I’m Katerina, the founder of ENGin, a nonprofit bringing English fluency to a generation of Ukrainian students while transforming virtual volunteering in the US and beyond. Our peer-to-peer program connects students and volunteers for weekly online speaking practice sessions. Learn more about us [here](www.enginprogram.org).

When I started ENGin, I was 8 months pregnant, had no external funding, and had never run a nonprofit before. But in just under a year, we’ve made amazing progress: * 1,200+ students * 1,000+ volunteers from over 30 countries * Shout-outs in multiple national news outlets in Ukraine * A whole slate of program expansions and improvements in training, curriculum, student/volunteer leadership opportunities, etc * ...and plans for much, much more!

I have learned SO MUCH through this experience and I’m excited to share it all. Ask me anything about our ups and downs, what it’s like to start and run a nonprofit in a pandemic while parenting two young kids, big dreams vs. financial realities, and anything in between!

Proof: https://imgur.com/gallery/6a834BR

Comments: 30 • Responses: 11  • Date: 

CharlotteHebdo42 karma

Hello, two questions:

  1. On the website, you restrict the age of both volunteers and learners to be between 14-22 years old. Is there a reason why the upper limit is quite low?

  2. As a nonprofit, you still have expenses. Your website says that the service itself is free, what are your sources of revenue?

katerina_at_engin2 karma

(1) One big reason is availability of older volunteers. There will be the occasional adult who wants to volunteer with us, but mainly we've been able to find volunteers among high schoolers who are looking for service hours. Even college-age volunteers are hard to come by. So I don't want to accept older students and then turn them away because we don't have any volunteers in their age range.

I suppose I might be able to come up with ways to reach out to more adult volunteers with some time and effort. But we have very limited time, money, and manpower, so my guiding philosophy is to focus on what we know and do it really well. Maybe one day, we'll be able to expand that age range upward.

(2) Yes, there are tech expenses (several hundred bucks each month) for some key technologies to keep us running. And we rely on volunteers where possible, but I do have some part-time paid staff in Ukraine (salaries are lower there, but still we end up spending a couple thousand per month. I started ENGin using my own savings. A few months later, I was really lucky to get support from an individual donor who gave me enough $$ to cover expenses for now. I think a lot about what to do going forward, whether applying for grants (I would love to but I don't know how and don't have time at the moment) or charging some kind of nominal administrative fee to students, volunteers or both ($10-$20 one-time fee)...we might do this in future, but there are some complexities around it.

friendly_bitcoiner5 karma

Sounds like quite the journey - how did you balance finding the time for nonprofit work while having two kids?!

katerina_at_engin6 karma

This is still my biggest life challenge. I think girls grow up constantly hearing that they can have a career and be a great mom (at least, that's the near-universal message here in the US). So you just kind of assume that you will have both.

The reality is very different, of course, since kids require pretty much 24/7 supervision for the first few years of their lives. And if you have multiple kids, you're looking at, say, 5-8 years of your life where you have at least one little helpless creature totally dependent on you.

In the past, I've tried to basically split the day 50/50 and have childcare for 6 hours (so I could work) and be with the kids for 6 hours. The pandemic turned that upside down, and we haven't been able to find a childcare option we feel safe with. I am really lucky that my husband is taking time off work and is able to help with the kids for a few hours a day, but it's never enough time, honestly!!

ShubhamC203 karma

How much hard work have you had to put in to reach the level you are on? And what is the one thing you learned and would advice to someone else?

katerina_at_engin9 karma

These days, I usually work 7 days/week from 3-6 hours a day. I have a lot of flexibility since it's my own organization, but because I really love doing it, I end up working whenever I have a free minute between kid and family responsibilities.

Before ENGin, I had about a decade of job experience working for a huge range of organizations, from an investment bank to edtech startups to the NYC government to another nonprofit. I don't think I would be able to successfully run my own organization without having done this and developed key skills like managing people, building partnerships, etc.

One piece of advice I'd have is to not get stuck in one place professionally and make sure you are always learning, growing, and moving closer to your dream role, whatever that may be. I moved a lot from job to job and did some freelance work on top, which I think was essential to developing my skills. At the same time, I know people who were lucky enough to find a ton of professional development and growth at the same company, so that works too!

setchik872 karma

What is the biggest lesson you have learned while embarking on this journey?

katerina_at_engin5 karma

I've learned a lot about how to navigate the difficulties of relying on volunteers to run an organization! We have a few part-time employees in Ukraine, but, due to lack of $$$, we have to rely on volunteers for many key tasks.

Imagine running even the most basic business with volunteers only - say, a fast-food chain. On Monday, 20 people show up to work. On Tuesday, no one shows. Instead of 5 people each working, say, 30 hours/week, you have 50 people each working 3 hours/ week. This one won't make burgers, this one doesn't want to man the cash register. Half of them disappear within a couple of weeks because they "got busy". It would be impossible!

Volunteers always have the best intentions, but they generally ask to help with tiny chunks of very specific tasks they find most interesting, which often does not correspond with what we actually need help with and the deadlines we need to meet. They want to meet with me on their schedule - to be trained on tasks, to ask questions, to give updates, etc, which is super-stressful for me. And then after I invest the time to train them and get them started, they just disappear.

