Amid the great music and movies (and, yes, parties) that will light up Austin, Texas, next month during the South by Southwest festival, a small nonprofit called SponsorChange.org will receive a community service award for finding a way to help college graduates battle student loan debt by volunteering.
If you have a student loan (and we're guessing you do—the researchers at ProjectOnStudentDebt.org say seven of 10 college students who graduated in 2013 owed money on a student loan, averaging nearly $30,000 in debt each) or would love to help others knock down those payments, you'll want to know about SponsorChange.
Here's how it works: Graduates with student loan debt sign up to volunteer at organizations that need manpower. The grads help their community by putting in hours toward that organization's goals. Then donors who have also signed up at SponsorChange reimburse volunteers by paying down their student loans. So the donors help the nonprofit get free manpower rather than making a traditional donation. The volunteers get help with their student loans—and gain useful work experience along the way.
Raymar Hampshire, cofounder of SponsorChange.org, sees that work experience as a key to his organization's power. Earning money toward loan payments is hugely helpful, especially for recent graduates who are underemployed. Many are also hungry for leadership opportunities, tangible work experience, and the chance to impress leaders in their community or industry.
Hampshire started SponsorChange in Pittsburgh in 2009. The organization is now based in Washington, D.C., with satellite offices in Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Graduates who aren't in those cities can sign up if they connect with a nonprofit organization in their area that has signed up with SponsorChange. Or, Hampshire says, some grads who already are volunteering with an organization in their area have invited that organization to join SponsorChange, so that they can turn a basic volunteer gig into one done for student loan assistance.
Hampshire is working on a program of "virtual volunteering" that he hopes to launch later this year—using digital technology to help graduates battle their crushing debt.
Usually "we match a graduate to an organization, and they actually live in that city," Hampshire says, so their work is helping their community. But "we're trying to figure out what type of projects can be done at a high-quality level" from elsewhere in the country.
Hampshire says that the enormous problem of mounting student debt has many people seeking creative solutions, often involving volunteer work. AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps are popular alternatives that offer varying levels of debt relief in exchange for volunteering commitments.
The crowdfunding platform ZeroBound uses a model that's a slight variation on Hampshire's approach: Grads pledge volunteer hours to a nonprofit in their community or create a volunteer project that will benefit their community, then launch a crowdfunding campaign through ZeroBound.com to recruit donors who might be friends and family members or strangers who simply want to support a given cause.
Some states offer unusual programs that help college students with school costs while meeting community needs. The Firemen's Association of the State of New York offers help with community college tuition in exchange for one or several years of volunteer firefighter duty.
Another road to eliminating college debt can be treacherous: Some companies that advertise student loan debt consolidation programs claim to knock down debt while actually charging sky-high fees. A 2013 report published by the National Consumer Law Center warns of "student loan debt relief companies mischaracterizing government programs as their own" and "charging high fees for programs that are available for free."
There is, of course, the option of simply slogging through years of monthly payments. But Hampshire and the folks at SXSW who are honoring him next month believe that giving back to the community is a great way to get meaningful debt help.