If someone tries searching on Google for Kostapanos Miliaresis and his initiative ethelon, they will find a combination of results comprising entrepreneurial awards, tributes in the Greek language and really energising videos and photos from volunteering actions. For the last seven years, Ethelon has successfully built a network integrating thousands of people, to develop and apply their skills through more than one million hours of volunteering in 350 NGOs through a career development process that turned them from rookie volunteers into dynamic leaders. We were curious to learn more about how all these points are connected, what is the actual power of volunteering, and how this can be used as a tool for a more active society. How did he manage to shape this idea as a sustainable business model for social innovation and succeed in changing the local ecosystem in Greece by creating collaborations with some of the largest Fortune 500 Companies, shifting the perception and the culture of corporate volunteering, in order to empower the Greek Civil Society?


What is ethelon about?

Ethelon emphasises and promotes the notion of volunteering, through a wide range of activities, events and initiatives. We find, activate and bring together individuals, independent teams, institutions and companies with non-profit organisations, aiming to help them develop synergies, based on volunteering, with a vision to establish volunteering as a way of life and a dominant value within the Greek society.


Why did you start this social innovation?

Back in 2012, when I was 20 years old, I observed the negative impact of the economic crisis in the society around me. There were many initiatives and nonprofits that needed support, while a lot of mainly young people were interested in participating and becoming more active but didn’t know how. This wasted potential was the main reason we started this platform as a Social Innovation tool, in order to bridge that gap and connect the energy of all those individuals to organisations in need.


How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?

I had the idea in my head for a few months, but I needed something more in order to start transforming it to action. Everything I needed, I found in the students’ entrepreneurship competition Athens Startup Weekend University, where, in just 52 hours, we had to move from pitching an idea, to creating a team, building a plan, developing the solution and presenting it to the judges. The idea took 2nd place and received many prizes, but that was not the important thing. The most important gain from those 52 hours was the creation of a team which in the majority, up to today, 8 years later, remains at the core of our initiative. This tough and pressurised process, to find the right ways of communication between us and connect the dots from our different experiences and point of views, led in a very creative way to the birth of the organisation that has evolved into what we know today as ethelon (www.ethelon.org). The most interesting thing is that ethelon is the product of another collaborative process, the merger between two different organisations, Glovo and Volunteer4Greece, which were both founded in 2012 and remained active in parallel for four years, until their merger in 2016, aspiring to become the point of reference for volunteering in Greece.


What were the beginnings of ethelon?

Our first step was to build an online platform for people to be able to register. We realised that we needed to build a really user-friendly process, in order to make it easy for people to join our actions. Then it was all about moving to action as soon as possible. We believed that the faster we could try our initiative out in the real world, the more useful insights we would receive, compared to theoretical feedback and predictions/analysis. Our first collaboration happened just 20 days after our launch. Since then and even today, we haven’t lost the focus of our actions, but without forgetting to always evaluate our process and ensure the improvement of the final outcomes.


How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?

As with most of us, we started with our exciting circle of friends. I think the one aspect that played a really important role in attracting public attention, was that since the beginning we tried to create a community where people would feel they belonged and it was a safe space for them to express and be themselves. Later, the community grew so much and evolved into a movement, which then attracted even more people and led to today’s success. At the same time, our passion and persistence were our tools in making others believe in our purpose and potential to tackle the social issues we were fighting for. The success of each of our actions was opening more doors for us, which then made it easier to proceed and make more people trust us.

Also, it is important to mention that none of us are from rich families, but from middle-class ones. We went to public schools and public universities and we did not have anyone to open all the doors for us. This is something that makes us proud, but also shows that anyone can achieve!


How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?

 Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight.

And even if at one point you think the model is working, you should not forget that the world and people are continuously changing, so you must be able to adjust.

