Anil Patel is shifting citizens’ approaches to volunteerism from a traditionally periodic commitment to an integrated and long-term engagement plan that enables volunteers to increase their “civic footprint.” As a result, Anil is empowering the citizen sector to be a more efficient, interconnected and powerful system, while changing the mindsets of volunteers.

This profile below was prepared when Anil Patel was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.


Anil Patel is shifting citizens’ approaches to volunteerism from a traditionally periodic commitment to an integrated and long-term engagement plan that enables volunteers to increase their “civic footprint.” As a result, Anil is empowering the citizen sector to be a more efficient, interconnected and powerful system, while changing the mindsets of volunteers.


Anil is prompting volunteers to think and engage more strategically as citizens. By developing a model of “volunteer planning” he acts as a curator for civic participation. The same way individuals work with financial planners and physical trainers to create plans for managing their wealth and fitness, Anil offers support to citizens to create a long-term, sustained plan for their voluntary engagements and to learn how to maximize the impact of their volunteer hours. He is raising awareness about the benefits of a long-term engagement and sees civic participation as a distinctive and powerful path for every citizen.

Anil catalyzes citizens’ engagement through a series of events called TimeRaiser which brings together potential volunteers, citizen organizations (COs), and artists to strengthen everyone’s actions and reach. Volunteers bid on art with volunteer hours that are then invested into the CO of their choice. To contribute to the financial viability of the artists’ professional careers, Anil also raises corporate funds to pay artists for their art donations. He is thus creating powerful new synergies; COs gain strategic outreach and can solicit high-quality and long-term volunteer commitments; volunteers have the unique opportunity to meet with an array of organizations and select where they may best contribute; and artists carve out a space where they can showcase and sell their art. Once citizens are “hooked,” Anil ensures that they follow through and refine their approaches to volunteerism.

Although Anil developed these initiatives out of a deep commitment for civic engagement, he also wanted to address the citizen sector’s chronic struggles with internal management and capacity issues, which in turn, limits their social impact. He is addressing these issues more deeply through two nascent initiatives. Anil leverages these combined strategies to create value for the citizen sector and increase its potential impact.


Canada’s nonprofit and charitable sector mobilizes over US$34B in revenue, employs 1.2 million people and engages 5 million volunteers each year. In spite of the sector’s importance to community and societal well-being, it continues to be hobbled by antiquated operating models, chronic funding shortages, and inefficient deployment of human and financial resources.

Because many COs are significantly understaffed, they often have to rely on building robust teams of volunteers. However, very few of the volunteers on the market have ever truly asked themselves where their time could be best invested to make the greatest potential impact, and most organizations also lack the managerial resources to guide citizens as they explore these questions. As a result, COs often do not involve volunteers most effectively and experience difficulties recruiting and supporting new volunteers. As a result, volunteers engage only periodically, thus leading to greater inefficiencies in COs, which find themselves constantly training new short-term volunteers.

Although various provinces throughout Canada have focused on initiatives intended to increase volunteering, such as mandatory community service by high school students, it has been found that this involvement decreases drastically after high school. The wealth of opportunities available to volunteers also makes the task of deciding where to focus one’s energies quite daunting. Before Anil introduced his idea to the Canadian landscape, citizens had little to no opportunities to interact with a variety of COs in an inviting environment. Neither did they have the chance to develop long-term visions for their involvement.

In addition, while the business sector developed many tools to be efficient, productive, sustainable, and profitable, the social sector has historically devoted more time and energy to their mission and fundraising, and not internal efficiency. Technology and management in small organizations is often not an expertise. Fundraising consumes much time and energy—sometimes more than what is dedicated to the organization’s core mission. Volunteers are often under-employed in organizations, wasting valuable human resources and opportunities to add value and efficiency.

Existing norms suggest that nonprofit organizations should spend no more than 20 percent of operating costs on non-program activities. This creates little-to-no opportunity for learning and growing as an organization, yet it is often highly valued by funders. The information highway between funders and grantees needs to be rebuilt in order to build stronger organizations, share learning, and improve the outcomes and impact of COs.


Anil is building a system with constant feedback loops to ensure that volunteers develop sustained and sustainable engagement strategies as critical participants in the citizen sector. He identified a powerful departure point in public events that not only raises awareness about volunteerism but also provides public reporting about yearly volunteering achievements and fosters a “competitive” atmosphere to see the quality and quantity of civic engagement rise year after year.

