Saving Paper

Discovering a mobile app for students to track volunteer hours and opportunities.    

GUEST COLUMN | by Popy Dimoulas-Graham

Charity Republic logoWorking out of the VeloCity Garage, a University of Waterloo incubator that currently houses 30 companies in an open concept space, I’m astounded that these folks are running their companies with little to no paper to show for it. I’m a convert to this no-paper way of life, too; my desk has some scarce decorations with a laptop perched on top, but hardly any paper except for the few photos and business cards I keep. Even though we still have human resources, accounting, and legal needs just like other companies do — we all run companies that are lean on the paper front. But I wasn’t always a ‘paper angel’.

In fact, before becoming the founder of a technology company, I worked as an epidemiologist in the public health sector. As a government employee, I had stacks of paper circling my cubicle, with sticky notes on top of each stack and file folders galore.

Let me tell you, those stacks weren’t very helpful when I had to wade through 200 pieces of paper to just find that one form or article for my afternoon meeting. And when I left one job for another, I would toss those stacks of paper into the recycling bin and wonder why I ever kept that junk (every time, without fail).

The new me doesn’t even ask for business cards in most instances any more. ‘I received an email from you with your contact information at the bottom of the message, so why would I need your business card?’ I would lose it anyway.

Although it’s great for the environment to keep paper to a minimum and to go ‘green’, it’s not even this premise that has converted me to this paper-free way of life. How many people did you talk to today who said, “I am so busy”? Even my own father, who’s retired, goes on about how busy he is. We’re all strapped for time, so I personally aim to minimize paper in my life in order to create efficiencies – making my life and the lives of others easier.

That’s why, as this new school year progresses, I want schools to transition from paper to digital. This is my call to educators to go on a paper strike. Whatever your moral or philosophical slant is, whether for the environment or not, it just makes sense.

Paper-based tracking prevails in schools. For instance, in several provinces and states across Canada and the U.S., high school students are obligated to engage in community volunteer activities in order to graduate. For example, students in the province of Ontario must engage in 40 hours of volunteer work in order to graduate.

Actually, they call it “community involvement” because it’s not really volunteer work when they must do it. Either way, students and schools have used a paper-based tracking system traditionally to record hours and obtain the required signatures, which is inefficient, impractical and environmentally wasteful. By the time a student turns in their form in Grade 12 (if they haven’t lost it) the document is often ripped, stained and the writing is illegible.

“I have spent a ton of time volunteering but tracking the hours is a huge pain. In fact, right now I know I have hours I put in this summer that I haven’t logged and I’m really worried I’ll forget completely. My parents are always worried I’ll lose the paper somewhere along the way. In fact my dad has stored a photocopy of it in our safe at home just in case,” says Graeme Robinson, student, grade 11, Southwood High School, Cambridge, Ontario.

If you only saw the form my co-op student pulled out of her back pack– in one word: gross. Crumpled and stained with who knows what, these are the types of forms students hand in (poor secretary) and take home to their parents for signatures. Parents suffer in this process too.

Tracking a high school student’s mandatory hours manually using a paper based system is an absolute nightmare for any parent”, says Ellyn Winters, a mother of a grade 11 high school student. “First, you have to trust that your child will keep track of a single piece of paper over a four year time period. Then you have to work with your son or daughter to remember to keep their hours logged, secure signatures and so on. We live in fear that our sheet will become lost, or that our son will forget to record all of the hours he’s put in — putting his ability to successfully graduate in jeopardy.”

In pursuit of creating efficiencies and promoting community engagement, my company announced the launch of Hour Republic this Fall — an online and mobile tool to help students and educators track and monitor volunteer and cooperative education work activities and connect to volunteer opportunities in the community. This is my version of a paper-free strike.

Not only does it enable students to find volunteer opportunities that best match their interests, it also addresses a tremendous tracking problem that exists in schools today and supports schools in their efforts to become ‘green’ and paper-free.

We piloted this simple online and mobile tracking system in several school districts. Guess what? Students and educators preferred the online solution over manually tracking their hours on paper.

We’re not calling for a ban on paper. However, schools, companies, individuals, etc. are realizing that there are other means to storing and tracking information, and are more often than not moving from paper to digital. We all just want to simplify our lives. And if minimizing the use of paper contributes to your Zen as it does for me, then go for it!

Popy Dimoulas-Graham
is the founder of Charity Republic, a Canadian-based social enterprise that launched in December 2010, with a mission to connect people who strive to make a positive impact on the world through community involvement. They aim to help volunteers reflect on their experiences with a charity or nonprofit and to help potential volunteers find the most rewarding opportunities possible.

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