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Social capital building in Winston-Salem

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A new website has been launched to match volunteers and nonprofits in Forsyth County, and represents the latest milestone in a continuing effort to build civic connectedness in the community.

The website, launched in mid-February at www.volunteer-connections.org, already lists nearly 300 opportunities for volunteering at over 100 local organizations.

And Volunteer Connections of Greater Winston-Salem, the new organization that launched the site, already is in merger talks with Nonprofit Connections, a one-year-old nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the internal operations, or “capacity,” of nonprofits.

“It’s part of building a healthier community,” says Scott Wierman, president of the Winston-Salem Foundation, which has invested in Volunteer Connections and in Nonprofit Connections.

The website is an outgrowth of a national study in 2000 that measured social capital in communities throughout the U.S., including Forsyth County.

The local study, sponsored by the Winston-Salem Foundation, found the rates of volunteerism in Forsyth County trailed national averages, with four in 10 local respondents to the survey saying a major hurdle to their volunteering was a lack of information or not knowing where to begin.

A member of the Volunteer Center National Network, a partnership with the Points of Light Foundation, Volunteer Connections of Greater Winston-Salem aims to serve all nonprofits in the community, says Tari Hanneman, a consultant with Metis Consulting who is acting as interim staff for the new initiative.

Powered by 1-800-volunteer.org, a volunteer-matching website of the Points of Light Foundation, Volunteer Connection’s website lets volunteers search for and find volunteer opportunities.

Seventy people already have used the website to register as volunteers, and 20 of them already have landed volunteer positions using the site, says Hanneman, a former program officer for the California Endowment.

The site does not require visitors to register to search for volunteer opportunities, but it makes it easier for those who do register to send an email message to organizations for which they are interested in volunteering.

Wierman, who serves on the committee discussing the merger of Volunteer Connections and Nonprofit Connections, says the combination would create a single entity that would strengthen social capital by providing opportunities for civic engagement while also promoting healthy nonprofits that can deliver needed community services.

And helping to plug volunteers into nonprofits helps not only the organizations but also the community, he says, because volunteers become more “civically engaged” by interacting with people they otherwise might not get to know.

Hanneman says Volunteer Connections and Nonprofit Connections serve similar constituencies, and their combination could streamline administrative costs and “serve as a role model for other organizations in terms of collaboration and working together.”

Wierman says the website is a first step for the volunteer center, which also plans to provide nonprofits with skills for managing volunteers.

And Volunteer Connection, which also has received support from Hanes Brands and United Way of Forsyth County, will have the option of becoming a partner at a new “social capital center” the Winston-Salem Foundation plans to develop downtown to serve as a community hub, housing the foundation, nonprofits and space for community meetings.

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