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Woman makes volunteerism life’s work

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[Editor’s note: The Philanthropy Journal is a program of the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University.]

Amber Smith

Amber Smith

Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. – As a teenager growing up in Raleigh, Amber Smith longed to “make a difference” in her town, but she didn’t know how.

That desire, and frustration, continued into her high-school years and eventually inspired her to make volunteerism and nonprofit leadership the focus of her education and future career.

And through a course she has designed for one of Wake County’s oldest high schools, she aims to equip today’s teens with the knowledge and skills she lacked at their age.

That’s just one of the ways Smith aims to make volunteerism “part of our institution and culture” through ME3, the nonprofit she co-founded in 2005 at age 22.

“I really want volunteering to be a commonplace thing that is embedded in our community and culture,” says Smith, who now is 27 and a first-year graduate student in N.C. State University’s public administration program, with a nonprofit focus. “Our long-term vision is to create a culture of caring and community involvement.”

Smith launched ME3, a nonprofit that connects volunteers with service opportunities, after conducting a two-and-a-half-month, cross-country “journey of self-discovery,” during which she and co-founder Heather Leah interviewed nonprofits, volunteered and performed “random acts of kindness” to better inform their own efforts.

“We came back feeling really inspired and ready to start the organization we’d been talking about,” says Smith, who in addition to her studies and position as president of ME3‘s board, is the coordinator for the nonprofit studies minor within the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State.

Today, ME3‘s Communities in Action Program provides one-on-one assistance to connect Wake County residents to volunteer opportunities at 55 different local nonprofits, including the Neuse River Foundation, the Interfaith Food Shuttle, the Carying Place and the Boys and Girls Club.

The coordinator of Communities in Action, a part-time contractor and ME3‘s first paid worker, talks with each would-be volunteer that signs up through the organization’s website to determine their interests, skills and availability.

Armed with that information, the coordinator matches individuals with nonprofits that need assistance.

“Much like a dating service, we talk with volunteers about their interests and schedule and let them know the options,” says Smith. “Then we connect them with the organization and help them get all the prerequisites done.”

Once volunteers have completed their first shift, ME3 follows up to gauge the success of the engagement, and if the match wasn’t a good fit, the organization works to facilitate a better partnership, providing feedback to the original nonprofit where appropriate.

Currently, ME3 is working with about 350 volunteers and is funded through donations from individuals and grants from funders like the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and corporate sponsors like Clear Channel Radio.

Smith also is in talks with local companies about developing a “speed matching” program for employees that would result in more community volunteers and corporate support for ME3.

The organization’s budget for this year is about $10,000, but Smith aims to double that next year.

Part of that increase will fund ME3‘s Volunteer Curriculum, a course of study Smith has created to be used in high schools.

“In 2007, it hit me that we should have a class that teaches this in school,” she says. “In high school I would have loved learning that.”

She drafted the course based on Wake County’s social-sciences curriculum, has been in talks with Broughton High School in Raleigh for almost two years, and has met with teachers and nonprofit leaders to get feedback on the idea.

Through the course, students would learn about the history of volunteerism and civic engagement in the U.S. and explore issues like homelessness and global warming, as well as current strategies for tackling society’s biggest challenges.

“We want this class to be engaging,” says Smith. “Students would debate the problem and look at various strategies. We want them to think about these problems and start to become problem-solving leaders.”

Class members then would work together to develop their own service project, covering along the way critical elements like budgeting, planning and coordination.

“They’re getting the chance to be mini nonprofit leaders,” says Smith.

The course has made it into Broughton’s course listing, and two of the school’s teachers are interesting in leading classes.

Assuming ME3 can get at least 25 students to sign up, the inaugural course likely would be offered this fall.

ME3 would purchase the class’ textbooks, which aren’t on the school’s reading list, and Smith is considering offering a $500 scholarship to a student who has shown exemplary leadership skills through the class.

And if the course is a success, Smith hopes to offer the curriculum to other high schools across North Carolina and even beyond.

She believes that kind of active outreach is what it will take to make volunteerism “as commonplace as shopping at the mall or eating in a restaurant.”

“What it’s going to take is tapping into that population that’s not volunteering,” she says. “That’s going to take some personal guidance.”

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