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Gateways open doors to volunteering

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By Ret Boney

Regardless of skills, interests or time constraints, there’s a way for everyone to support their community by getting involved, experts say.

And while volunteering helps people and organizations needing support, volunteers can reap benefits as well, both personally and professionally.

“The act of connecting with others and giving back is part of being human,” says Brian Gallagher, president and CEO of United Way of America.  “Pragmatically, it also helps them in their business,” by enhancing critical business skills.

More than one million people volunteered more than 8.5 million hours last year with United Way, which has more than 1,300 affiliates in communities throughout the U.S., Gallagher says.

And that volunteer number will likely be higher this year given that the United Way is partnering with the National Football League on its three-year “Lend a Hand” campaign, which encourages volunteering through a series of public service announcements shot with NFL teams.

The spots began airing on network and cable stations in September, using airtime donated by the NFL valued at $25 million, and have contributed to a doubling in volume on United Way’s website in September and October, Gallagher says.

“Not only do people who volunteer give more money, but you need more volunteers to deal effectively with community problems,” says Gallagher about the renewed push for volunteers.  “The annual fund became so dominant that it almost, unconsciously, became our mission.”

Featured links:

United Way of America – for information on local affiliates and opportunities across the country

VolunteerMatch– for wide variety of opportunities across the country

Taproot Foundation – for business executives in San Francisco, New York and Chicago

Executive Service Corps Affiliate Network – for retired executives across the country

People interested in volunteering in their communities can visit their local United Way affiliate, some of which are connected to local Volunteer Centers and all of which can provide referrals, by visiting the national group’s website.

Or potential volunteers can use the United eWay’s Volunteer Solutions online matching tool to find a local organization, vetted by United Way, that needs volunteer support.

VolunteerMatch

VolunteerMatch, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, also provides online matching and has facilitated almost 2.5 million matches between volunteers and nonprofits across the country since its inception in 1998.

Nonprofits can list their needs free of charge, the needs are then validated by VolunteerMatch, and individuals can browse listings in their communities to find opportunities that fit their interests.

About 40,000 nonprofits have listed with VolunteerMatch, and each volunteer opportunity they list receives an average of six matches, two of which result in active relationships, says Jason Willett, director of communications for the group.

“People realize there are problems in the world and they can volunteer and be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he says.  “The Internet is a powerful technology and we want to use it to grow community, to create this lightning rod online to strengthen communities.”

Most of VolunteerMatch’s funding is from foundations, but the company began licensing its technology to companies like Time Warner, Timberland and Microsoft in 2000, using the revenue to decrease its reliance on grants.

The group plans to increase matches by 500,000 by the end of this year and grow the number of nonprofits it lists by 20 to 30 percent, Willett says.

Taproot Foundation

For business executives who want to use their professional skills to help nonprofits, the San Francisco-based Taproot Foundation offers a highly structured and organized option.

Founded in 2001, the nonprofit recruits marketing, information technology and human-resources professionals, and connects them with consulting projects for nonprofits.

“A lot of what we do is setting the project up for success and managing actively,” says James Shepard, national director of programs.  “Their time is not on paperwork or administration, it’s on putting their skills to use.”

Volunteers, who must apply and be accepted, are part of an interdisciplinary team of about five volunteers who each spend about five hours a week on the project for about five months.

The projects are designed and managed by Taproot, which also spends about three to four months developing materials for various types of projects, some of which have been adopted for use by employees at several large corporations, Shepard says.

“We’re teaching people how to do elements of their work,” he says. “There’s a huge learning opportunity and that’s one of the things that volunteers find attractive about us.”

Taproot, which has offices in San Francisco and New York and will open a Chicago branch early next year, just received its 3,000th volunteer application and awarded 267 projects since its inception, worth more than $11 million in donated time.

Executive Service Corps

For retired executives, the Executive Service Corps Affiliate Network provides an opportunity for people to use their professional skills after they’ve left the office environment.

With 34 affiliates throughout the U.S., five of them added over the last three years, the network has about 6,000 volunteers who complete a total of about 1,200 projects each year, with each project lasting about two to four months each, says Tom Young, the Raleigh, N.C.-based director of the network.

Volunteers, who typically work in two-person teams, mostly on organizational projects like board development or strategic planning, come out of the upper echelons of the corporate, government and nonprofit worlds and receive extensive training.

“The worst thing we could do is go into a project and come up with a great system that works well for IBM, but there’s no one on the staff who understands the thing,” Young says.

Young, a retired human resources executive with the former GTE, has been involved with the Executive Service Corps since 1989.

“This has been the most meaningful portion of my life, there’s no better feeling,” he says.  “The psychic income you get is greater than any financial income.”

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