching their peers and going to Panama, Nicaragua, or Peru to build the school or community center with their own hands is an experience which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen; and the reason why I worked so hard to make it my career after graduating.
What percentage of the tutoring fees goes to overseas programs? To administration requirements?
Of the money raised in the classroom, 90% of that goes towards the development projects built by the students and only 10% stays in the organization. The funds which stay within the organization are used to develop existing volunteers and support new volunteers to be a part of the program while ensuring the projects we fund are sustainable and properly supported for years to come.
What problems are you trying to solve in Latin American communities? How do you measure your success?
We are working to support communities who lack the three main pillars required to break the cycle of poverty: education, healthcare, and nutrition. Our primary focus is on education, but often communities that lack schools require other support infrastructure investments before a school can be used effectively. They may lack proper drinking water, or food supply, and so we work with the community to identify the proper next steps that will empower the local community to become self-sufficient. We aren’t an organization which simply builds one thing for the simplistic nature of the success metrics that follow (ie: saying that 1,000 students are taught each year by our schools).
Instead, we have success metrics defined with each project and follow-up three months, six months, and each year following to measure the output of the community garden, or the utilization of the school house, or the financial impact of the chicken coup for the community.
What are your successes so far?
As I mentioned, our international projects do not generate simple numbers to share, but from the 16 projects completed, we teach between 500-1,000 students in our schools, generate thousands annually from revenue generating investments, and work with our communities to enable an unquantifiable amount of pride and self-respect through our community centers and various other community-building investments.
Yet locally, through the work of our 1,500 on-campus volunteers, we do have numbers to share. Since ’04, we have helped more than 25,000 students prepare for their exams, statistically improve exam grades by 7-15% through our Exam-AID review sessions, raised more than $500,000 for the 16 completed projects (with another 16 in place to be built in summer ’11) in Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Jamaica, and El Salvador. This summer, we have students going to most of those countries, with the addition of a project and trip planned in Haiti (applications still open, see website).
What did it take to expand the program from the original university and how have you ensured ongoing growth?
In order to expand the program nationally, it took a lot of initial investigation into how to properly scale this model, lots of feedback on the business plan (successful at several business plan competitions to not only fund the national launch, but to gain feedback from business leaders to tweak the model to ensure it was right), and a lot of creative low-cost marketing to find the best 10 student leaders to become SOS presidents, piloting SOS on their campus back in 2008.
With the results of that first year of national expansion ($100,000 for four projects and trips), continual growth has been a product of word-out-mouth, media coverage, and effective partnerships with student groups, entrepreneurship centers, and national companies. To ensure new chapters have the ability to ‘do it all’ in even their first year, we have prepared various support materials for them to move fast right from the start. This includes manuals, marketing materials, full-service websites / registrations, and all the fundamental processes that have been found to be successful after six years of trial and error. What this does, is allow the students to focus on the hard stuff: student leadership and local execution.
We work to ensure quality and consistency through intensive one-on-one leadership and development of our student chapter presidents who we work with very closely with; from starting the club to developing a long-term sustainability plan. Yet, every campus SOS chapter is totally different, but they all work towards the same mission: ‘Raise grades, raise money, raise roofs’.
What kinds of marketing efforts to you use to garner new student clients? Does social media play a role?
We market to students throughout our campus chapters and at new schools by using every possible effective communication medium that is either free or extremely low-cost; including lots of social media. We consistently use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, posters and flyers (on-campus), and as many synergetic partnerships we can develop. There is an immense amount of value that can be created through effective partnerships. We work with student groups, on-campus centers (including entrepreneurship, leadership, international development centers), and national student organizations and companies to create mutually beneficial partnerships; engaging the right students with this opportunity to enable more value to be created than the sum of our individual efforts.
Have you raised any outside funding for SOS or do you rely on fees alone?
In six years of growth from nothing to now $500,000 in annual revenues, we have never directly solicited outside funding (grants, donations). We are an officially charitable social venture that has grown organically through providing value to students and companies. The only time I had to garner additional funds was when we were launching SOS nationally. In order to acquire these funds, one idea was to enter business plan competitions across North America. Fortunately, I was able to win $16,000 through placing first or second in four different competitions.
Between these and taking only a $15,000 salary in my year as the full-time executive director, we were able to make it happen. Now in our third year of national expansion, we are an officially registered charity – donations are appreciated, but not needed as we have three full-time staff, have become self-sustaining and as of January 2011, we are in a position to provide the opportunity to start campus chapters in schools across America.
Since SOS was started, has the mission evolved and changed?
Yes and no. We have been ‘raising grades, raising money, raising roofs’ ever since its inception, yet how we go about helping students locally and internationally has evolved. How we teach students has become much more tried and tested. By learning from our 20,000+ feedback submissions, we have constantly tweaked our teaching methods, so our volunteers can properly help generation Y students review extensive amounts of material at one time.
Our process for working with our international partners and communities has also changed drastically. With only one chapter, we were forced to have a much shorter outlook about our future investments, but now as we are raising $300,000+ a year (and growing at 50-100% a year), we can leverage our economies of scale to create long-term, high-impact investments in several communities at the same time. Our scale also ensures our ability to collaborate with our communities for three to five years before moving on to new communities as the existing ones become self-sufficient.
What mistakes have you made in developing SOS’s programs?
We have probably made a mistake on every aspect of our organization at some point in time. Having started this when I was 19 (now 25), we and I have learned and grown so much from the mistakes that the team of volunteers and I have made. Everything from calculation errors in our materials (have now developed a process to have materials double checked), unprepared tutors (requirement in place for tutors to do a mock-session), run-in’s with school administration (proper communication processes), and lots of other slip-ups that have since been worked out.
Are we perfect now? Definitely not. I guarantee we will make more mistakes that will only make us better as an organization.
What advice would you give other social entrepreneurs looking to start a similar project?
During talks to classes or conferences, I can talk about advice / lessons alone for 15-30 minutes… Here are a few thoughts for key success factors have been instrumental for Students Offering Support:
IDEA: Having an idea that is simple to communicate yet powerful in its potential. When people say ‘Why doesn’t that exist already? It’s so simple and it makes sense!’, you know you are on to something.
PEOPLE: The cliché is very true; people are your greatest asset. SOS would not be where it is today without the Stew McKendry’s (my VP from ’04 – ’06 and the arguably best tutor I’ve ever seen), the Olesya Komashko’s (my chapter president successor at Laurier, taking the chapter from $35,000 to $100,000 in two years and who is now employed full-time as SOS’s national director of chapter development, helping other presidents do what she has done), and the Jason Frittaion’s (one of the tutors I have mentored who teaches more than 1,000 economics students each year, raising $20,000+ from his teachings annually (has the highest rating ever seen this year 9.72 from 400 feedbacks) and consistently inspires students he teaches to get involved) we would simply not be where we are today.
PASSION: It is wonderfully infectious. All great leaders are stubbornly passionate; and great ones are stubborn, rightfully so. Having the passion to work your tail off towards something you wholeheartedly believe in is inspiring. With the right idea (see first bullet point), communicated to the right people (see second bullet point), the potential impact you can have is endless. I am constantly inspired by the passion that my colleagues and volunteers have. I am privileged to be able to learn from them every day.