Serial entrepreneur Geng Wang has always enjoyed technology and describes himself as “a relatively early adopter.” He had already built and sold two tech startups—Rent Jungle and Community Elf—before founding his current venture, Civic Champs, in 2019. Civic Champs makes it easy for nonprofits to manage, track, and engage their volunteers by eliminating all of the manual data entry and other time-intensive clerical tasks nonprofits traditionally have had to do. Its ultimate vision is to inspire volunteerism, strengthen nonprofits, and improve lives and communities.
“Volunteering is something that almost everyone is like, ‘Oh yeah, I think that’s a good idea.’ It’s one of the few times that across racial, ethnic, political, and income lines, you have people actually rubbing shoulders with each other. There’s something special about that in terms of building empathy. Because if you don’t meet other people, how are you ever going to build that type of empathy?”
Mill member Geng’s first foray into entrepreneurship as an undergraduate lost a little bit of money, he says, but it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. His next venture was a startup called Rent Jungle, an apartment search engine.
“A number of aggregator sites took rental listings from multiple websites and put them in one place. But Rent Jungle could crawl the broader internet and grab the listings from tens of thousands of websites, searching directly from landlords as opposed to going through third parties.”
“Our thesis at Rent Jungle was that people would value having the full breadth of information on one site. I think that was partially true. What ended up being actually true is you need to have enough, but you don’t need a hundred percent, necessarily.”
That ability to distinguish between the original intent of a product and where the market perceives its real value—and then to pivot and capitalize on that—is evident in all of Geng’s ventures. First Geng and his co-founder of Rent Jungle found ways to leverage the search engine to create a second business selling data. And then they pivoted again.
“Some of our apartment owner clients told us, ‘Well, Rent Jungle’s nice, and it’s driving leads. You guys seem smart. What do you think about this Facebook thing? My boss wants me to create a Facebook page for this apartment complex.’” Geng laughs. “We had that conversation a couple of times in quick succession. And so we just decided to circle back. ‘Hey, would you want us to take care of it for you? What if we charged you 300 bucks a month and we managed it all for you? Would you do that?’ And that was the genesis of our second company, called Community Elf, a social media management agency.”
They leveraged Rent Jungle’s underlying technology a second time, to surface content, and ran both businesses concurrently. Rent Jungle sold in 2014, and Geng’s business partner went with the acquisition. By 2017, they sold Community Elf as well.
One takeaway from those earlier experiences was that timing is everything.
“For better or worse, Community Elf was riding the wave of very early social media adoption. And there’s a lot to be said about that, right? It’s much easier to ride these waves when you don’t have to do anything amazing to do well.”
Another takeaway was that being successful encompasses more than the bottom line.
“Startups are hard, and you’re always going to have down moments and times. It’s certainly helpful in managing your psychology if you believe in the mission in what you’re building and you’re excited at the prospect of building a really large company around that idea.”
“With Civic Champs, if you were to say, ‘Hey, Geng, imagine this being a very successful company. Would you be excited to do this for the next ten years?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, that sounds like fun.’” Geng had been engaged personally as a volunteer for years, so he already had experienced its emotional and social benefits. Research shows there are mental health and physical health benefits, too.
“Volunteering is such a great way to show love and kindness. And being able to promote that and encourage that in your community, within people, that’s something that I can definitely get behind.”
Civic Champs now serves 61 nonprofits in 23 states, including Habitat for Humanity, Animal Shelters, United Way, and the Boys and Girls Club. In just two years, it’s raised a million dollars from investors and already has nine employees—quite a lot by startup standards—with impressive resumes. Every month, the Civic Champs team gets together to do a service or volunteer project of their own. And on top of that, Civic Champs also launched its own pro-bono initiative, Helping Hands.
Civic Champs staff volunteering at Habitat for Humanity
The company grew quickly in part because it had a large founding team of four, working for lower salaries (or no salary). That cut operating costs and extended what startups call “the runway”: the amount of time you have to get your business off the ground before you run out of money.
