Besa Makes Giving Back Easy in Columbus

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
"I want to be able to pull people out of that daily grind and give them a different perspective of what's happening in the community right now," says Besa founder Matthew Goldstein

Market researcher Matthew Goldstein spent 12 to 15 hours a day sitting at his corporate retail desk, watching the minutes on the clock slowly tick down. After work, he'd go out and party. Then he'd sleep and repeat.

But by his late 20s, Goldstein had a realization: He wasn't taking life as seriously as he should-and could.

It feels great in the short term, but isn't going to fulfill me long term, Goldstein thought to himself. I don't know where I want to be, but I know it's not here.

He toyed with a number of ideas. Backpack across America? Maybe. Sell everything, move to Africa and work in a village? Considered.

Meanwhile, Goldstein started playing with the concept of volunteering-working at a crisis hotline, and mobilizing his co-workers at Abercrombie & Fitch through community action. The light bulb clicked on.

"That's when I fully realized that I wanted to marry up this passion I have for market research with giving back to the community," Goldstein said. In early 2010, Goldstein quit his job and began pouring energy into his new concept, an organization that would pair people with local charities.

A community must come together to help those in need, he knew. How do we make giving back more top-of-mind in people's lives, he wondered? How do we increase resources?

His answer is Besa.

It's named after an Albanian term that means to keep a promise, and alludes to the idea of taking care of one another.

It launched in September 2012, offering on its website volunteer opportunities that place an emphasis on projects where volunteers can see the impact of their work. At the Clintonville-Beechwold Community Resources Center, for example, the Besa group forms a human chain on Tuesday nights, unloading 10,000 pounds of produce that will be distributed the next day to hungry Columbus families. During a Saturday morning at the Broad Street Food Pantry, Besa's volunteers help clients "shop" for a week's worth of food. The projects cater to busy professionals and typically require just an hour or two of time on an evening or weekend-without the hassle of a complicated orientation or long-term commitment. Sign-up is simple: People just get on the website, see volunteer opportunities on a calendar, click on what they would like to do, and enter their names.

In two years, the group has corralled volunteers to donate more than 4,500 hours and complete more than 200 service projects. It has given Columbus roughly $125,000 in goods and services.

"I don't know why we (as a society) make ourselves so busy," said Goldstein, 34. "I want to be able to pull people out of that daily grind and give them a different perspective of what's happening in the community right now. Besa is about telling the story of each volunteer giving back through this volunteer experience and their role in the grander picture."

Besa is fundedin large part by three well-known Columbus businesses it counts as partners: Express, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams and Kaufman Development.

Kaufman, which has numerous apartment communities around the city, wanted to engage both its residents and employees in giving back, with opportunities that fit their interests and schedules. The company reached out to Besa, worked through ideas and paid them to develop a website on which residents and employees could easily find and sign up for volunteer opportunities.

Goldstein was so excited by the resulting volunteer portal that he asked Kaufman if Besa could use it for the community at large, as well as other corporate partners. Founder Brett Kaufman gave his blessing. Now, the community portal, on Besa's site, is open to everyone. And corporate partners-for whom Besa helps coordinate special projects-have their own pages, where Besa tracks the hours they've spent in service and the dollars they've donated in goods and services.

"They [Besa] know our company," said Christine Deye, director of community and environmental stewardship at Jeni's. "They spend time with our volunteers in the field. They know what to highlight for us. Having all the information in one place-it's awesome."

Service sites are enjoying equally good Besa experiences. Kathy Kelly-Long, director of the Broad Street Food Pantry, knows the Besa group that shows up on a Saturday morning will be reliable, consistent and friendly.

"The goals that Matt seems to have for Besa-to get young professionals involved in volunteerism-dovetail with my goals for when volunteers come here," Kelly-Long said. "They are not only here to serve people, but to gain understanding about what living in poverty might be like. There's a synchronicity between what we both do."

Goldstein, who movedfrom Philadelphia to attend Ohio State and fell in love with the city, knew he would need to deplete his savings to launch Besa.

He figured that after resigning from his 9-to-5 job, he could earn enough to sustain himself by regularly walking 10 dogs.

"Ten dogs turned into 140 clients," he said.

Turns out, those clients have been essential partners, from helping fund Besa's launch to helping design its website.

"I never knew how much the two organizations would be intertwined," Goldstein said. "Besa wouldn't be here if it weren't for the dog business."

Now, Goldstein runs WOOF! Downtown Pet Care with his life partner, Ian Estep, who is also Besa's project coordinator.

"Matt's a very motivated person," Estep said. And, he added, he's very well-respected.

"I always joke and call him the mayor of Columbus," he said. "No matter where we go, he runs into five to 10 people he knows."

Currently, Besa operates out of the couple's Victorian Village home, with the two of them and one other full-time employee. They plan to expand next year by adding another staff member and a dedicated office space. To ensure each Besa event runs smoothly, Goldstein counts on 13 volunteer leaders to be his eyes and ears at the projects. And Besa has a board of directors and advisory board to guide Goldstein and aid in decision making.

"It's a lot of working with different people in the community to get this idea of engagement," Goldstein said. "I love the connections-connections with volunteers, connections with non-profits, connections with people who need our help. It's that simple."

Those who work with Goldstein praise his hands-on attitude and his communication skills. Deye, who meets with Goldstein every few weeks to discuss Jeni's involvement, said Goldstein's passion for his work is apparent.

"It's not just Besa," Deye said. "He's connecting back to the people who have helped him. He follows through. You can count on him."

And Goldstein can count on his volunteers to make him realize why he started Besa in the first place. He was recently talking to one frequent volunteer when she shared with him that her dog-who is her life and her love-had cancer. Goldstein didn't expect the woman to show up for her scheduled volunteer event the next day.

But she did.

"I thought about not going and just lying on the sofa all day, but the second I showed up, it changed my feelings about what I was struggling with," she told him. "And it made me feel better about what I was going through."

It is precisely the fulfillment Goldstein was seeking-and then some.

"It all goes back to that idea of looking at the world for what it really is and how we play a role in making it a better place," he said. "I love working with people who help me do that."