In this episode, Allie chats with Sima Parekh, the Executive Director of 48in48 – an organization which holds annual events focused on launching 48 websites for 48 nonprofits in 48 hours. Allie and Sima discuss Sima’s history with the organization, how this build-a-thon works, and the impact that it’s had so far.
Hello, everybody out there in podcast world. It’s just me today. We’re not going to have a Hi Allie, hi Michelle like we normally do, but I feel super lucky and privileged and excited to talk to Sima Parekh, who is the executive director. Yes, executive director of 48in48, which is something you might have heard of. They hold three to four events each year where teams of volunteers actually build websites for 48 nonprofits over the span of a weekend, which is incredibly cool. And yeah, I’m chatting with Sima today and I’ll let you her introduce herself a little bit more and tell us all a little bit more about what 48in48 does and is and why.
Thank you so much for having me, Allie. Again, yes, Sima Parekh. I’m the executive director for 48in48. I’ve been with the organization for about, I’ll be at eight years serving in different roles. I am super excited to share what I call my best data with you, which is eight years of 48in48, 29 events completed and 1,259 nonprofits served.
Which equates to about a 31 million dollar give-back or savings for the nonprofit because of the free websites that they get from our volunteers.
That’s so incredible. Those are some pretty amazing numbers to hear. That’s almost beyond… I’m sorry. What was the number you said of the number of nonprofits served?
1,259. That’s almost, I can’t wrap my mind around how many, not only how many organizations that is, but how many then, the domino effect of how many people are then helped and served by those nonprofits and that sort of a thing, so that’s really, really incredible.
Yeah. 7,000 volunteers, almost 7,000 volunteers to make that happen. So we are a small nonprofit, small but mighty. And I think every time I speak about our nonprofit, a lot of times they’re like, we never heard of 48in48 before. What do you do? We build 48 websites in 48 hours. That’s what we do. Why? It’s our way of giving back to the community. It’s our way of taking these skilled volunteers from marketing and digital technology, digital marketing and technology basically, and putting their skills to use for a nonprofit that otherwise couldn’t afford a fantastic, beautiful, professional website. That’s basically what we are giving them them back.
And the success stories for me are like you mentioned, the ripple effect of more people being able to find a nonprofit that does something because they have a really good website and they’ve got good SEO and they can be found in a search simply. Or the biggest, I think, satisfaction comes from hearing that because we built this website, that charity now has been able to apply for grants that they previously couldn’t apply for, and now they have more funding to then put towards their mission and their cause. So every single time I hear one of those stories, it makes me want to come back and do this again and again. I started off as a volunteer and now here we are eight years later and I’m running the thing. So it’s addictive. It’s very addictive.
Yeah. That’s so cool that you started as a volunteer and now you are the executive director of the organization. When you started as a volunteer, what role did you take on? Were you writing code, were you doing marketing? What were you doing in that capacity?
None of the above. I was working as the director of project management at a agency in Atlanta, and the owner of the agency came to me and said, “Sima, we’ve invested in this program. It’s a nonprofit and they’re going to build websites. And since that’s what you do, since you know about that stuff,” because my background is in all, in program and project management, web portal development, anything that was tech that way. So she goes, “Just go figure that out.”
All right, I’m a problem solver. So I’m like, oh, I can figure this out. This is not a problem. We had all of the skillsets that we needed. We need five skillsets to build the team, from a project manager, designer, developer, or I should say WordPress designer, graphic artist, content person, and then a digital marketer. Those are the skills you need to build a website. All the websites are built in WordPress and in Beaver Builder, so we’ve locked down our platform. And since we’ve been doing this for eight years and we’ve been doing this for 29 events, we know what it takes to get from A to Z, from Friday to Sunday, because all the events start on a Friday and end.
So when I first was asked to do this, it was literally just organizing groups from my company to go do this. So they went and they did this. They came back and they said, “This is such a fantastic opportunity. The only problem is they can’t replicate this unless you help them put a program and strategy together,” which is also one of my core skillsets. So then the co-founders of the organization reached out to me and said, “Sima, could you come do this for us? Could you build us a program? Could you build a strategy for us that we can then do this again?”
