Student App Uses Friendly Competition to Spark Philanthropy

Totem founders P.J. Harris, left, and Kyle Matthews founded Totem, a new social media platform for philanthropy. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Inspired by the viral success of the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a team of University of Virginia students has created a new social media platform designed to inspire a similar combination of philanthropy and fun.

“Totem” encourages users to work in teams to raise money for a new cause each week. Those who raise the most donations by the end of week receive a prize from a separate sponsor group.

“When the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was happening, I was impressed with how people from all over the country were all of a sudden really engaged and galvanized with this cause that they probably didn’t know much about before,” said Totem CEO P.J. Harris, a third-year law student. “It was cool to see positive change affected through having a good time. It was all good all around.”

Harris began thinking about ways to make this kind of fun philanthropy an ever-present option in people’s lives, rather than a one-time phenomenon like the Ice Bucket Challenge. Over the next few months, he recruited his friend and experienced non-profit manager Danny O’Donnell and second-year College of Arts & Sciences student Kyle Matthews to help him transition his idea into a viable business. Matthews, who also serves as a program director at Madison House, started early outreach and research inside UVA’s philanthropic community.

After months of planning, Totem recruited third-year computer science major Alan Wei to program the first version of its new app and it went live in mid-January.

Using its “Feel Good Feed,” the app harnesses the sense of entertaining, positive engagement that so many people received through the Ice Bucket Challenge. Those who want to participate first download Totem and form teams within it. Then they help generate positive attention and donations for a weekly cause by posting humorous or uplifting memes to the feed. The idea is to post something that inspires other users, both on your team and not, to give donations of a few dollars by clicking on your post.

For instance, this week’s charity is Service Dogs of Virginia, so Harris posted a photo of himself and Matthews visiting local guide dogs with the caption, “Help us help dogs help people.”

“Inside the app, you have options to donate through a post, up vote a post, or report a post,” Matthews said. “We don’t have a down vote and the most important thing you can get from each post is how much it’s inspired donations.”

While up votes can help drive a post to the top of the Feel Good Feed, the weekly winner is the team whose posts inspire the most donations. For its first week online, Totem held a campaign to raise money for Charlottesville’s City Schoolyard Garden and the competition was sponsored by Caribe juice.

App users raised $345 for City Schoolyard Garden and the winning team – members of the University’s Delta Gamma sorority – received 50 free bottles of Caribe Juice. Since that first week, Totem has raised $1,351 in total for area charities.

“Our sponsors pay us $100 to be on the app and they can donate the reward to us. We have a 501(c)(3) wing for donation processing, so it’s a charitable donation for them,” Matthews said. “It’s good publicity because they’re associated with a good cause and through that $100, they get to have their brand displayed throughout the app for a week.”

Totem’s most successful campaign yet benefitted Habitat for Humanity and was sponsored by the UVA men’s basketball team. It raised $673 and awarded two different prizes. The individual poster who raised the most money received a basketball signed by head coach Tony Bennett and the entire basketball team, while each member of the overall winning Totem team received a UVA basketball beanie.

Despite early success, the Totem team members still consider themselves to be in beta mode and are using UVA and the Charlottesville community as a test bed.

“Right now our focus is to get traction, get users and get the word out here, because Charlottesville is one of the best places not only for start-ups, but also for philanthropic efforts,” Matthews said. “It’s a great nexus to start out in. We think if we can be successful here, we can definitely be successful elsewhere.”

Based on what they’ve learned so far, Totem is already developing a sleeker, updated version of the app that they hope to begin rolling out over the summer. They’ve also recently been accepted into UVA’s i.Lab Incubator, a rigorous 10-week summer program that offers workspace, funds and guidance to budding entrepreneurs.

As they perfect the app and hone their strategy in the i.Lab, the company’s founders hope to begin a steady expansion.

“Over the summer, we’re going to be working on growing in different cities with large student populations like Ann Arbor, Notre Dame, Harrisonburg, Blacksburg and Washington, D.C.,” Harris said.

For now though, they’re focused on the charities and sponsors joining the app this spring. Campus Cookies is sponsoring this week’s in-app competition to raise money for Service Dogs of Virginia; the winning team will get a fresh box of campus cookies delivered to each member. Next week, teams will compete to raise money for The Local Food Hub and the winners will be treated to a thank-you reception at the local foodie favorite, Feast!

Those who wish to participate can download Totem in Apple’s App Store. A version for Android devices is currently in development.

Media Contact

Katie McNally

University News Associate Office of University Communications