Our solution was to create an HR Sustainability Model. People who join our initiatives have the opportunity to follow different paths, so the more they participate and as their interests and needs change, they can have different roles. To be more specific, someone joins us as a volunteer and supports our different actions for 5-6 months, then eventually his/her interest starts declining. This is the moment when we give him/her the possibility to be trained in order to evolve into a volunteer coordinator (known as a ‘Captain’). As a captain, he/she has more responsibilities and benefits in order to remain engaged. And then, from Captain they can become a member of our projects teams and then a project manager for one of those projects. Eventually, this leads to a career opportunity; there were periods when 80% of our employees started as volunteers. This model secures the cultural fit and the common passion. It also has one more advantage – by periodically creating a new generation of captains, we have the same time to be much closer to each new generation of volunteers who join us. Even though I am still under 30 and do not feel old, I have to admit that I can’t understand 100% of our new volunteers who were born after 2000 and use Snapchat and TikTok instead of Facebook and Instagram.


How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DIY fundraising?

In the beginning we started small. Since our social innovation was an online solution, the amount needed back then wasn’t prohibitive. In the first months most of us had morning jobs and we were meeting in the evenings.

My four main pieces of advice on this topic would be:

  1. Equally important to how you are going to raise money, is how you are going to manage it and how you will minimise your expenses. Especially in the beginning, it is easier to raise in-kind sponsorships and develop collaborations that will reduce your costs. Every expense saved is a way of fundraising.
  2. In the beginning you will need to work much more than what you are paid for (IF you are paid!). You need to trust your idea and the process and one day it will pay you back. Every few months we achieved a partnership that brought more financial sustainability to the organisation than the previous 10 together.
  3. Do not build your financial sustainability based on donations, funding and prizes, but try to find a way to create value in order to become self-sustainable, and not be dependent on other people’s pockets and goodwill. In the end, you must be able to create a solution that works.
  4. Spend most of the time outside of your office, meeting people and communicating your idea. Don’t stop knocking on new doors, receiving rejections and feedback with a smile, and never stop trying.


How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?

The first way was through collaborations. They say it takes a village to raise a baby and there isn’t a bigger truth about this. Don’t be afraid to partner with other organisations and share the success. Recognise the unique added value that you can bring on the table and keep on developing it. Do not be afraid to try things no one else has done in the past. Be ready to fail again and again and again. Trust your gut but also be open-minded and listen to feedback. Receive all rejections with a smile, and never never give up. The people in your network will be your most valuable resource to scale.
The second main way of scaling our social innovation was by investing in our Social Capital. All this positive outcome that was coming for our team and the work we were doing. From brainstorming and supporting all those innovative ideas we had, the information we were gathering from our research, the continuous effort to identify future opportunities. This love for our vision was creating a sweet equity for us, of being able to know the whole sector and the ecosystem better than anyone else in order to pull the right strings to make things happen!


How do you change the whole system?

The same way you eat an elephant. One bite at a time. Never forget your big goal to change the whole system, but you should solve your everyday challenges to get there. Then there will be moments when you will look back and realise how many things you have achieved. I will never forget the day that one of the biggest foundations in the country informed us that they had added support volunteering as a cause. Or when we implemented one of our biggest events and the founders team had minimal participation and most of it was organised by our engaged volunteer community.

Also, when we started, the main question was how to recruit volunteers. Now, having solved that, it’s how to engage your volunteers. That was a big win, but of course the process was continuous.

Similarly to corporate volunteering, in the beginning we had to offer what companies needed. Then, initiative by initiative we transformed those partnerships to be more long-term impact oriented and changed the way they were thinking. If we were trying to change the whole system, there was no way to achieve this without first winning their trust through their game and their language.


What is the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?

Those two things, the big heart and the willingness to do something, are the basis of everything you are going to build from now on. So do not underestimate them. What you need to do now is to not be afraid to share – it takes a village for your baby idea to grow. So, be open to other people and the faster you move to action the better.

Kostapanos Miliaressis is an enthusiastic multipotentialite who is characterised by his passion for innovative ideas, social impact and entrepreneurship. He is the co-Founder of ethelon, an organisation promoting volunteering in Greek society and creating the right framework for cooperation between volunteers, NGOs and companies, aiming for a more active and equal society. Through his work at ethelon, he has worked with companies such as Mercedes, AbbVie and Nestle. He has received international recognition from the Ashoka Foundation as a Global Changemaker, spoken at TEDx events, been recognised in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, in the category of Social Entrepreneurs, and has been chosen by Adecco Group in the Top Entrepreneurs List of Central, Eastern Europe. He is currently pursuing his MBA degree at Gabelli Business School of Fordham University in New York, answering his calling to move from linear to exponential.

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