AWS vets lead new startup that aims to connect workers with nonprofits through ‘volunteerism’

The Field Day team, left to right: co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jason LaPier, engineer Garrett Sparks, engineer Trevor Smith, marketing and community lead Catalin Wong, and co-founder and CEO Eli Blackman. (Field Day Photo)

Since early 2020, the workplace has been turned upside down. First came COVID-19 work-from-home policies that isolated workers. Then the Great Resignation revealed widespread employee dissatisfaction.

The founders of Portland, Ore.-based startup Field Day would like to help workplaces rekindle some of their collegiality and connect with their broader communities. Their solution is a platform that allows companies to find and sign up for volunteering opportunities with local nonprofits.

Launched earlier this year, Field Day is rolling out a private beta version of its platform in January for a six-month trial run with a limited group of companies and nonprofits. The startup just announced an initial round of investment led by Defy, a San Francisco-based early-stage venture capital firm. Neither party shared the amount of the investment. Voyager Capital, Cascade Seed Fund and angel investors also participated in the round.

“We’re really excited about the way Field Day is building the features and the product that is needed to build local communities,” said Madison McIlwain, a Defy partner.

In broad strokes, here’s how the platform works:

  • Subscribing employers can search among participating nonprofits for volunteer opportunities based on the nonprofits’ focus area, number of volunteers needed, time of day, family friendliness, etc.
  • Employers sign up for an event and participants get reminders, directions and instructions; nonprofits receive accurate, updated headcounts of volunteers.
  • Participants will be able to share photos from events on the platform.
  • Employers can survey employees about events and receive data about the morale and team-building benefits of volunteer opportunities and hours donated.
  • Employers and nonprofits will be able to share feedback with each other on the experience.
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Field Day was created by co-founders Eli Blackman and Jason LaPier. Blackman is the startup’s CEO and LaPier is chief technical officer. The two previously worked together at video processing startup Elemental Technologies, which was acquired by Amazon in 2015 and became AWS Elemental. Both remained at Amazon until earlier this year.

Blackman spent nine months of his time at Amazon working on employee engagement, building on community projects that he’d done at Elemental before the acquisition. While at both organizations, Blackman found that the software tools available for managing community engagement were ineffective and resulted in a lot of unnecessary work. The focus was often more on facilitating employees’ donations, he said.

The tools “really ended up falling short,” Blackman said.

One of the groups participating in the beta test is Community Warehouse, a Portland nonprofit providing furniture and housewares for people in need. Pre-COVID, many of the group’s volunteers were recruited by word-of-mouth or were repeat helpers. The organization’s volunteer work was largely put on hold during the pandemic as the focus shifted to serving clients.

“This is a partnership that is so, so helpful. It’s something that we haven’t been able to put that much energy towards,” said Executive Director Anna Kurnizki.

Volunteers with Portland’s Community Warehouse repair donated furniture that will be available to people in need. (Community Warehouse Photo)

Field Day isn’t alone in its efforts to match volunteers and nonprofits. For decades, Seattle Works has been assisting companies and individuals who want to partner with community groups in the greater Seattle area. The nonprofit helps facilitate the connection, but does not have an automated platform with messaging, or offer surveys and data about the experiences.

Seattle Works recently shared an update that it was shifting its focus in light of evolving social awareness.

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“We believe that volunteerism is often rooted in colonial practices and contributes to transactional relationships rather than authentic, transformative community building,” said a letter written by content director Pj Bergstrom and posted on the site.

As an alternative, they said, “We are choosing to embrace collectivism as it serves the communities, organizations and movements that are building change.”

Can Field Day avoid some of these pitfalls? Kurnizki said that in the past, it could be challenging when employers or groups would contact Community Warehouse and ask them to provide volunteering events. Field Day, she said, flips the equation and lets nonprofits set the parameters and offer options for engagement. (Seattle Works similarly publicizes volunteering asks on its site.)

“It’s starting with the needs of the nonprofits.”

On Field Day, “nonprofits are posting all of these opportunities saying, ‘These are the opportunities we have. Will you play with us?’” Kurnizki said. “It’s starting with the needs of the nonprofits.”

Blackman is hopeful that the platform will be a jumping off point for people eager to engage with their community. In his experience at Elemental, many employees who participated in events became regular volunteers, as well as donors. His own volunteerism led him to serve on a board for one nonprofit and on an advisory committee for another.

“I don’t want to construe that it’s just volunteering,” he said of Field Day. “It’s really one step in this journey of creating a deeper connection to nonprofits that are doing really important work.”

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