So that’s sort of how I started with the organization, volunteering myself. First I volunteered the others, my teams, and then I came back and I built to that. So that’s sort of my claim to fame with the organization. And from then on, it was like, so I’ve built the plan. Let me execute it for you. So then I executed it for an event that we did in Atlanta and another one that we did in New York. And from then now on, it was other volunteers that we brought in to take on all the roles that I’d identified, the timelines and everything, and it has grown from there. So back in 2015 when we started, it was one event in one city and then by 2019, we were doing 11 events, and one of those events was in England, in London. So we had started to go global, we crossed the pond and more volunteers were interested.
And then the question always was, when are you coming to my city to do [inaudible 00:06:46]? And it was always about sponsorship because we ourselves are a nonprofit. So if we are sponsored and we have the funding to host this type of event, facilitate it, then we can go to another city, find a partner and carry on. So we were able to find that partner in London and that was Cisco at that time and IBM, and we were able to have successful events.
Then all of a sudden it was like shutdown because of COVID. So in 2020 we had to pivot, so we pivoted to a completely virtual event, and because what we do was completely online anyway, so it was like, well, this is relatively easy because again, my background is in technology enough to be dangerous to know that we can do this. So we pivoted to complete virtual and now we’ve pivoted again to hybrid, which has opened up our program to everybody. So now I don’t have to come to your city anymore. You can join virtually for any one of our events.
And instead of doing city events, we do what we call initiative-based events where in March or just earlier this year at the end of March, we did a women’s event. The goal of the women’s event is to showcase the talent of women, the skills of women, and that means that every build team is made up of five women. That event was so successful this year and it was our third year doing the women’s event, we built 55 websites in that 48 hours.
And these women were from all over. They’re from all over the US and then continue into Europe and to India, to Africa, all the way to Australia. So it’s amazing how word of mouth has helped us spread across. And again, just to be able to say, this is an all girl event, it’s an all women event. So women, those who identify as women, please come join us, share your skills, give back to your community.
The second event we’ve got coming up here in June at the end of June, June 23rd is a social justice event. Here we’re focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. So will be focused more so on those charities that serve those particular missions. Anyone can come build, and it is a hybrid event, so you can sign up online or you can meet us in Atlanta. We will have a hybrid component there.
And then our last event for the year will be a global event. And the global event particularly is it’s any type of nonprofit anywhere in the world and any volunteer anywhere in the world. So you can imagine there’s a lot more to plan when you’re global in that manner. It’s the only event that we actually advertise as global, but we have volunteers from everywhere, every event. I think our last count for the women’s event was that 27 countries. No, I’m sorry. 22 countries were represented at the women’s event. Previous global event was 27 countries.
So what’s great about our events is that it’s open to everybody. And if you are skilled in this type of work, then come join us. If you want to learn more in this area, come join us. We offer quite a bit because what we do want to do is we want to make sure that it’s an equal opp for everybody. Either you decide to volunteer by yourself or you’re like with a team and you want to learn and you’ve got some experts, you’ve got some novices. It’s okay. It kind of works for everybody.
I’m really curious because this is a topic that we discuss in the WordPress community around our events and our community constantly is how we can bring people together and prioritize diversity in that way. And so I’m very curious about the selection processes for, not only for the nonprofits that you might work with and the possibility of having to say no to one nonprofit who might want to participate over choosing somebody else, as well as the process for actually choosing the volunteers to work on these projects. Because I imagine that if you have X number of projects and you have X number of people working on each project, you might have a situation where, I would love to hope that you would have a situation where you have too many volunteers and you might have to turn some people away. So yeah, I’m really curious about how you might have approached a challenge like that, of keeping those teams and those environments diverse while also having to potentially say no to people.
Saying no to anybody is always really hard. Saying no to a volunteer is hard. Saying no to a nonprofit is also hard. But what we try to do is we focus on, well, what’s the initiative here? What’s our purpose for this particular event? So for the women’s event for example, there were men who were like, I want to join a build team. I’m like, that’s really great. I’d like to reserve you for an alternate role, an ally role, but I can’t have you on the build team because this is a women’s event. Some actually were really quite upset, but when you explain that the purpose of the women’s event is to showcase the talent of women, and if you are there, then you are taking away from them.
