Pamela Hawley
Pamela Hawley

For social entrepreneur Pamela Hawley, the "season of giving" is about nine months too short. Hawley has been a philanthropist since she was 12, when she got her first startling look at poverty and hunger during a family trip to Mexico. Since then, she has been a volunteer around the world--from soup kitchens and crisis hotlines in the United States to poor neighborhoods in Guatemala. Now she has turned her lifelong passion for giving into a virtual business, UniversalGiving.

Though the holiday season is one of the most wonderful times of the year as people share, give and thank one another, opportunities for such actions are accessible year-round. However, searching online for philanthropic opportunities can take hours--and can quickly turn you into a misanthrope. And that's exactly why Hawley started her business.

As she says, "A lot of people have good intentions, but they don't know how to find [the right place for them]. We needed a mechanism for everyone to be able to do this. I wanted to run an efficient, principled endeavor. So I started my business." Hawley had previously worked in sales and marketing in the for-profit world. Later, she co-founded VolunteerMatch.com, so she knew she had the business experience and personal motivation to start UniversalGiving.

Hawley launched UniversalGiving.org in 2002, with a platform that provides giving and volunteering opportunities in more than 70 countries. First, she chose people inspired by the same vision she had; that is, a vision of pure, nonprofit services. The 20 team members are an amalgamation of philanthropists with specific skills in everything from web development to marketing.

Then the team began to develop UniversalGiving's mission. Team members wanted site visitors to trust the organization. So they went completely nonprofit. One hundred percent of donations go to charities, with no cut for UniversalGiving. As well, these charities must be trustworthy. "[We are] social entrepreneurs who are really dedicated to the community. Anyone looking for a charitable opportunity can search by country or by issues, and the site will return a list of possible projects," Hawley says.

Easily navigable, the site's home page has two main categories: Donate and Volunteer. There, you can search for different opportunities according to region, country or issue (such as hunger, housing or human rights). The site also provides a list of Top Volunteer Opportunities and Top Gift Packages for those who would like to help but are unsure where to begin. Visitors can register for an account with UniversalGiving that allows them to track their donations, search histories and build their philanthropic interests. Since its launch, "we have passed $1.5 million through our site and matched nearly 10,000 volunteers," Hawley says.

UniversalGiving chooses projects and charities based on a rigorous format rooted firmly in business values. "The quality model is a 10-stage process, and we view it like a venture capitalist would," Hawley says. "We look at the business idea behind the project. Then we say, 'OK, great idea, who is the management team?' We get to know the leaders of it and have personal relationships with them. It is a management-relationship perspective," which allows Hawley and her team to produce objective and subjective requirements for the charities they select.

Of course, to keep the business going, Hawley had to figure out a way to gain revenue. Deciding to tap into the corporate social responsibility market, she came up with the model for UniversalGiving Corporate. Now, she says, "We help Fortune 500 companies with their CSR strategies and hook them up with reliable NGOs [non-governmental organizations]." In return for those services, corporations provide the finances UniversalGiving needs to adhere to its nonprofit principles.

These principles not only allow the site to continue to grow and gain rapport with its visitors, but Hawley says they also give her "a strong anchor on a value-based and spiritual level."

As most social entrepreneurs would agree, a company is not simply an entity to make money. Hawley says, "It's important to tie your own life back to something greater. Like any entrepreneurship endeavor, perseverance and sticking to your vision are so essential. It's like a marathon. You put on your running shoes and you're going to hit some milestones, but it's still going to be difficult. So find something you're going to be willing to run the marathon for. With UniversalGiving, it's so important that our vision stay very active. Our vision is to create a world in which giving and volunteering are a natural part of everyday life."

Hawley believes that everyone should find his or her own place in service. "That doesn't necessarily mean that you're a social entrepreneur; you could be a dentist or a banker. I think everyone has a call to service and living in kindness every day." Hawley, herself, says she's wired purely for business; she's just taking some new circuits to change how that business functions and what it can produce to make a more humanitarian world.

And if you're a social entrepreneur, what is her advice for you? "Have a sense of balance. Keep your values and family close to you--especially those that keep you inspired. Yes, your business can inspire you, but it is not the end all, be all. Keeping the other parts [of your life] meaningful, joyful and balanced is what will keep you going."