Shopping Angels: Connecting Shopping Volunteers Amid COVID-19 With Tonkean

A National Non-Profit Volunteer Group


As the Covid-19 pandemic broke out worldwide, Jayde Powell, an undergraduate pre-med student from Nevada, sought a way to help those in need. She knew that something as simple as going to the grocery store was becoming a source of fear and anxiety for many, especially at-risk individuals. That’s why she started Shopping Angels, a service that enlists volunteers to personally deliver groceries and other essentials to those who prefer to stay home. The program was founded in March 2020 and quickly took off: they now facilitate deliveries from almost 8,000 volunteers, in all 50 U.S. States, plus Australia and Canada

The Challenge

With coronavirus spreading rapidly, the demand for Shopping Angels increased exponentially, and hundreds of requests poured in every day around the country. As Shopping Angels’ Indiana state coordinator Ben Wallace explains, the amount of manual work required with each individual shopping trip was substantial. 

“Let’s say an 80-year old in Indiana fills out our form — they have pre-existing conditions and need our services. How do we find volunteers in their area? How do we go through our master spreadsheet of all volunteers in the state and find the ones who live closest to this person?” said Wallace. “We’d send three or four volunteers an email, asking if they are interested in connecting with a new person in need. Sometimes volunteer No. 1 doesn’t respond. Or No. 2 responds and says they can’t help. Working through that process was very manually intensive for us as coordinators.”

Shopping Angels’ Chief Operating Officer Doug Collins started using Zapier for task tracking across the different states, but ran up against Zapier’s limitations quickly.  

“We used Zapier to put in work tasks, but the workflow was non-intuitive and tasks were difficult to read, because there were 50 different people — one coordinator per state — all on one page,” said Collins. “On top of that, what we were doing required two Zapier tasks per state: one for the people making the requests, and one for the shoppers volunteering their time. And there was a limit on how many tasks we could create, so we could only automate a few states.”


The Solution

At the urging of Wallace, Shopping Angels began using Tonkean’s Adaptive Business Operations platform in Indiana to automate the process of taking in requests and routing them to the appropriate volunteer. They used native integrations in Tonkean with Trello, Slack and Gmail to help state coordinators see when new requests came in and determine which ones needed to be prioritized or responded to. And once they saw value in Indiana, they began to roll Tonkean out to additional states and networks of coordinators. 

“It’s pretty intuitive to see the workflow: a new row comes in from a Google form, we know the type of data it has, and now we can create this flow using Tonkean and know how to export it,” said Wallace. “We have our 8,000+ volunteers interacting with this platform and we want them to be able to simply point and click around it, so the fact that Tonkean integrates with these various technologies like Slack, Trello and Gmail and surfaces tasks or messages proactively means we don’t have to retrain all these volunteers on how to use a new platform. That saves us a bunch of time.”


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How Tonkean automatically tracks tasks and alerts volunteers.

To take their operations to the next level, the Shopping Angels team partnered with the Tonkean solutions team to leverage Google API data from Google Maps, which allowed them to more closely match the locations of volunteers with people in need of deliveries. They started by using a zip code matching solution to quickly find the closest zip codes to each address, but are now advancing to include latitude and longitude coordinates to find the closest matches. Tonkean is also being used to help automate additional required actions by volunteers after the match is made.

“The way we had done this process of matching volunteers before Tonkean was very manual,” said Wallace. “And what if we missed something? What if there’s a volunteer right on the same street block in Indianapolis as a requested client? That was a huge wasted opportunity of resources and time to use someone else. As the Indiana state coordinator, that was the most tedious part of my work, and using Tonkean to automate that is a major improvement.”

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Automatically matching volunteers and clients by location using Tonkean.

The Result

Adopting Tonkean helped Shopping Angels address the biggest operational issue in the organization. Instead of asking state coordinators to spend their time manually assessing which volunteers were in the closest proximity to each other and contacting them one-by-one, they automated that process, giving state coordinators more time to fix issues and interact directly with shoppers in need. 

“Tonkean provides the most value to us because none of us at Shopping Angels are professional technologists,” said Collins. “Certainly a few of us understand this workflow, but what if one of our less technical coordinators in another state wants to do things differently? What if they prefer a different template or process for communicating with volunteers in that region? Instead of needing to know some sort of Python code, or learn a new platform, they can use the tools they know already like Slack and Gmail to communicate, and we can just click and drag throughout the Tonkean platform to make that happen. And we can change things in seconds rather than hours. Doing all that work in Tonkean is saving a ton of time for the organization.”

In the near future, the Shopping Angels team plans to bring Tonkean to every state in the country and some international locations, integrating further with more Trello boards and Google’s API. That will allow them to, for example, send out more emails personalized by every state. Improving this process matters because even after a vaccine is introduced and coronavirus dissipates, there will still be demand for the services that Shopping Angels has built.

“There are always going to be people that are mobility-challenged. And that population is only increasing as our overall average age increases as a country,” said Collins. “I see Tonkean being able to continue helping us make those connections, matching people up and keeping this process running smoothly as we scale it up.”

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