Would you sign up for a mobile program that rewards you for volunteer work?

Earning money and doing good may seem like an impossible dream for anyone not employed at an NGO, but it doesn’t stop most of us wishing there was a way to do both. Which means there’s likely to be a lot of interest in the GEM Project, a mobile rewards program that pays back members who give up time to do something good for their community. It’s a little bit like a microjobbing site, such as M4JAM, crossed with a volunteering plaform like forgood (which matches good intentions to good causes).

And is also something something utterly unique.

We caught up with David Shields, co-founder of the GEM Project to find out more.

What is the GEM project and how does it work?

The GEM Project is a mobile rewards platform for volunteers in South Africa.

Users earn GEMs (points) by doing community work, for example separating waste, planting trees etc.


Users download GEM via USSD by dialling *120*GEM1 # or as an app. Once they’ve signed in, they are able to see which volunteering opportunities are availabe in their area. When they’ve decided on a day and a place, the app tells them how many GEMs they’ll earn as a token of appreciation.

These GEMs are donated by corporate and public sector sponsors which are distributed evenly to the social partners that host these events.

GEM not only rewards people for volunteering their time at charities but also helps impact on behavioural change i.e. rewarding people to go for HIV and pregnancy tests or recycling their waste at schools and varsities.

Users are rewarded within three days of completing their activity and can use their GEMs to buy data, electricity, airtime or movie tickets straight from the GEM platform.

Whose idea was it and what was the inspiration behind it?

GEM is the brainchild of myself and Camilo Ramada, we are both social entrepreneurs who were looking to find a way to reward social action.  We localised a mobile payment software from the Netherlands called Cyclos, which caters to the needs of the public and private sectors. The technology rewards typical users for being proactive in their community, which in turn contributes to a better socio-economic environment for businesses and government to operate in.

As co-founders, our mission was to find a way to help the unemployed find a way of using their time pro-actively. Our goal was to bring people of the community together, to network and to help each other out wherever they can. If a small token of appreciation was necessary to do that, we’re glad we’ve found a way to facilitate the process.


Who can sign up on the GEM Project and how many people have signed up so far?

Anyone over the age of 16 and that has a cell-phone can use GEM. It’s easy enough so that you’re grandparents can use it but cool enough so that you’re friends will want to use it.

We have officially signed up 600 volunteers since we launched our pilot projects in September last year.

At the moment we’re only based in Johannesburg, South Africa but in the next two years you can expect rollout in the rest of the country as well as other parts of Africa.

Do volunteers do work at any place of their choice or do you collaborate with different charities and have people do the work there?

Volunteers can participate at any one of our quality approved charities or non-profit organizations. We do this to make sure that charities or community initiatives are validated and thus, trustworthy. If a customer has a negative / positive user experience, they can rate the charity which is then given a score out of five stars.

This process helps us identify organizations that actually need the help of volunteers and that are indeed, willing to go the extra mile.


How much can one earn through the GEM project?

There is no limit as to how much a user can earn provided they are able to attend events on a consistent basis. It’s important to remember that GEMs are earned out of good will and that they constitute a token of appreciation – not a living wage.

We must emphasize that there is no direct relation between GEMs earned and hours worked, as GEMs are not “income” but a “reward”.

For instance, users that volunteer at an animal shelter for +- 3 hours can be awarded with around 40 GEMs. It’s not much but chances are they’ll have fun doing it and will probably want to come back the next time. That’s the kind of attitude we are hoping to instill.

What would you say to those who may think this takes the selflessness out of volunteer work and see it as a way to just make money?

Indeed some volunteers may not want to be “rewarded” at all! In fact, we’ve seen some volunteers at our pilots give their GEMs away to others.

On the other hand, everyone likes to receive appreciation, and GEM does just that.

It is proven that a small reward can increase the amount of commitment, the number of people that participate or the total effect of community campaigns. People can have many reasons to participate and to not participate. GEM just adds an extra motivation (that little push), so that the scale can tip over from “wanting to act but ending up not acting” to “actually getting involved”.

It takes just one step. That’s all it is. Once we get the ball rolling people realize what a joy it is to help put smiles on other’s faces and to change their lives in even the smallest way. It may be idealistic but it’s all we have, and right now we’ll hold on to whatever positivity the human race can get.

What are the GEM projects future plans?

The third and final pilot project will go live in Greenside, Johannesburg between March and April 2015.

This will be to test our initiative in a suburb environment, which connects residents to local businesses and charities and maintains the relationship in a sustainable way.

We’ve also been in discussions with Johannesburg’s Waste Management Forum, which is looking at using GEM to reward schools for recycling PET bottles, paper, glass and other such containers.

Lastly, we’ve made contact with various municipalities that are looking to reward residents for taking positive social action. The next step is to finalize these campaigns and to begin working with the public sector in making our communities more proactive and cohesive with one another…

After that, the sky’s the limit.

You can find out more about The Gem Project by clicking here.


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