And so the conversation helps, and I don’t think anybody wants to take anything away. It was just people who are interested in going, well, I support women too. Can I help? And there are. There are ancillary roles that we keep for anyone else to support, but we really want to say, I want to say this all was done by women, and the only way we can stay true to that is by making sure that if you join one of these teams, you are a woman or you identify as a woman, period.
When it comes to nonprofits, nonprofits are a difficult space, in a difficult space themselves. Usually the small nonprofits that we deal with, basic requirements are that they have to have their nonprofit accreditation, so they have to be a 501(c)(3). But along with that, if you’re making more than a couple of million dollars, you don’t need us. If your revenue… We’re looking for that small one. So sometimes we turn those away going, you really can afford this and we’re going to save this space for someone who can’t.
Other times it’s like if you are politically affiliated or you are religiously affiliated in a certain way, then we have to say no to that nonprofit because we are an equal opportunity and inclusive organization, but we’re not going to promote or support any nonprofit that’s prothesizing in that manner. So those are clear and usually easier for most people to understand.
The problem that you bring up, which is always something that we’re juggling, it’s like I always feel like we’re juggling these balls. One is that I’ve got X number of volunteers and then I have X number of nonprofits. So what happens when those numbers don’t quite match? Because in order for me to build 48 websites, I need about 240 some people in each of those five skillsets. It’s pretty simple maths if you think about it. One nonprofit needs five. You do the maths. You’ll come out with that number.
Sometimes there are teams that’ll say, well, I can’t work the whole weekend, so I’m going to bring another person. Fine. Numbers change, but basically that’s what I need. So it’s between 240, 250 people are what we’re able to manage. The nonprofits have to complete coursework in order to be in this program, which means they cannot just send us their URL for their current website or their Facebook page and say, please build us a website. We ask them to go through a branding questionnaire, a content questionnaire, share CloudFlare information so that we can take your site live, those types of things. And we offer this all for free, but nonprofits are so skeptical. They’re like, is it really free? They’re like, all the design and development for your website’s completely free? The volunteers are giving up their time. At the end of this 48 hours, the site will be built and then we will launch it and we also launch it with a partner, WP Energize for free for 30 days. After that, you have to pay for hosting, which you would have to pay for anyway, whoever you use.
So a lot of times they’re like, ah, so that’s the catch. And I’m like, it’s not really a catch. If you decide to go host with whoever your provider is, you just have to take your files and kind of go, and we’ve got a process for that as well. So sometimes it’s really difficult to help that nonprofit understand what the word free means in our world because they’ve probably heard free a hundred times and then it hasn’t really been free. But then at the same time, if they don’t finish the coursework, then we’re not going to put you into the program. Now, some might exactly match our initiative, but they don’t finish the coursework and we’ll do everything to help them finish, but if they don’t, they don’t make it in. Which means that we will then go first, come first serve for those spots that are available.
Because we’re trying to keep the volunteers happy because they said they wanted to give up their time, so let’s make sure they have a nonprofit to build. And then we want to keep the nonprofits happy saying, you said you would build my website. Where’s my volunteer? We have to constantly balance those two. And I have two staff members that full-time manage the nonprofit lifecycle and the volunteer lifecycle to help that match.
For volunteers that are interested, and if our date has passed, for example, for this upcoming event, June 10th is our registration date. What we do after June 10th is we create a pipeline of people that are on a wait list. So as people drop out, because this is a volunteer organization, at the end of the day, people do drop out. So we will then go and start picking people from our wait list to fill the blocks from a volunteer perspective.
If a nonprofit then decides sooner or later, like they finish their coursework, but now for some reason they’re not available that weekend, go back in and say, well, which other nonprofit is actually done? And we’ll pick from there. So a lot of it is first come, first serve. I wish we were in a position where we had just tons of nonprofits to pick from all the time, but that’s not always the case. I know we’ve got a couple of hundred nonprofits in our pipeline right now, but unless they finish their part, unless they do their homework I always say, we can’t build you a website,
Which makes so much sense. I love that perspective because… So I’ve worked with nonprofits in various capacities. I’ve worked with nonprofits building and designing websites for them. I’ve worked with GiveWP, which is a WordPress plugin company that creates donation forms and abilities. And I feel like a lot of times if they do hear that something is free, it’s almost like charity. I’m applying to get this charity, to get this favor. And I love your perspective because it’s more creating a partnership, it sounds like, between what you’re doing and what they’re doing. And everybody has a responsibility and a part to play, and nobody is, technically, nobody is getting anything for free because you do have to put the work in to get what it is that you need. And I think that that can create a lot of accountability where there might otherwise not be, I would imagine.
