Meet Packy, a furry, fun boy—or maybe a girl—who looks a bit like a fox, or is it a wolf, or maybe a wolverine?
This cute little character is not any one creature but a hybrid mascot, if you will, intentionally created to be many things to represent diversity and choice. And the little charmer whose face is popping up across campus comes with a message that volunteerism is important and can be fun and fulfilling.
Packy is the symbol of the BackPac app created by University of Michigan students, many now graduates, to encourage others, particularly their peers, to spend some time volunteering in the community, especially during the holidays when the needs are great.
Gaurav Dhir, co-founder of BackPac, said while the number of volunteer hours and charitable contributions going to community organizations is up, fewer people are spending time as volunteers, citing recent research from the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland.
“The number of volunteers has significantly gone down in the last decade,” said Dhir, a graduate of the U-M Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “During the same period, the number of nonprofits and volunteers needed has gone up. We wanted to bridge this growing gap.”
Through the TechArb Student Accelerator, they created BackPac with these tech-focused millennials in mind. Users can find local nonprofit organizations including Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley, Friends in Deeds and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and read about their missions, a description of the assignments and the importance of the tasks.
Users can pick a date and time to volunteer, sign up, check out various transportation options, and find out any special requirements in advance. The app will even keep track of a user’s volunteer hours.
Co-founder Caio Brandao, a Ross School alumnus, said in particular they want to motivate their own age group.
“I don’t know a single one of my neighbors today,” Brandao said. “We are addicted to our phones. Technology has made barriers to engagement and connection.”
Team member and Ross graduate student Manas Kulkarni said it isn’t so much that millennials don’t want to participate but most of this distinction has to do with the isolation that has come from dependence on technology.
“It’s not that they are not interested. People are seeking more meaning in everything they do,” Kulkarni said. “However, finding a way to volunteer is challenging these days, and given how technology has made everything so convenient disincentivizes people.”
So it made sense to the team to develop an app that encouraged volunteerism.
The idea for BackPac came from teammate Brenda Pak, who served as a volunteer and now is an alumna of U-M. She encouraged the team to get involved with the community.
“Volunteering helps build more sustainable and resilient communities,” she said. “The United Nations has included volunteering in the Plan of Action to achieve the 2030 sustainable development goals. We are excited to help work towards this cause.”
The group enlisted help from local nonprofits and volunteers to develop the app that would make volunteering seamless for those who serve and were being served.
“By being a mobile-first platform we will make volunteering easy and on the go,” said team member Maneel Grover, a Ross graduate student.
The app is being used currently by six community organizations in and around the Ann Arbor area.
The group has hopes that the technology will be scalable and can see it as a valuable tool some day for all ages, particularly high school students who like to keep track of volunteer hours for college recruitment.