Time Matters in Volunteerism

Volunteering for worthy causes and networking with established professionals are totally different experiences. Time Auction – a charity cofounded by an HKUST alumnus – has successfully combined them into a unique reward program that connects skilled volunteers with non-profit organizations while helping young people learn from their role models. 

The creative idea began to emerge when Fion LEUNG, a 2010 business administration graduate at HKUST, realized that advancing her coveted career at a global investment bank did not give her the same satisfaction from getting people into volunteering and nurturing the next generation. She then decided to branch out and pursued entrepreneurship based around what she thought was meaningful, and sought greater exposure and ideas together with her friend WONG Suet-Yi.

While attending networking events to make useful contacts and more friends on the same wavelength, both young ladies felt awkward about approaching industry leaders. They realized that their feelings were common, like her peers, being fresh out of college and also desperate to build a career but having no mentors they could ask for advice.

So after one such session in 2014, Fion and Suet-Yi cofounded Time Auction as a side job, hoping to give anyone a chance to learn from their role models and to encourage more people to participate in community service. 

Volunteering in exchange for mentorship 
Time Auction requires participants to devote at least 10 volunteer hours to a charity of their choice in order to earn a mentoring session with successful and respected professionals in town. The duo soon came up with a list of successful professionals and emailed them. The idea soon attracted encouraging responses – seven guest speakers agreed to take part in just two weeks. 

With limited financial support and time, Fion organized events with a low budget and did all the marketing herself. She sometimes felt overwhelmed by the workload because she still had a full-time job as a product evangelist at a media start-up company then.  

“At this stage, you always question whether it is for you: entrepreneurship is definitely not for everyone, many people value stability over uncertainty – it’s all about knowing who you are and what makes you feel fulfilled – different people will have their own answer,” says Fion.

She persevered, and the number of people who donated their time and support started to grow. In early 2017, they officially registered Time Auction as a charity and were approached by two donors, Fion thus decided to quit her day job and go all in. The organization is now run by a team of seven with its own program managers and marketing experts. 

Crowdsourcing volunteers for NGOs
Since its establishment in 2014, the charity has amassed a total of 118,810 volunteer hours, successfully matching 6,914 volunteers with 1,175 social service projects. Last year, the volunteers helped a new mental health charity to launch a new website and inaugural events, and established Hong Kong’s first donor directory for NGOs, just to name a few. In return for the volunteers’ hard work and generosity, they organized close to 1,000 experiential events for them.

These numbers are concrete proof that Time Auction is popular among young adults passionate about helping others and eager to learn the skills needed to succeed in their future careers.  They are given the opportunity to meet with many industry leaders and top people in their fields including Canto-pop star Sammi CHENG and business tycoon Jim THOMPSON who feel excited to share their experiences with young people. More importantly, the charity has successfully become an effective volunteer crowdsourcing platform for NGOs and social enterprises.

“This kind of concept is very cross-platform, each generation can understand the struggles of the other, and charities are also able to find young people with skills, passion, and abilities. Overall this is about a connection or bridge across different segments of society to mutually benefit the whole,” says Fion.

While the pandemic has made organizing social events a challenge, Time Auction has quickly adapted to the new normal and launched online mentoring and sharing sessions to cope with  social distancing measures and ensure the safety of their participants.

Becoming a social entrepreneur 
Going beyond Hong Kong, Time Auction has teams of dedicated volunteers in London, Toronto, Singapore, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur, who host and facilitate regular events. They are seeking more young professionals to get involved in making the city a better place by volunteering.

Fion credits her HKUST experience in helping her embark on this unique path in the charity sector. When she was studying, she joined the Asia-US Service Learning Program at Stanford University through HKUST Connect, educating herself on climate change and social entrepreneurship.

The Entrepreneurship Center also helped connect her to the students and alumni that would be some of the biggest volunteers in the initial stage of Time Auction.

“I was learning so much about how to start a business and at the time was looking at the frozen yogurt segment, which was taking off in a big way. It all seemed like a lot of fun, and it got the brainstorming ball rolling for me,” recalls Fion.

Invaluable to the success of the project was having the right mentality and attitude. “You are not alone if you don’t have resources and time, it’s all about those hacks that maximize what you have to achieve the goals you are aiming for,” she advises.