Yeah. I’m curious. You mentioned having a volunteer life cycle and a nonprofit life cycle, and I’m kind of curious about that concept. On the nonprofit side, do you offer anything or do you direct these companies anywhere in terms of continued support or education? Because you and I both know in the majority of the people listening know that a WordPress website is not something that you just launch and forget about.
You have to continuously update it, the software. You have to be adding content to it. The website grows as you do. So I’m curious what sort of continued support might be maybe not provided but recommended by 48in48, and I’m curious as well with the volunteers, is it a priority for you to bring in new volunteers every project? Like new people to say, okay, John Smith got his opportunity to volunteer and got that experience. We want to give Anna an opportunity, or does it behoove you to continuously bring in experienced volunteers who want to keep doing this and who have the experience to have done it before? Is there a priority? Do you think about that? Is it just kind of whoever applies, applies? I know that’s a really long question across two different things.
It’s a yes to all, quite honestly. It’s a yes to all. So if we want to go down the pipeline of volunteers, let’s just talk about volunteers first.
Volunteers. Volunteers can come from anywhere at any point in time. We have a solid group of returners, so it’s like we have volunteers that choose, I’m going to do the women’s event every year. So every year they’ll show up for the women’s event. I have some volunteers that will show up at every single event for two years solid, and then they’ll take a break. So two years could be either about anywhere from six to eight events, depending if we do three or four in one particular year.
So it’s great to have that knowledge, legacy knowledge, if you’ve done an event before. And because none of us are perfect, at the end of every single event, we do lessons learned and we’re like, what do we do right this time? And then what do we need to work on? And it’s just because we’re growing. We’re scaling, we’re growing. And every single year we have new people that join every event. And I would say a majority of the people that join are new, which is great, but then there’s always that percentage that’s coming back and that percentage is helping with the planning committee.
So let’s say you just first heard of it and you are a project manager. You came to join the event, you’ve become project manager, and then you are like, this is absolutely fantastic because 48in48 events are fantastic, so this is fantastic. You are going to come back next time. The next time you may say, well, what other role can I take? One, to improve myself, for me to gain more skills, and number two, how can I give back in a different way to keep it lively, fun and different?
So you can come in as a project manager, which is you’re responsible for one nonprofit and your team. Next event, you could come back as an event project manager. And we have anywhere between four and six event project managers where they’re responsible for eight to 10 teams. And then on top of the event project manager, there’s a program director level position. And all of these are volunteers, different role, different skill sets, just gaining at each time. So from a project level there.
So you can sort of move through the organization in that way, and we’re hoping at that point, you’re also gaining valuable skill sets that you then take back to your own organization. So leadership skills basically.
I love that.
If you are a build volunteer, which is one of the five team members, whether it’s the WordPress designer, graphics person, content or digital marketer, you can roll into another role to say, hey, I can manage the group or I can be a coach. Being a coach means that you don’t necessarily have to be working on that one website the whole time, but there are two or three teams that you’re going to work with and give guidance because you’ve done this before. So when people get frustrated because it’s like, I don’t know what to do. Don’t worry, we have a playbook. After 29 events, we have a playbook. We know where you’re going to go, and we can give you a high-level timeline of when things need to be done. We’ve got support available over the entire weekend, either in-person and virtually to be able to support you. We use Slack, so we have a Slack support channel as well. So that’s one way that the volunteer themselves can grow and continue to come back.
Our events are not easy. We’re not talking about an hour of soup kitchen. We’re talking about 48 hours, meaning you’re starting on a Friday at 6:00, ending on a Sunday, but you do eat and sleep at your own schedules. We’re not camping out. They’re hackathon style in the way that we’re kind of hosting this over the weekend. And then we’re also bringing in speakers. So as the volunteer is giving out their time to build a website, we’re bringing in, for example, for the women’s event, a women’s panel where we have the CTO of Weather Channel, the former CMO from Honey Baked Ham Corporation, and then the CMO from… Oh, I’m so sorry.