In 2004, Anil designed TimeRaiser events, large happenings in cities across Canada, bringing together each time up to up to 700 potential volunteers, 30 artists and 50 COs. Each year, Anil holds Timeraisers in seven Canadian cities. The events are organized as auctions, where people can bid up to 125 volunteer hours on pieces of art. To ensure that artists are paid market value for their works Anil fundraises from corporations and pays up to $1,000 per piece of art. (In Canada, although many artists struggle to make a living, most donate an average of eight works of art each year to charity). Five years later, a total of $410,000 has been funneled to artists, and 6,500 people have 74,000 volunteer hours in 300 COs throughout the country. In the next five years, Anil plans to organize TimeRaisers in 15 Canadian cities, thus directing $1 million in funding to artists, bringing 75,000 people to invest 50,000 volunteer hours each year. This is equivalent to creating 25 full time jobs each year for the citizen sector in Canada, and will significantly strengthen the citizen sector by investing in the creative class.

TimesRaiser events are a strategic entry point to get people to continue volunteering. The continuity is being reinforced by the platform of Civic Footprint, which tracks and helps to augment the impact of volunteerism. Created in 2005, Civic Footprint responds to the desire of TimeRaiser participants to follow-up their bid hours with a long-term civic engagement plan.  The online platform enables citizens to share opportunities for civic engagement as well as track their own contribution to the citizen sector, acting as a curator for civic participation. Anil is learning from financial planning and physical training models to infiltrate the same type of strategic long-term planning into volunteerism. Through the platform, citizens are asked to think about their “civic footprint” in the same way one might think about their carbon footprint—considering their full impact on society. Using Anil’s tools, people can structure their volunteer work in a way that allows them to deliver value, and for organizations to gain value. As more and more citizens engage with Civic Footprint, Anil will develop a greater capacity to track the evolution of the volunteer sector and map topical trends that are of increasing importance to Canadians. He has begun doing so with such issues as food security and access to water.

With the aim of increasing the efficiency and impact of COs even further, Anil developed Organizational Pilates in 2008 to help COs “build their core strengths.” Anil captures knowledge and disseminates expertise through specialized tools and short instructional videos. These tools include integrated and customized applications for computer and online software and online sharing of best practices to improve internal management of data, resources, documents, and communications. Participating COs pay US$10,000 per year for access to the platform, making it more affordable than any other management consulting. Organizational Pilates is a resource developed specifically for COs based on their specific needs and challenges. It is a social enterprise which reinvests its earned income into TimeRaiser.

Most recently, Anil launched Platformation, a platform for COs and foundations to have greater interaction and share data more fluently—a type of Facebook for funders and COs. He is thus beginning to rebuild the information highway between funders and grantees with the ultimate goal of improving the efficiency of the sector by making information readily available and transparent. Anil envisions that COs will share 95 percent of all non-confidential documentation on this platform, including information such as up-to-date annual plans, budgets, job descriptions, program reports, and social returns on investment methodologies, thus facilitating greater trust and collaboration within the sector. Anil is currently working with the largest foundation in Canada to make this vision a reality and give funders an opportunity to lead from the middle—changing the way they, as leaders, strategize about philanthropy to inspire and influence others. 


Anil grew up in a small city in Ontario where he and his siblings were strongly influenced and encouraged by their mother. A full-time professional, she was also an avid athlete and an active volunteer. In high school and university, Anil was a competitive swimmer, strongly influenced by his mother’s athleticism. He learned then about the importance of training and strengthening to improve performance results. 

After university, Anil moved to Toronto looking for volunteer opportunities and work. It became abundantly clear to him that it was easier to find a job than a good volunteer opportunity. Turning to the for-profit sector for work, Anil worked as a business analyst. He saw how much time and money could go into developing ineffectual systems with low user adoption rates. Seeing this, he became interested in designing an efficient database to improve the flow of information. In his spare time, he started to study the issues and social problems affecting Toronto, visiting public libraries and city records offices. Anil read city reports to see what was going on in water and housing issues, debates between citizens and politicians, and any other city disputes he could access. As a visual thinker, Anil started to map issues together, connecting water issues to social issues and generating questions about their interconnections. During these two years of research, the goal was to understand the system.

When Anil’s mother developed cancer, the family took the time to talk and reflect. His mother told him the easy way to channel his energy would be to “conquer cancer” but she explained the world is more complex than one disease or one issue. She made him promise not to take any short cuts when addressing systemic issues. Approximately six months later, in response to some of the trends and linkages he had mapped, Anil started thinking about a way to bring together COs, volunteers, and artists. The idea of TimeRaiser came to him in what he calls a “bhag” (big hairy audacious goal) moment. Anil immediately put himself to work to turn TimeRaiser into a reality, just as he’d promised his mother he would do.