It also grew because Geng and the team were able to create an initial vision, and then, as in his earlier ventures, they pivoted based on customer feedback to find product market fit.
The original idea for Civic Champs was a mobile game, like Pokemon Go for volunteering, that would make volunteering fun and easy. So Geng shopped the idea around to friends and nonprofits, trying to get some early customer validation.
“And that’s where we started learning some of the challenges we would have. Because games, you have to have new content all the time, otherwise it’s not interesting. People delete games on their phones left and right. How do I get my app to be sticky?”
As the founders explored the idea, they started hearing a common theme. Most nonprofits either were unhappy with their volunteer management platform or didn’t have one: and they were willing to pay for a solution. So Civic Champs quickly repurposed their technology and signed up nonprofits for a pilot program. It took a while to get the product right, but they had an early sense that it was needed and would eventually work for customers.
As it turns out, Civic Champs’ app is good and sticky.
“Over 90% of our mobile app downloads stay on the phone, which is very, very sticky for an application. And we had a hypothesis around that: we thought people are going to keep it because they’re going to feel bad deleting the Civic Champs app. ‘If I delete it, I’m communicating that I no longer support this nonprofit, but I do support it.’”
When COVID hit, like most other companies, Civic Champs needed to reestablish their footing. They were accepted into two prestigious accelerator programs back to back: MassChallenge and then Techstars. Both provided funding, runway, and programming. Then they added a new COVID-specific feature set and received funding support from the Hillman Foundation and Jewish Healthcare Foundation to launch a pilot program with the United Way of Southwestern PA. In February of 2021, Civic Champs’ microdonations feature was selected as one of 10 winners of the IDEO and Gates Foundation Reimagine Charitable Giving Challenge out of more than 400 concepts submitted from over 68 countries.
“We’ve been lucky in that we do well in competitions. We’ve won quite a few. And that’s been helpful for a few different reasons. One, it’s another way to get money that’s not dilutive. Two, it helps us refine our story. Each one of those pitches, we’re refining what we’re selling to the world and seeing what resonates or not.”
Looking forward, two things excite Geng. First, Civic Champs recently surveyed customers to evaluate product-market fit, and their scores doubled from the last time. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they would be very sad or disappointed if they could no longer use Civic Champs. Second, Civic Champs now has insights into two or three features to build out over the next few months that could triple or quadruple their customer base.
“The longer you’re in the space, the more you learn. And I think there is something really special that we can bring to the table for these organizations outside of the core features that I know that they want. And that’s around building community for them, which essentially drives donations because people are more invested in you and becoming true champions of your cause.”
“Imagine when someone signs up with Civic Champs, when they open the app, it’s a semi-customized experience. Whatever organization invited them is prominent, and they feel like they’re part of that community from the get-go, almost like a Nextdoor for that non-profit. And as they engage with different organizations, they still feel part of each of those little communities.”
“The reason people volunteer, at times, it’s very social. You want to meet new people, you want to do good. But there’s no way today for you to stay engaged with these new friends of yours. If you and I volunteered together and if we really hit it off, at what stage would I be comfortable asking you for your phone number, or Facebook friending you? Those are pretty high bars. ”
“I don’t know what that threshold is, but I feel like if it’s within that community, and there’s a way for you to note the people you enjoyed volunteering with—like ‘follow’ or ‘friend’ or whatever within the app—that feels like a much lighter way to stay engaged. And now maybe I can invite you to the next time I volunteer. And when you get it, you’re like, ‘Oh, Geng’s going to do another Habitat Build! You know what, I’m free on that Saturday, let’s go do that. That seems fun. He’s one of the volunteers I enjoy being with.’”
“I think there’s something special there that we could do. And if we can build that for these nonprofits, they’ll have much more engaged people who are going to want to advocate for them, to donate to their cause. That’s the key vision piece that keeps me excited.”
Learn more about Civic Champs.