The director from Slalom and executive director from State Farm also. But we bring in these people very specifically because now these women, these leadership women are going to share their journey with you, and then maybe that helps you with something that you’re dealing with in your own career. So that’s our give-back to even the women. And everyone that volunteers with us, it’s all pro bono. No one gets paid. No one gets paid, not even the speakers. But there are so many absolutely fantastic women and people out there that want to give back, and here’s a way. Here’s a way to give back.
So then if we move over to the nonprofit side, the question about nonprofits specifically was how do we work with the nonprofit?
Yes. How do you allow them to continue to support and maintain and keep up that website after that 48 hours is complete?
So as we are working with a nonprofit, what we do is we’re building our website. So the build team meets with their nonprofit on Friday evening. They have a set side of rules they’re supposed to follow. So they get that page. They get a homepage to look at on Friday. They give their feedback. Saturday, they come back to look at it and give, and as they’re talking to their team, we create an impact lab session for the nonprofits.
So for the nonprofits, they can learn WordPress 101, how’s the basics, how to access my site, how to do this. Then we have other people speaking either on SEO or accessibility or general marketing, so that starts that conversation for them and that thought process of like, oh, I think I need to do this. And at the end, what we do is say, look, host somewhere, that’s fine. Host with 48in48, and we can do one of two things for you. We can help guide you when you’re trying to make a change on your website, or if you don’t have the time to do that, you can sign up for a package with us where we will make those changes for you.
And then we have a nonprofit newsletter that goes out that’s always sharing information about, here’s new in the world of, have you heard of this, that, or the other? So we send a newsletter out for nonprofits every other month just so that we can keep them up to par. And then if there’s something that they need, they can always contact our nonprofit relationship manager who’s more than happy to help them. And then in about three years, we reach back out to them and say, hey, do you need a website refresh?
That’s amazing. That’s a fantastic plan. We’re running a little bit low on time, so I definitely want to give you an opportunity to share with everybody listening. I know that you said the next, the social justice event is the deadline for that or when you’re beginning to take volunteers is June 10th?
The deadline is June 10th. Volunteer registration is already open at 48in48.org. It’s already up. You just navigate to events, choose a social justice event and register there, and it’ll take you through the portal. So June the 10th is the registration for that. And then ours is a 12-week planning schedule, so if people who are interested in being a part of a planning committee, they meet weekly, once a week to kind of make sure logistics and everything are in place. And then at the end of the year, we’ll have our global event. And so we’re always looking for WordPress skills, design skills, content skills, so the project management. Those are things that we just look for. So I encourage you guys to sign up if that’s something that interests you. It’s an amazing networking opportunity. The event in October, which is our global event, will be fully hybrid. So we will be onsite at Cox Enterprises, which is in Atlanta. So we’re looking forward to having a large group of volunteers there as well.
Wonderful, lovely. And I’ll definitely make sure to put in the show notes the direct link to the website and to some of your social media as well, so people connect in various ways. And I mean, while we were talking, I was listening, but I was also looking at the website and looking at that volunteers form and being like, this is something that I feel like I would like to do.
The WordPress community can be such a closed loop in terms of our event series and our event structure. And I think it’s really impactful that for people who are listening who are WordPress professionals to venture outside of WordPress specific events, because there’s so many other people out there. There’s so many other people to help. Given that this project does rely on WordPress, if you are listening and you are a WordPress professional, all you’ll really have to learn, I assume, is sort of the way that things are done in that weekend, in that structure to set everyone up for success. But you’ve already got the skills, so why not give it a shot? So yeah, I’ll say a humongous thank you to you Sima, for taking some time out of your day to chat with us. And yeah, thank you so much for this amazing work that you do.
Love it. Yes. Thank you for the platform, and I look forward to seeing loads of WordPress designers join our group.
Absolutely. All right, we’ll see you all next week.
This episode was sponsored by The Blogsmith. The Blogsmith is a holistic content marketing agency for B2B technology brands that creates data-driven content with a great reader experience.