Petschonek: ‘You Have to Be a Jack-of-All-Trades’

By Leanne Kleinmann

Can you get a business idea from a 30-day break from work, followed by a road trip? For Sarah Petschonek, founder and executive director of Volunteer Odyssey, the answer is yes.

Sarah Petschonek says ultimately, entrepreneurs have to figure things out themselves to be successful.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

A passionate volunteer with a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology, Petschonek had become an expert on workplace culture and helping organizations find the right person for the right job. She even had a job lined up for after she graduated. 

“I made awesome money … and I hated it,” she said. “I started thinking ... I need to be making more of a difference.” 

So she quit.

What to do next? Petschonek, 34, decided she was going to take a break from working, and volunteer in Memphis for 30 days, in 30 different nonprofits. It turned out to be much more difficult than she imagined. 

“I reached out to more than 100 nonprofits just to fill 30 slots. And I thought this is crazy, there’s got to be a better way to help people find great volunteer opportunities.”

She loved her experiences, though. 

“I just felt so connected to the community and like I was on the right track, and I wanted to be able to bundle that up and give it to other people,” she said.

She began wondering whether it was as difficult to find great volunteer opportunities in other cities as it was in Memphis, and a road trip was born. Her journey through volunteer organizations from Portland, Oregon, to Jacksonville, Florida, cemented her determination to do something new.

“When I got back, I just started doing (what is now) our Job Seekers program,” where people who are unemployed and looking for their next opportunity volunteer at an agency matched closely to their skills and interests by Volunteer Odyssey. 

The organization also offers volunteer matching for individuals, as well as various kinds of consulting services, from helping nonprofits learn to use volunteers better to setting up opportunities for corporate teams. Their breakthrough innovation is Volio, a first-of-its-kind virtual volunteer fair online 24/7 that gives volunteers a good look, through quick, engaging videos, at various volunteer opportunities around Memphis. 

When you set up Volunteer Odyssey, was there a moment when you thought, OK, this is going to work? 

Not really. At the beginning, it was like, oh man, we did it, but is this going to work? But we officially incorporated in spring of 2013 and became a nonprofit later that year. 

Some days you have these amazing days and you think, OK, this is going to work. Then some days you think … you’re your own worst critic, right?

What was your first amazing day?

We had somebody who went thought our Job Seekers program, and she found a place that she absolutely loved to volunteer, at Ave Maria. She completely threw herself into it and was loving it. And they hired her! It was the best of both worlds: She found that place where she mattered, and she managed to get a job at that place. That was the best big day.

How much do you worry about money?

All the time.

Are you making a living?

Sort of. It’s trending upward. That’s always a worry. Entrepreneurs talk about your zero cash day, or if we bring in no more money, what day will we run out of money. But that’s your job when you’re running something, to worry about where the money’s coming from and do you have enough of it to do what you’re supposed to be doing. 

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?

Everything. Everything from graphic design to how to start a business to how you fundraise to how to hire and manage people. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades. That’s something I hadn’t known before. And there’s nobody to teach you. … You can ask for help here and there, but ultimately it’s up to you to figure out whatever it is that you need to figure out.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would have told myself to trust my instincts. Take in all the advice, look at all the data, ask all the experts, and at the end of the day, nobody knows your business better than you do.

Are you planning to do this long as you can? Is this your job now?

Oh yeah, this is my job now. Yes, my job and purpose; they’re intertwined at this point. For me there’s an urgency to it. There are kids who go home hungry on the weekends. We have veterans who are sleeping outside in the middle of winter. How can we not feel an urgency in getting people to care about and fix those things?

Leanne Kleinmann, a longtime journalist and founder of Leanne Kleinmann Communications, is a first-time entrepreneur herself. Send your questions and suggestions to