The App That Gives Back: Totem

Powered by altruism, Totem is an app that allows users to form teams, raise money for local charities, and win prizes every week.


At the start of our interview, Kyle Matthews, a 2nd year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, and PJ Harris, a UVa law student bound for Double Hoo status, were in a jovial mood. “By the way, the camera adds 20 pounds,” Matthews said. “Of muscle.” Harris laughed as Matthews rifted: “Totem’s actually our side job–weightlifting’s our main job.”

Harris and Matthews were standing on the historic cobblestone roads that circle the south end of the Lawn. With the Rotunda and the Corner just a couple of steps away, the scene couldn’t have felt more like home for two true UVa students. After all, their self-designated “headquarters” – Mellow Mushroom – stood further down the Corner at the end of University Avenue. Over delicious pizza, funky wall art, and good company, the duo came to embrace Mellow Mushroom as their go-to place for intense brainstorming sessions. With the app’s current success, however, Harris and Matthews will surely find their way back to Mellow’s tables late into the night.

Harris, Matthews, and Danny O’Donnell (not featured) are the co-founders of Totem, an app based here in Charlottesville that provides a social platform for you and your friends to form teams, raise money for local charities, and win prizes. What makes the app unique is that it gives back and keeps giving back: teams who raise the most money each week for a chosen cause also win rewards sponsored by restaurants, companies, and other organizations in Charlottesville. One of Totem’s most recent sponsorships includes the Virginia Men’s Basketball team, who rewarded Phi Society, the team who raised the most money for Habitat for Humanity, with a signed basketball (Tony Bennett-approved).

A collage of the signed ball the Virginia Men's Basketball offered to Phi Society, the team who raised the most money for Habitat for Humanity
A collage of the signed ball the Virginia Men’s Basketball rewarded to Phi Society, the team who raised the most money for Habitat for Humanity

Harris explained that the idea of starting a fundraising app began after witnessing the Internet-breaking spectacle of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. “We were just watching how successful that was and how much people were loving giving all this money to a cause they weren’t necessarily invested in before,” Harris said. “I like to ask people what ALS stands for, and they usually can’t tell me. It just tells you how much people enjoy giving–how much fun philanthropy can be.” (For the record, ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. With over 17 million participants and $115 million dollars raised through the viral Ice Bucket Challenge, the numbers certainly speak for themselves.)

With Totem’s weekly challenges, though, reaching those numbers are always a possibility. Since launching the app in late January, users have already donated over $1800 to local causes. Their record of partnerships are poised to increase over time, having already collaborated with charities like City Schoolyard Garden, the Local Food Hub, and the Service Dogs of Virginia. Their record of rewards will also increase as top donating teams have already won prizes from places like Feast!, the Shebeen Pub & Braii, and Ragged Mountain Running Shop. With Totem’s acceptance to the i.Lab at UVa’s class of 2016, the app’s social impact will only get bigger from here. The i.Lab, which is an incubator program that supports early-stage businesses at UVa and the Charlottesville community, will provide Totem with a wealth of resources that includes mentorships, grants, and a new workspace.

With the app’s current run of success, Harris hopes to reach Totem’s goal of making donating a weekly, “ever-present” thing in people’s lives. One of the ways the app approaches that goal is through features that focus on community-building rather than self-aggrandizing, an activity so frequently practiced in social media. In choosing animal icons over profile pictures to represent one’s team, Matthews states: “We wanted the animals to be representative of the groups because basically, we have so much social media right now focused on ‘me, me, me.’ When you try to post something on Facebook or Instagram, you might edit it four times before you’re okay with it […] we wanted a feed where you could just post anything that made you feel good and the most important information about it wasn’t about the number of likes, but was about how much money you gave to charity or was inspired to give to these nonprofits.”

Branding themselves as the “feel good feed,” Totem wants to make users feel good by doing good or donating to causes people care about. In keeping with their community-building features, each team can post images of “anything” to Totem’s scroll-based news feed. These images often pertain, however, to that week’s challenge (in the week that supported the Service Dogs of Virginia, Totem’s news feed was inundated with adorable pictures of puppies). Users donate money to local charities by way of directing their money to individual posts as many times as they want. The team who raises the most money with their posts win prizes in return.

A screenshot of Totem's scroll feed as seen on their app store page (
A screenshot of Totem’s scroll feed as seen on their app store page (

The fundraising startup is ultimately an exciting addition to the rapidly growing entrepreneurial scene here in Charlottesville. Totem’s future plans include taking a break after their successful launch and redesigning the app for the national stage. “This semester, it’s all about Charlottesville so it’s only operating in Charlottesville, all the causes are local, all the sponsors are local, all the users are, for the most part, local,” Harris said. “But after the semester’s over, we’re gonna take a hiatus and rebuild the app from the ground up so that it can operate nationally.” In expanding beyond Charlottesville, Harris mentioned an interest in having universities compete with other universities. Totem is also experimenting with different ways to keep teams engaged, like ranking teams on a points-based system rather than a simple money count. Powered by altruism, Totem truly sets themselves apart from other social platform apps in the market.

In this innovation, Harris and Matthews endearingly personify the ambition, youth, and optimism of a startup on the rise to success. The duo couldn’t help but to conclude our interview with one last joke. “After we make our first couple of millions,” Harris said, “we’re gonna turn that [Corner] building into a roof-top bar, and we’re gonna call it the Library.” There was a pause. “Get it?” he said. “You can just tell your parents you’re going to the Library.”

Matthews chimed in. “I just envision the time when my kid can come to UVa and call me up, and be like, ‘Hey Dad, just went to the Library til 2 AM, are you proud of me?'” he said. “And like, I actually know what he’s doing.”

With much laughter and wit, the “feel good” movement is here to stay.

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