Taylor Sharp embodies the spirit of giving.
“To know the amount of families that are going to wake up to Christmas or holidays to presents they wouldn’t have otherwise had, that’s kinda the reason we do this,” the UNC-Chapel Hill student says.
Sharp’s talking about the company he started with three friends last year. CommuniGift is an online giving service that lets non-profits upload family profiles and wish lists and donors adopt those families and choose items to purchase directly from the CommuniGift site.
CommuniGift is bootstrapped and run with sweat equity, says Sharp. Founded by four UNC juniors, Sharp is majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies—Philosophy and Business of Sport. He is joined by computer science major Jake Bernstein, public policy major Thomas Doochin and business major Jack Wohlfert. Communigift now has a team of 11 based out of UNC’s 1789 co-working space and an office in Chapel Hill. The CommuniGift men were named social track finalists and people's choice winners in the Carolina Challenge last year.
After a small launch last November serving 40
families, CommuniGift has relaunched this month with 1,483 families. Nearly $10,000
in gifts were purchased through CommuniGift in the first week. It serves local
non-profits as well as others across the country in places like California,
Delaware and Ohio.
Bernstein says donors are attracted to CommuniGift because of its ease.
“What’s really neat is to get an email from a donor saying, ‘I gave this much more,’ or ‘normally I only give one toy, but this year I gave three or four because you guys made it so easy,’” he says.
To prepare for launch, the team rebuilt the website, signed on more non-profits and partnered with TwoTap, a universal shopping cart that allows users to purchase directly from your site. But Sharp says a lot of time was spent developing relationships with online retailers. Last year, CommuniGift used Amazon Associates, an affiliate marketing program, for most purchases. This year, the college juniors have more than 100 online retailers, including Target and Toys “R” Us, have signed on.
“We found that, more than anything, the doors that are open because you are a student outweigh any doubt of age,” Sharp says.
Sharp and his cofounders are also connected to the athletic community. CommuniGift will partner with Toys for Tots and UNC basketball to collect donations from fans at the Dec. 7th game against ECU.
Sharp is proud that CommuniGift offers the service free to nonprofits and its donors. CommuniGift makes money through affiliate revenue. Eventually, CommuniGift could sell goods exclusively through one online retailer. CommuniGift may also expand to include other big donation drives—it hosted a back to school drive for the Salvation Army in California this year.
Some of the CommuniGift group traveled to California last week to meet with the site’s checkout partners and the Salvation Army.
But what makes a group of college men start a site like this?
“I think that with all of us in a dorm room freshman year, something was bound to happen,” Bernstein says. “We wanted everyone to experience the same joy we received growing up over the holidays.”
Bernstein and Sharp both started non-profits in high school. Bernstein started VolunTEEN, a website with volunteer opportunities for young teens. Sharp started a fishing tournament called Casting for Hope, providing financial assistance for women with ovarian or other gynecological cancers. It also provides fly fishing retreats for the same women and their families. Sharp’s English teacher at the time, John Zimmerman, joined him on his fly-fishing project.
“When a patient’s insurance limitations run out and they can’t pay their light bill or their mortgage bill, we step in and pay those gaps,” Zimmerman says. “When there’s a need to get through to the next month, like last month we made a family’s payment on their mortgage to keep them in the house.”
This is a cause close to Sharp’s heart—his mom passed away from ovarian cancer in 2010.
Casting for Hope raised $7,000 and $25,000 in years one and two. Now, it’s a gold level sanctioned tournament on the trout fly fishing circuit, the only on the East Coast and one of three in the country.
“Fast forward to now,” Sharps says, “We are close to having raised $100,000 since the tournament started in 2012.”
The nonprofit also holds benefit concerts and 5K races.
As the holidays come around, Sharp will have his hands full. But he says he likes it that way.
“Don’t be confused, I might be involved and busy enough that I lose a lot of sleep, but I still have fun,” he says. “Luckily I’ve found a balance that allows me to be the student I want to be, the friend I want to be and allows me to succeed in the projects that I’m working on.”
“I wake up tired, but at least I wake up looking forward to something I like doing.”
Sharp is always giving. Check out how he gave a little boy the best day of his life: