Organization settles loans for volunteers

By Shaé Felicien

Volunteerism has been touted as a feel-good experience, and now one nonprofit wants students’… Volunteerism has been touted as a feel-good experience, and now one nonprofit wants students’ wallet to feel good, too.

SponsorChange.org, the brain child of brothers Raymar and Robert Hampshire, is a nonprofit organization that pays college graduates’ student loans through sponsored volunteer work.

The site pairs volunteers — called change agents — with nonprofit organizations that match their skill sets while third-party sponsors contribute to their student loans. Sponsors donate 60 percent of the amount earned during each project, and the nonprofit will pay the rest.

Raymar Hampshire said that they have limited their projects to either 50 hours or four months.

“The reason we do that is to make the service projects accessible, even for those with full-time jobs, so you can work on these service projects on the weekends or after work,” Raymar Hampshire said.

Change agents are paid on an hourly basis with wages varying depending on the amount the nonprofit organization agreed on — typically $10 to $20 per hour. Deposits go into the students’ loan account when volunteers complete the project.

Right now, only college graduates can participate.

The Wilkinsburg Boys & Girls Club used the website to find volunteer Sheena Hancock — a Pitt graduate — to work with their at-risk preteens. Hancock gained leadership experience by creating and using self-esteem building sessions she created.

“[SponsorChange.org was] excellent. I would be more than happy to have another SponsorChange student,” said Bea Webb, executive director for the Boys & Girls Club of Wilkinsburg.

Shawn Agyeman, director of marketing for the website and a 2007 Pitt grad, is very familiar with the benefits of his organization. He was the first participant to join the company, becoming director after he worked as a change agent.

Agyeman said working with SponsorChange.org made him realize his experiences with the company are very similar to the volunteers’.

“This is something that I find is true of all people that volunteer through SponsorChange over the long term — they have the unique opportunity to not only expand their skill sets, but also to network with a lot of other movers and shakers,” Agyeman said.

Hampshire said sponsors benefit financially because it’s a tax write-off.

Hampshire said he founded the organization to help college graduates who faced large amounts of debt.

“I wanted a way for them to explore their passions particularly through skill-based volunteering at nonprofits and, at the same time, alleviate their debt,” he said.

The website launched in April of 2009 with a $3,000 seed grant from the nonprofit organizations The Sprout Fund and Pittsburgh Cares. The Sprout Fund supports grassroots community programs designed to create change in Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Cares matches other nonprofits with volunteers.

Matt Hannigan, the co-founder of The Sprout Fund, thought SponsorChange.org found a novel way to approach nonprofit volunteering.

“We felt that SponsorChange’s early activities would help to get volunteering opportunities into the hands of young college graduates as well as helping to address an issue important to young people such as what to do about student loans in a creative way,” Hannigan said.

The nonprofit now has about 5,000 change agents nationwide — largely centered in Pittsburgh — and about 1,000 sponsors.

Organizers at SponsorChange.org have launched their “The Big Payback” campaign to raise national awareness of their cause. The founders said they aim to have 1 million members by the end of 2011.

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