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Volunteering: There’s an App for That

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Project Lighthouse is changing the way Austin serves.

By Meagan Leahy, Photos by Sara Kurfeb 

After living on both coasts, Mark Piening found a home in the middle. He met his wife, bought a house and built a thriving life and career in Austin. Now he’s looking to meet the needs of the community through his new app, Project Lighthouse, which connects users with volunteer opportunities.

After moving to Austin, Piening worked at Dell, but quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit for him. He boasts a master’s degree and knew he had the mind for developing startups, particularly software companies. For 20 years, Piening has helped both large and small software companies develop and grow their businesses.

The entrepreneur was inspired by both his technology background and his faith to start digging deeper.

“Why is [it]that we can build all this great technology for people to meet people, but why can’t we do that for serving each other and making our city a greater place to be?” he remembers asking. “How come we don’t know where all the problems and needs are as a general citizen so we can step in and help…?”

After working with companies such as Uber and Tinder, Piening wondered why we can’t just swipe right to serve. He set out to conduct a market review throughout the country for a system that would easily allow people to volunteer in their communities. Discovering such a system didn’t exist, he decided to build it. His goal was to make it easy for both faith-based and secular organizations to promote volunteer opportunities to individuals in the community, who can then donate their time and talent to serve Austin. Piening hopes Project Lighthouse will inspire Austinites to also foster the idea of bringing unity and community to the city.

“There’s no better way to build compassion in our hearts for other people than if we actually take a minute to serve,” he says.

Possessing a talent for software, Piening decided building this platform would be his way of using his gifts to serve the Austin community. In 2017, Piening and his team began pitching this idea to some local nonprofit organizations and churches. The response was overwhelming. Organizations not only wanted to use the platform to coordinate volunteer opportunities, but to also financially invest in the idea. By February 2018, Piening and his team had raised a quarter-million dollars from investors who, Piening says, are “some great investors, people that want more than just a return. They want a return, but they want impact, impact for our city, and so, they chose to invest.”

The app runs through the internet, so it’s not necessary to download. Creating and using an account is simple and free for both organizations and volunteers, though an advanced version lets companies pay for report updates. Among the more than 190 organizations that now use Project Lighthouse are the Austin Bridge Builder’s Alliance, Austin Christian Fellowship and the City of Round Rock.

The team at Project Lighthouse is currently working on a matching system that will help filter an individual’s feed to find volunteer opportunities that most fit that individual’s talents and interests.

“Our mission is we want to change the narrative in our cities around what it means to be in a community and what you get from being known,” Piening says. “This is about everyone, secular or spiritual. It’s about our citizenry.”

He invites those who also want to improve the Austin community to visit project-lighthouse.org/serve and create a free account.

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