How four students are changing online donations with CommuniGift

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Would you donate to open source, non-profits, or Occupy Wall Street?

Giving back to a community is the ultimate gift. Whether it's code, documentation, bug reporting, project management, designing, or a financial donation, what we give back makes a difference. Four students in a dorm room at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill want to change the way people make online donations. Their mission is to revolutionize the way people give back and reshape conventional views about charity.

Over the last year, they've created a platform for donors to help families in need through online product donations. CommuniGift has the spirit of the open source way and would not be possible with open source software and frameworks.

Launched in December 2013, CommuniGift was founded by three students Jake Bernstein (product manager), Thomas Doochin (Chief Operations Officer), and Taylor Sharp (Chief Marketing Officer). A fourth person has joined the team, Jack Wohlfert, as the lead developer for the platform. Here's how it works: Use the CommuniGift platform to find a family in need, read their story, then purchase gift(s) and stay connected.

I saw a presentation from this dorm room start-up at a recent event in Research Triangle Park (here's a video from last year). After the talk, I was able to interview Wohlfert to learn more about CommuniGift. I know when I was in school, I was not thinking about my own business, much less changing the way people donate online. Let's see how CommuniGift got started and what's in store for them beyond the holiday giving season.

What is CommuniGift and why was it started?

CommuniGift is a pioneer in online giving, providing a platform for donors to help families in need through online product donations. We work with nonprofits to find disadvantaged families and give donors around the world the chance to make a direct contribution.

The holidays were a special time for all of us growing up. One night towards the end of our first-year, in our dorm room lounge, Taylor, Jake, and Thomas began talking about a way to match individuals who had no one with which they could spend the holidays. Long story short, we shifted our discussion to those who did not have gifts during the holidays. Jake had a lot experience—through his founding of VolunTEEN Nation—taking nonprofits inefficient, offline process into the online realm. He knew how much time was spent organizing and operating adopt-a-family programs during the holidays. For both the donor and the non-profit, we wondered why programs were still using such old methods in 2013. We wanted to take the convenience of online giving and combine it with the joy of offline giving to create a new way to give back to those in need—thus, creating CommuniGift.

While the platform isn't fully open source, you're developing on an open software stack. Take us behind the scenes.

CommuniGift is built on some great open source software, frameworks, and packages.

It's a generic LAMP stack. And here are just a few of the open source frameworks we are using:

  • Laravel PHP Framework
  • jQuery for client facing side
  • AngularJS for our non-profit backend
  • Bootstrap

What is the view, from a student perspective, on leveraging the advantages of using open source tools?

The world of computer science is one based on "community." Individuals and teams have put lots of effort into developing some great open source packages and tools. By being kind enough to share their hard work with other developers and programmers, they allow people like us to build some awesome things on top of what they have built. As a full-time student, I could have never in a million years build CommuniGift without the help of open source software.

What's the ultimate goal for CommuniGift?

Over the past 12 months, we have realized the potential of letting donors purchase products online for families and children in need beyond mailing checks or donating money online. With CommuniGift, donors can have an entirely new giving experience by building real connections via product donations.

Online giving was at $2.1 billion in 2012, growing 20% from the year prior, yet no one is fostering direct product purchases like CommuniGift. Our success stems largely from the fact that people simply love to give products, especially during holidays. Our official launch date this year is set during the holidays when most individuals begin donating to families and causes they care about, but we believe we can change the way people give and perceive charity by allowing direct product purchases online, year-round.

As we begin to test different ways to foster year-round giving, we want to explore the ability for donors to organize their own shopping, while giving back to those in need. Call it Amazon Smile meets Toms, if you will. There's always a need for products, ranging from school supplies to birthday presents to basic necessities like food. At CommuniGift, we want to foster these donations to create real connections between donors and those they help to create a community of individuals seeking to make a difference through the impact of a gift.

Jason Hibbets
Jason Hibbets is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications. He is the author of The foundation for an open source city and has been with Red Hat since 2003.


Thanks so much for this article. I just used CommuniGift to adopt a family, and it was SO easy. A great & convenient way to help & know that you're having an impact. Highly recommend.

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