What’s one of today’s hottest growth industries? Hint: They don’t pay their “staff.”In 2009, more than 8 billion hours were dedicated to volunteering. The estimated dollar value of this time is nearly $170 billion, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Still, many nonprofit organizations remain in desperate need of volunteers with specific skill sets.Working to fill this void is startup Catchafire. Initially launched in 2009 as a pilot program, today Catchafire is a growing organization that connects nonprofits and social enterprises to professionals who want to volunteer their skills in New York City.“We’re creating the first scalable, pro bono service platform,” said 28-year-old CEO and founder Rachael Chong.Filling the skills-based gapAfter interviewing more than 100 nonprofits about their skills-based needs, Chong noticed that most encountered the same challenge. They were asking for the same thing over and over again, but not in a clear manner that was attracting the right talent.“Nonprofits have a hard time articulating what their skills-based needs are,” Chong said. “If you can’t define the task, no one is going to want to work for you for free.”Chong likes to describe her company as a “Match.com” for nonprofits and volunteers. Nonprofits submit their specific needs — like implementing a social media plan, creating PR kits, or building a Salesforce database — on Catchafire’s project menu. Volunteers, who must have at least three years of work experience, submit information on causes that they're interested in along with their relevant skills and experience.Catchafire works much like a dating website, but rather than suggesting a match based on, say, a preference for brown hair or a shared interest in tennis, it might connect a volunteer who’s interested in public relations and an environmental nonprofit that’s looking to expand its community outreach. Once a match is made, a short-term project is assigned to the volunteer and the nonprofit.“A skills-based volunteer for a specific project is very hard to find,” said Lexy Mayers, the executive director of Room to Grow, a nonprofit that works to enrich the lives of babies born into poverty. “Catchafire has access to a stable of highly skilled volunteers.”
Turning volunteering into a businessSo how does Catchafire stay afloat? Well, it currently charges nonprofits a $200 fee for every match.But this is money well spent for many nonprofit organizations. Nearly 40 percent of nonprofits will have spent between $50,000 and $250,000 on outside contractors and consultants in 2010, according to Deloitte’s 2009 Volunteer IMPACT Survey. Catchafire projects are valued at $5,000 on average.“The prospect of just having to pay $200 was appealing,” said Mayers, who estimated that her nonprofit saved $10,000 on a client database project.The obvious benefit for nonprofits working with Catchafire is access to skills-based professionals at a minimum expense. However, volunteers may get something valuable from the match as well: the opportunity to build their resume, network and gain leadership experience.“It was so exciting to work for a small team on a project that is making a global difference,” said 27-year-old Web editor Tiffany Sun, who volunteered with the micro venture capital fund InVenture on a social media campaign.Tapping into corporate clientsCatchafire isn’t the only company in the volunteer-matching arena, which includes organizations like VolunteerMatch, Idealist and the Taproot Foundation. To diversify its offerings and scale, Catchafire offers companies a “corporate solution” that helps match their employees with volunteer opportunities. In other words, companies can outsource their volunteer initiatives to Catchafire, saving them time and money while still allowing them to give back to the community.“We’re providing our pipeline of skills-based volunteer opportunities to their employees,” said Chong. “Companies need to start providing opportunities for their employees to give back because there’s a new labor force coming in who cares about that.”After raising an initial round of angel investing in 2010, Catchafire has registered more than 800 nonprofits and more than 5,000 volunteers. For Chong, the business of matching nonprofits and skills-based volunteers is essential.“There are some needs so great that something has to exist to serve that need,” said Chong.Antonio Neves is an award-winning journalist, host of Business on Main’s Web series, “Cool Runnings,” and a correspondent for NBC NextMedia. Find out more at www.antonioneves.net.