I recently had the privilege to interview Greg Baldwin, President of VolunteerMatch: the award-winning VolunteerMatch.org service and the Web’s largest volunteer engagement network. Greg joined the founding team in 1998 as its Chief Imagination Officer to build a website to make it easier for good people and good causes to connect.
Today, as President, Greg oversees the expansion of a network that is already serving 96,000+ nonprofits, 165 enterprise clients, and a quarter of a million interested volunteers a week. Since 1998 the VolunteerMatch network has helped the nonprofit sector engage more that $4.5 billion worth of volunteer services.
My questions for Greg focus on his career path and the lessons he learned along the way that could be instructive for Millennials seeking a career as an entrepreneur in an online business or a career as an Executive for a non-profit.
Greg’s rise to becoming President didn’t happen overnight and required that he develop skills in marketing, technology, entrepreneurship and fundraising.
Beth: What was your career path that led to your current position as President of VolunteerMatch?
Greg: I was recruited directly out of college with an undergraduate degree in Public Policy from Brown University in 1990, to work for Leo Burnett, one of the nations leading advertising agencies. My keen affinity for and interest in human behavior helped me get hired there. After two years I was doing well as an advertising account executive and yet I wasn’t satisfied in my work. I couldn’t shake the feeling that all of the talent, resources, and imagination were being applied towards encouraging people to buy muffins and orange juice in the mid-west. I like muffins and orange juice as much as the next guy, but it just wasn’t resonating for me. I couldn’t imagine doing this for the next forty years.
Beth: What did you do after you left your job at Leo Burnett?
Greg: (laughing) I had a mid-life crisis at age 22 and went to the beach on Cape Cod with an old college roommate who was experiencing a similar shift in mindset about our jobs and wanting to find something more meaningful in our work. We formed a “two-man graduate program” reading everything in the local library from Henry Thoreau, Dostoyevsky, William James and John Dewey. Coming out of that, we were determined to figure out what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives and having read every worthwhile book at the local library we decided it was time to move back to Boston.
Beth: What prompted you to leave Cape Cod and to become an entrepreneur?
Greg: A friend from Leo Burnett who was at Harvard Business School asked me to write the business plan to build and scale a national, interactive kiosk network, 2D Interactive, in malls and college bookstores in ’93-’97. This was my first real experience as an entrepreneur and manager. The launch of Netscape changed everything and the Internet quickly eclipsed the possibilities of the kiosk business. While I was proud of my contributions to 2D Interactive and learned many valuable lessons, by 1997 I knew it was time to look for other opportunities
Beth: When you left 2d Interactive, how did you move on to your next project?
Greg: A friend from college, Jay Backstrand, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in building a website to make it easier for people to find local volunteer opportunities? He knew that I had experience in building the brand and interfaces for 2D Interactive and that I wasn’t afraid of new ideas. So he asked me if I’d be willing to help out.
I became an enthusiastic volunteer and in the fall ’97 Jay asked me to join the team to design and launch VolunteerMatch.org. There were only four of us so we got to pick our own titles. I became the Chief Imagination Officer, which I thought was a fitting mashup of webmaster and creative director. I combined my background in psychology, public policy, marketing, communications, technology and entrepreneurship to build a website that would engage users and simplify the process of finding a great place to volunteer.
Beth: Did you get paid a lot for your work launching the website?
Greg: No, not really, but that wasn’t why I was interested. VolunteerMatch is a nonprofit so I knew it would never be about the money. I was excited to be doing something that I was really interested in. I felt good that I was using my expertise and my time to create something that would be a useful tool for improving how we interact with our community. The biggest payoff came later as we could see the impact of our work for tens of thousands of nonprofits and millions of volunteers.
Beth: Did you ever regret success didn’t make you rich?
Greg: Sometimes I wish we had the visibility and respect that money can bring, but I don’t envy the money and think we’ve been incredibly lucky.
Beth: What makes VolunteerMatch special for you?
Greg: Building this website was the first time I fully utilized my skills, insights and energy towards a venture that I found both interesting and meaningful. I followed my parents’ career advice, which was to “do what you believe in”, and my gut instinct that this business could change people’s lives. This has been the most rewarding experience of my professional life and I’ve never looked back to question my choice of jumping off the corporate ladder. I love my work and all the people I work with inspire me.
Beth: Did you choose any mentors along the way to help you build VolunteerMatch?
Greg: I chose great mentors to serve on the board: I’m surrounded by like-minded people whose skill sets compliment mine and who share a vision of doing good, giving back and solving big problems. The people on the board have all made a huge impact and continue to provide invaluable feedback, insight and encouragement.
Beth: Can you describe some of your organization’s greatest accomplishments?
Greg: I like to think our greatest accomplishment is that we are still here after 15 years. Not many Internet companies survived the dot-com bust and not many new nonprofits survive, period. It is remarkable to me that everyday close to 40,000 volunteers visit VolunteerMatch to find an opportunity to give back.
We are also proud to partner with businesses to provide tools and services to help companies successfully manage volunteer programs and support corporate social responsibility initiatives. It is rewarding to be working with such a broad range of clients committed to making a positive difference.
And of course, it is also nice to be recognized. VolunteerMatch has enjoyed receiving many awards over the years for its innovative approach to social change, its social impact, and its sustainable business model.
Beth: What is your definition for success?
Greg: Success for me has been finding the intersection of what you’re good at, doing something that you believe in and getting paid to do it. If you are ambitious then my advice is don’t settle for success you don’t believe in. If you are genuinely interested in what you are doing, unless you are very, very lucky chances are you’ll never find the success you deserve.
Greg modestly speaks of his work being meaningful. But anyone who visits the site is immediately impressed: It’s easy to use and is a tremendous resource for organizations and individuals seeking a role in alleviating suffering. VolunteerMatch has clearly had and will continue to have a revolutionary effect on how people and organizations find ways to improve the world. The impact this site has is enormous and Greg, as well as its co-founders, are rightfully proud of their accomplishment in creating this site.
Greg recognized his good fortune, developed useful skills, networked with smart people and gave of himself in order to reach his current role. He wasn’t driven to become an Executive: He was driven to have a positive impact on people’s lives using his unique skills and abilities to drive his agenda forward.
The main lesson one can learn from Greg’s experience and from his career path is that having a vision and being patient and persistent can lead to having an exceptional career. Greg’s move from advertising to creating a non-profit was a non-linear move, which required reflection and a willingness to risk leaving a high salaried job. But when Greg realized he wasn’t fully maximizing his potential (or doing what he believed in), he listened to his gut and made the necessary shift to improve his situation; and he ultimately found the meaningful work he was seeking.
Greg’s career journey shows the importance of combining both practical skills and idealism in approaching your career choice. He developed rare and valuable skills that enabled him to develop a website in an industry that suited his belief system and ultimately found fulfillment and happiness in his work.