A Responsibility to Persevere: An MPA Student Transforms International Volunteerism

To some, the UGA college experience means long afternoons in the Main Library, or Saturdays at Sanford Stadium, but to Nipuna Ambanpola (’21), UGA is the next step in a lifetime of public service and innovative problem-solving. Last year, his tech nonprofit IVolunteer International won $5,000 from the Georgia Kickstart Fund, the student-led startup housed in the UGA Entrepreneurship Program in the Terry College of Business.

Ambanpola, a native of Sri Lanka and current Master of Public Administration student, has volunteered regularly since his youth. A Rotary International scholarship in 2015, earned partially on the strength of his work in its high school version, InterAct, sent him to study in the United States, at Armstrong State University (now Georgia Southern University-Armstrong Campus). He immediately began looking for service opportunities in the Savannah area but was disappointed.

“Volunteering wasn’t actually part of my life when I came here, because it was so hard to find opportunities,” said Ambanpola. The projects available to an outsider would require him to join groups, attend weekly meetings, and/or pay membership fees, all of which are significant barriers for most college students.

Ambanpola’s first solution was to create student organizations, including a chapter of RotarACT Club at Armstrong, a student alumni association, and a resident students’ group. “I was filling a vacuum in me,” he said, “because [volunteering] was really a big part of my life.”

This gap in opportunity, however, formed the kernel of an idea. In 2017, he and two friends founded IVolunteer International, a tech nonprofit connecting volunteers to service projects worldwide. They developed a website and a Facebook page, invited community hosts to post projects, and promoted those projects to potential volunteers. Free usage for both host and volunteer helped establish an eager and large following, from local food banks to the Italian Diplomatic Academy, which solicits 1,500 volunteers worldwide each year for its Model United Nations program in New York City.

He knew that the success of IVolunteer was outpacing his administrative abilities. “I started a nonprofit without a nonprofit / public service background,” he shared. His early education on the topic was informal, through mentoring relationships, online research, and Facebook groups.

In 2019, Ambanpola joined the Master of Public Administration program in SPIA. “To take IVolunteer International global, I wanted to get public service knowledge, public service experience, and hands-on skills, in an environment that is globally scalable,” he said. “UGA is definitely a global school.”

The MPA curriculum, hands-on, up-to-date, and interactive, turned out to be exactly what he was looking for. “When I came to UGA, the [discussion of theories of] ‘why’ behind public service decision making was really clarifying.”

In his introductory MPA class, “Dr. [Eric] Zeemering was incredibly conversational,” he said. “I had so many things to bounce off him . . . I found myself learning public service theories and applications from 30-40 people instead of one.” Foundations of Policy Analysis with Dr. Emily Lawler helped him draw connections between economic principles and real-world policy impacts, and Public Budgeting and Finance with Dr. Michelle Lofton taught about governmental budget processes, and the importance of the timing of grant applications.

“My vision is the creation of seven billion volunteers, and we already HAVE seven billion volunteers. We just need to introduce them to the concept.”

Ambanpola became involved at multiple levels, managing IVolunteer, coursework, a rewarding assistantship at the Fanning Institute of Leadership, and outside projects. He and other MPA students are working with Dr. Rebecca Nesbit to form a local chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), which was founded in 1997 to build community, skills, and expertise among young professionals working in the nonprofit sector. The local chapter, of which Ambanpola was named inaugural president, is open to anyone in Athens or the UGA community.

IVolunteer has grown alongside Ambanpola. “We have about 5000-6000 people visiting our site every month, and they are all searching for volunteer projects,” he said. In August of 2020, his team will be launched a mobile application called IVolunteer Now, initially just serving the Savannah area. Within two years, they plan to roll it out across Georgia, and, eventually, nationwide. IVolunteer Now will identify users’ live location to locate nearby service projects. One planned upgrade will allow users to calculate their social impact scores by category. Another long-term goal is to upload all of its aggregate data on volunteerism to the public domain, so that global initiatives can learn patterns in volunteer mobilization and reshape recruitment efforts.

An ongoing part of the mission, said Ambanpola, is to identify remaining challenges to service. The spread of COVID-19 presented a cocktail of such challenges. The IVolunteer team immediately pivoted system resources to support front-line efforts, spotlighting food banks, medical efforts, and unemployment and emergency relief measures. One such initiative, hosted and organized directly by iVolunteer, is Grocery Aid, which connects younger, healthier volunteer grocery shoppers with senior or other high-risk people.

“Our society has the embedded advantage of a [robust] younger generation, who can take the place of older volunteers during the pandemic.” He mentioned other common COVID-era volunteer tactics, such as rotating small teams instead of planning single day efforts with large groups.

The future looks bright for IVolunteer and its mission. Growth could lead to paid professional staff, which would help realize goals of international reach, greater responsiveness to user feedback, and data sharing.

In this age, in which civic engagement is having a moment, Ambanpola advises would-be social entrepreneurs to do their homework, assess community needs, and keep their chins up. “Do proper research . . . to find other organizations that do the same thing, start collaborating, and realize that resources are limited.” Any duplication of efforts may seem socially irresponsible and will sap donations before they start. Hundreds of emails will go unanswered, and just like in traditional businesses, rejection and disappointment will precede success. “The difference,” he said, “is that in the nonprofit sector, [your efforts] are actually going to save lives, and we have a responsibility to persevere.”

Ambanpola asks supporters to donate, submit service projects on their website, and spread the word about the beauty and ease of volunteerism.

“My vision is the creation of seven billion volunteers, and we already HAVE seven billion volunteers. We just need to introduce them to the concept.”