The Nonprofiteer first learned of the work of catchafire.org several months ago through our mutual colleagues at Mission Research.  She’s been getting around to writing about Catchafire’s work placing high-skill volunteers at New York nonprofits.  Now that founder Rachael Chong has been interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace, the Nonprofiteer realizes that time waits for no blogger.

Rachael describes her organization as “Match.com for volunteers and nonprofits.”  A nonprofit pays a low fee to have Catchafire figure out its needs (“scope its projects,” in site jargon) and find a volunteer with the right skills to accomplish the task.  (At the moment the group operates only in New York, which mysteriously has one of the lowest volunteering rates in the country, but it hopes to expand to other communities in fairly short order.)  Volunteer in, do project, volunteer out, bada-bing, bada-boom—the whole thing happens in a New York minute.

The Nonprofiteer applauds Catchafire’s mission and part of its approach—the part about helping nonprofits figure out what they can actually do with high-skill volunteers other than asking them to stuff envelopes.  But for every volunteer who wants to root, shoot and leave she knows two who are looking for a long-term volunteer home, and though obviously a Catchafire volunteer isn’t precluded from becoming a permanent volunteer, he or she comes in branded as a person who will, and therefore probably only can, do one thing.

The Nonprofiteer is also concerned about sending a single volunteer to do a project, even if it seems apparent that a single pair of hands is all that’s required.  Many people volunteer to alleviate their loneliness (or, more positively, to connect with others) and a single-person project—even in the midst of an agency with lots of people—is likely to be isolated, and isolating.

The Taproot Foundation, which likewise uses a project-based model of providing assistance to nonprofits, addresses the isolation concern by assembling a team to complete each project.  The good news is, each volunteer gets to know and work with other high-skill volunteers.  The bad news is, teams of volunteers are to nonprofits as hairballs are to cats: tolerable on a temporary basis but unlikely to be integrated permanently into the system.  High-skill volunteers searching for a cause about which to stay passionate and a home in which to express that passion instead find the opportunity to be coughed up.

The Nonprofiteer’s theory is that both groups are treating the symptom [failure to use high-skill volunteers] rather than the cause [staff hostility to the use of volunteers].  It may be that only the symptom can be treated; but in her own practice, the Nonprofiteer works to help organizations identify and overcome the sources of staff resistance, so they can make use of high-skill volunteers on an extensive and long-term basis rather than a restricted and short-term one.  We all know that staff turnover is expensive because every new person has to be trained; the same must be true of volunteer turnover, and therefore solutions requiring constant orientation of new people create problems of their own.

But may the best model win!  And if nonprofits use some high-skill volunteers better as a result of any of these approaches, we’ll all win.

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