Totem: Making it Easy to do Good

Totem connects community members and business owners in charitable challenges.

Today’s generation of young adults are wired differently than their predecessors. As a whole, they want jobs with meaning. Millennials have a desire to change things, are socially liberal, and are far more inclined towards social justice than their working counterparts. “Giving back” and “being civically engaged” are high priorities for those entering the workforce. And according to the Case Foundation, roughly seventy five percent of millennials share on social media regularly; Facebook and Twitter are their platforms for change.

It is no different here in Charlottesville, where the large population of students only contributes to that giving climate. But for all the actual good that social media and technology can do, it often becomes lost or outshined in the echo chamber of online buzzwords. That’s where Totem comes in: an app that makes giving to your community as fun, easy, and engaging as possible.


It was 2014, the year of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, when P.J. Harris came up with the idea for Totem. The founder and CEO wanted to funnel the productive parts of social media into one place to make it as easy as possible for people to be philanthropists.

“Philanthropy” is an intimidating word. It’s easy to assume that, in the world of charity, you need excessive amounts of money and time to make a difference. And there are a fair amount of roadblocks, both perceived and real, before the average person can to contribute to their community. It’s sometimes difficult to see the benefit of “just one person,” to find and connect with places or people that need help, or to find the extra time or money. With the big guys already taking care of philanthropy, why bother? For many people, good works are something you “should” do, not a part of everyday life.

It isn’t that people in Charlottesville don’t want to help– they do. Lots of people here already work hard to give back. But P.J. Harris wanted it to be truly easy for anyone to follow through charitably and get rewarded for doing so. In 2014, P.J. tapped his roommate, Danny O’Donnell, to get Totem started, and a year later added UVa undergrads Alan Wei and Kyle Matthews to the team. A new version of the app was released this past August, adding even more interactive features. P.J. says their approach is still constantly evolving as they search for the highest levels of engagement.

Totem knows that it’s not just people, but also businesses, which need support and inspiration for charity. Businesses are a great charitable force and often go unnoticed or unsupported by the local community; P.J. wants Totem to serve as a bridge between the two. Totem doesn’t only involve the people of Charlottesville in philanthropy; it incentivizes businesses to participate as well, providing them with an outlet to give light to their good works, and a high level of local engagement.


That’s where Totem Charity Challenges come in. This semester, four Corner businesses sponsored a local cause through Totem. The initial challenge was issued by Roots, which incentivized UVa students to donate over $600 one weekend to the UVa Children’s Hospital by providing free salad bowls as rewards. The next challenge came from Mincer’s, which offered top supporters of the YMCA generous amount of UVa swag.

Raising $600 for charity is a notable achievement, especially since it was achieved only weeks after Totem started working on the Roots sponsorship. This is only the beginning– a fantastic way for Totem to start trying out collective engagement and testing the waters for the Charlottesville community’s impact potential. It marks a change in Totem’s method; the Challenge is more concentrated than just the app alone, and with a big incentive comes a bigger impact.

The app was easy to use: Charlottesville residents and students simply took a few minutes to donate/volunteer/post to reap some “feel good!” rewards. Local businesses that participated got a customer draw and the publicity of their charitable deeds. That bridge, between different parts of a community, is what makes Totem’s philanthropic platform different– and important. By bringing divided groups together, the charitable impact is, of course, bigger than what they would have done on their own. But it also encourages the community itself to be more connected, activating a little more interaction between its levels.

For a community like Charlottesville, with fairly distinct lines between residents, students, and local businesses, the app is a great way to form bonds between those parts of a local system– bonds that, once established, can be accessed again in the future.

That idea of lasting connections inspired the name for Totem. P.J. Harris describes its origins this way: “The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest originally crafted totem poles as monuments to milestones within their communities. The many-faced monoliths are representative of the idea that, by bringing all of the faces of a community together for good, we are much more powerful than any one piece alone.”

At its core, Totem just wants to help people give back. “Giving should be something you can do with your friends,” P.J. says; it should be an “easy, fun way to engage with your community.” Philanthropy matters most when it comes from more than a feeling of guilt, and it shouldn’t have to in the first place: it’s a community matter. Everyone benefits from it. The Charity Challenge is a fantastic way for Totem to put these values into action– and it’s only the beginning of Totem’s efforts to collectivize the power of individuals to make a difference.

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