Besa grows from volunteer posting board into a civic engagement hub for Columbus
Besa founder Matthew Goldstein had a certain vision when he was younger—if he made good money, he could use it to buy the things that would make him happy.
To make it happen, the Philadelphia native went to Ohio State University to study marketing and political science and graduated in 2003. A couple years and a couple jobs later, he landed the role of market research coordinator at Abercrombie & Fitch in 2005.
Goldstein, now 42, would travel across America for the job, learning about market trends and reporting back to Columbus, and as fate would have it, he made good money, too. But something felt off, and after a few years passed, there was one day that changed everything.
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“I remember being in my car on my way to work. It was a cold rainy day,” Goldstein says. “I’m at a red light by a bus stop bench and there are two people out there in the rain in the cold and I’m thinking, ‘God, I wouldn’t want to be those people.’ I’m in my warm dry car. And then I realized they were the ones smiling and laughing. I was the one with a frown on my face. That’s when I realized I needed to make a change.”
Goldstein craved a job that would fulfill his heart, he says, but wasn’t sure where to even begin. At age 27, while he was still with Abercrombie, he came across an ad in the paper looking for volunteers at a suicide hotline. He hadn’t done something like that before but went out on a limb to try it.
For almost four years, he committed his weekends to helping people through some of the worst days of their lives.
“I remember one caller who was having a hard moment,” Goldstein says. “She told me she had a cat and so I asked who would take care of her cat. You’re trying to get them to think about things that will stop them, but it wasn’t working, so I said ‘What’s’ the name of your cat?’ She said, ‘Simba.’ I said, ‘Ah, the Lion King—Hakuna Matata, what a wonderful phrase,’ and we started singing together on a Saturday morning at 9 a.m. I knew at that moment, I had done everything possible.”
That call was yet another life-changing moment for Goldstein and gave him a chance to unravel a passion for meeting people where they are at, then building them up.
Along the way, he also gained an interest in volunteer work but had an idea: What if finding volunteer opportunities could be easier? What if it were all in one place?
In 2010, Goldstein took the plunge and left Abercrombie. Months later, he began working on Besa Community, a civic engagement nonprofit that would bring his idea to life. In 2012, Besa launched as an online portal that volunteers can use to identify upcoming opportunities.
Nonprofits can team up with Besa to share their opportunities on the portal and the organization will help accumulate as much support as possible. Currently, it works with over 130 nonprofits across central Ohio. Some include Broad Street Food Pantry, Columbus Humane, Dress for Success, YMCA of Central Ohio and Franklin County Public Health.
Besa also partners with businesses, streamlining efforts to get employees into the community through one website and eliminating the issue of sending too many people to just one effort and limiting the volunteerism that could be accomplished.
In 2018 Besa partnered with Bath & Body Works for that very reason, which, at the time, was utilizing multiple sources for community outreach.
“I quickly realized the value that Besa brought that the other platforms we were using didn’t—those were what I would call a software without a human element,” says Rhoe Fields, assistant vice president of community relations and philanthropy at Bath & Body Works Foundation. “... What makes Besa special is that they have that human connection to volunteering that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Some of the projects Besa has paired Bath & Body Works with have been packing and distributing food and diapers, painting buildings, pulling weeds and writing cards to seniors and cancer patients. In 2021 alone, the company totaled $23 million in community impact and clocked over 2,000 volunteer hours with over 650 associates.
CoverMyMeds has also utilized Besa for its volunteer efforts, clocking over 6,600 hours since it began partnering with it in 2017. For Kate Bauer, senior manager of community engagement, Besa’s ability to personalize each business’ experience is what makes it stand apart from other big-box volunteer management systems.
“They really listen to what’s happening with your business and your goals and what you’re trying to accomplish and they will always roll out something innovative,” Bauer says.
For CoverMyMeds, that includes personalized projects for its employee resource groups, like coordinating volunteer opportunities with Dress for Success and the Mobile Career Unit for Women’s History Month. On National STEM Day, Besa helped the team plan a STEM-kit giveaway in COSI’s parking lot. Volunteers handed out around 500 kits that day, Bauer says.
Besa also contributes to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by hosting a multitude of education series including summer movie nights with relevant panel discussions on topics like LGBTQ+ rights and voter education. It also organized a walking tour of the King-Lincoln Bronzeville Community with local historian Julialynne Walker, who would educate participants on how systemic racism has impacted the community.
To date, Besa has contributed to $50 million in community impact, rallied 60,000 volunteers and been a part of 10,000 completed service projects.
Most recently, Besa secured a combined $500,000 in funding from the city of Columbus and Franklin County and had doubled its $1 million budget in 2021 to $2 million for 2022. It also is on track to double its staff by the end of the year (yes, they’re hiring).
It also announced its biggest partnership to date with Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and its over 20,000 employees, a partnership that has been in the works for over a year. The goal is to get the team outside of hospital walls and into the community to connect in new ways. The pilot program starts this spring.
This year, Goldstein has plans for Besa to expand to two or three other cities with a goal of being a nonprofit leader in civic engagement across the country—but no matter where Besa goes, Goldstein and his team are happy to meet people where they’re at.
“I try to show up [with Besa] the same way I showed up for that woman on the hotline,” Goldstein says. “... I try to show up for my team, nonprofit partners and corporate partners as authentically as possible because I think sometimes it’s so easy to move so fast in this world.”
And these days, Goldstein’s philosophy on life has changed for the better: “Let me do what makes me happy and the money will come,” he says. After all, Besa was made to change lives, and he’s certainly no exception.
Jess Deyo is associate editor.
966 S. High St., Columbus, 43206
Description: Besa is a nonprofit powering civic engagement by making giving back easy for people and businesses
CEO/founder: Matthew Goldstein
2021 revenue: $1.1M
Funding: 60% earned revenue through business partnerships across social enterprises, 20% from grants and 20% from donors