I had always thought of volunteering as this amazing, positive thing, and it definitely can be. Our core volunteer opportunity is designed to be super-flexible and gives volunteers the chance to make an impact on their schedule in just one hour/week. And that has worked really well - we get great feedback from both volunteers and students about their online English practice. But as far as all of the behind-the-scenes work of keeping the program going, it has definitely been a learning process for me in terms of trying to reconcile volunteers' expectations with the work that needs to get done.

coryrenton1 karma

Is it feasible to match english speakers looking to learn conversational ukrainian with students so they can both learn the opposite language, or does this not work for whatever reasons?

katerina_at_engin3 karma

I had this same thought at the beginning, but it doesn't work for a few reasons

(1) Supply and demand - there aren't that many high school/college students looking to learn Ukrainian compared to the number of Ukrainians who want to learn English. Our model depends on matching volunteers and students by age, schedule, interests, etc, and that level of matching hard to do without a large pool of volunteers.

(2) Outreach - I'm not sure how I would reach English speakers who are looking to learn Ukrainian without a sizable marketing budget for targeted ads of some kind.

Right now, the draw for most volunteers is twofold. First, they can get community service hours for school/college requirements. Second, there's the social/cultural exchange aspect, which is really fun for them. And for us, it's allowed us to grow very quickly and help more students, so I think we'll be sticking with this model for now.

coryrenton1 karma

Are there any for-pay translation projects that could be used as a way to provide revenue that students could work on (this is apparently how duolinguo works)?

katerina_at_engin2 karma

This is a really interesting possibility. I have heard that about Duolingo but don't know all the details. I'll have to look into exactly how it works and how much of an upfront investment is needed to set up something like this (like a tech platform to accept documents, distribute them for translation, compare multiple translations to ensure quality, etc).

Funding (or lack thereof) is a major question for us right now, so thanks for the suggestion! I think a lot about how I could make ENGin more sustainable, since there are no revenues right now.

Torbjornhub1 karma

How did you start and grow to have thousands of participants?

katerina_at_engin6 karma

It was SO MUCH work, to be honest, a lot of trial and error. Because when you start something brand new, no one knows about you, and it's hard to get anyone to take you seriously. It was a lot of grassroots outreach to hundreds of schools/colleges here in the US to look for volunteers, as well as listings on sites like VolunteerMatch.

I came up with the idea for ENGin before the pandemic, but when everything started shutting down in March, that was an unexpected boost for us. Everyone was looking for virtual opportunities, and ENGin was designed to be 100% virtual from the start.

In Ukraine, it was a similar story - cold messages/emails to a lot of social media groups for teenagers/ed-focused news outlets, etc, and an boost in demand caused by the pandemic.

At this point, something like 30% of participants come to us through word of mouth, which I'm really proud of!

idontmeananyofdis1 karma

How did you come to creating this program?

katerina_at_engin2 karma

I have had a huge range of different jobs - business, nonprofit, government, big companies, startups, etc. Through all these experiences, I've figured out that I really like running programs, and it's important for me to do work that helps people, and that I like smaller organizations more than bigger ones. And I'm also honestly not great at having a boss, I prefer doing my own thing.

Before ENGin, I was on the leadership team of another nonprofit working with bright students in Ukraine, and I discovered the problem ENGin aims to solve - supersmart kids who have been studying English for years, but can't carry on a conversation because they have no opportunity to practice speaking. And I did some market research, and saw a niche that no one else was in, so it all kind of clicked!

Toadman0051 karma

When did your company transition from genetic splicing to a nonprofit ESL, and don't you feel it's unethical to re-create dinosaurs?

katerina_at_engin2 karma

Haha I was actually kind of disappointed not to get any troll questions, so thank you for being the first :)

myboyghandi1 karma

Oh I’d love to volunteer as an ESL teacher. How can we sign up?

katerina_at_engin2 karma

All the info about volunteering is here: https://www.enginprogram.org/volunteer

We currently work with ages 14-22 for our main program (one-on-one weekly sessions). If you're older than that, we do have some opportunities leading group sessions - it's a similar commitment of 1 hour once a week, but with 5-7 students rather than just 1, so shoot us an email if you're interested in that.

doingbasiclifeprep1 karma

not sure if asked already but whats your background?

katerina_at_engin1 karma

I'm Ukrainian, I came over to the US when I was 8, eventually got a scholarship to private school and then Penn for college. I studied business and went to work in investment banking (immigrant parents = lots of pressure to do something practical and lucrative).

Banking was not a good fit for me (though having the business degree was quite valuable, I think). I went back to grad school for education, got a Master's, and cycled through a few different jobs looking for the right thing. I have done curriculum/assessment work in charter schools, project management at the NYC Department of Education, and worked for a couple of early-stage edtech startups.

I also have done freelance writing (my big claim to fame is a story I did in the Atlantic), lots of editing work for professors, some college essay advising.

Most recently, I was helping another small nonprofit for a couple of years before starting ENGin.

That's most of it, I think. It has been quite a journey :)