No more sign-in sheets: Volunteer Odyssey reboots volunteering with tech


Volunteer Odyssey, founded in 2013 by Dr. Sarah Petschonek, has blended technology and innovation to provide a unique platform to engage volunteers.

What started as an opportunity to pair job seekers with non-profits and have them blog about their experiences has grown into a unique platform for volunteerism in Memphis.

While Volunteer Odyssey appears to be a social venture, Petschonek sees herself as an entrepreneur attempting to disrupt an industry like any other startup founder.

Located downtown on Main Street, Volunteer Odyssey now has a staff of three and continues to push the boundaries to improve the volunteer experience.

Volunteer Odyssey benefitted early on by participating in a business accelerator program for entrepreneurs created by local firm Start Co. Petschonek’s team learned that volunteerism was always going to be a moving target and in order to keep clients interested, they needed to be on the cutting edge and continue to reinvent themselves. Finding partners and funding was also a challenge in the early going.

“I am living an unproven business model, but I couldn’t be more thrilled about what lies ahead,” Petschonek said.

Volunteer Odyssey partner with nonprofit 501(c) 3 organizations in the Memphis area that provide quality volunteer programs, and enhances those opportunities with technology.

Volunteer Odyssey uses a software platform called VolunteerCompass. They purchased the platform from Give Pulse out of Austin, Texas and have been beta-testing with several partners. Through the platform, volunteers are able to discover ideal volunteer opportunities and non-profits are able to recruit, track and manage their volunteers in a more organized, strategic way.

In a world driven by data, this tracking will better equip nonprofits to go after beneficial grants.

Petschonek is prepping for another product, which is set to launch this fall. Voluntour 360 is a virtual reality tour of volunteer opportunities in Memphis. For example, if someone wanted to know what cleaning up the Mississippi River looked like before they signed up, they could sample the experience via this virtual reality resource.

Volunteer Odyssey will debut the new platform at an upcoming Pop-up Volunteer Party on Friday, November 17th.

While Volunteer Odyssey partners with 60 nonprofits and serves nearly ten corporate clients, their network of more than 2,750 volunteers needs to grow.

“Even with our city being one of the most charitable cities in the nation, Memphis has one of the lowest volunteer rates in the country,” said Petschonek. “Our goal is to make Memphis the best place to volunteer.”

Volunteer Odyssey's platform has helped Shelby Farms Park organize its volunteer efforts.

From a corporate perspective, Volunteer Odyssey can plug employees into meaningful opportunities, said Natalie Wilson, director of vision experience at Shelby Farm Park.

“Working alongside Sarah and her team has revolutionized the Park's ability to not only recruit faithful volunteers but also fill the gap we have had in the management of volunteers,” she said.

International Paper partnered with Volunteer Odyssey to organize its employees for the United Way Days of Caring, a project that provided 2,000 hours of work at an estimated value of $49,000 in volunteer labor to ten nonprofit organizations.

“Volunteer Odyssey ensured that our 700 employee volunteers had a wide variety of quality projects to participate in for our United Way Days of Caring,” said Amy Grow, manager of Community Engagement for International Paper. “Their level of customer service and ability to work within our corporate culture made our projects a big success for the volunteers, non-profits and International Paper.”

When asked where she sees Volunteer Odyssey in five years Petschonek said her main goal is to remove barriers and engage the overlooked, especially those who have been on the receiving end of volunteer services.

“Everyone can volunteer and improve their community,” said Petschonek. “We all have a part to play.”

For more information on volunteer opportunities in Memphis, visit their website at www.volunteerodyssey.com.

Read more articles by Jeff Hulett.

Originally from Chicago, Jeff moved to Memphis in 1990 not really knowing much about the south. In fact, the first week he lived here he was suspended from school for not saying, "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am." Jeff has since developed a passion for Memphis and especially Memphis music. A member of several bands including Snowglobe and Me & Leah, Jeff works as a communications consultant with many non-profits including Playback Memphis, Church Health, Room in the Inn-Memphis and BLDG Memphis. Jeff lives in the Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood with his wife and two daughters. 
 
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