By Jackie Ogburn
It started with a piece of lumber.
Rachael Chong MPP'09 was working in investment banking and looking for ways to give back to the community. She found herself hauling lumber in a schoolyard in the Bronx. It was good work, but it wasn’t work she was good at doing. In fact, she found it surprisingly hard to find volunteer opportunities that used her professional skills.
After a stint in the nonprofit sector, Chong enrolled in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Her master of public policy thesis project was a business plan for Catchafire, which she started after graduation in 2009.
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Rachael Chong MPP'09 was featured in an exhibit at the New York Historical Society, "Chinese-American: Inclusion/Exclusion," as an example of an influential living Chinese-American. Although she grew up in Australia, she now lives in New York. The quote is from her TEDxSMU talk.
Catchafire matches professionals with nonprofits based on their skills and passions. Nonprofits identify the type of projects they need help with, everything from branding, fundraising, and operations to human resources. Catchafire’s structured process starts with shaping the scope of work, then leads both parties through the application and interview stages.
At Catchafire’s website, volunteers submit information on their skills, experience, and causes they are interested in, then apply for projects posted on the site. Organizations pay an annual fee in order to post projects on Catchafire. They are able to post an unlimited amount of projects during this time period, with the option of working on up to three at a time. Chong describes it as “a high quality match plus skin in the game.”
Chong thinks the technology that has made Catchafire possible will transform philanthropy.
“Volunteering as we’ve known it for the last few centuries has for the most part remained the same —people giving labor. But now, volunteering is going through a rebirth…. Service is the new giving,” Chong wrote in Good magazine.
The right match between volunteer and organization increases personal connection, and offers opportunities for professional and personal growth. A successful volunteer experience can be empowering, Chong says.
The Catchafire website includes case studies of successful matches, serving as both marketing and inspiration. Gardens for Health International was expanding rapidly and needed a new website design. They were matched with an MBA student and web designer. The project saved Gardens for Health an estimated $7,000, and the new website increased inquires about the program.
Catchafire in based in New York City, but also partners with foundations and corporate clients in Boston, Chicago, Durham, N.C., and Hawaii. It is a certified benefit corporation (B-Corps), a status that requires solving a social or environmental issue as part of the business model.
Today the company has more than 3,000 registered nonprofits and more than 30,000 professionals signed on. The professionals have volunteered 45,000 hours and produced $11 million in direct savings for nonprofits.
“I have learned, over and over again, that people are really just doing this because they believe it is the right thing to do and they want to give back. That’s so powerful,” said Chong. “There are so many who want to give in a smarter way that utilizes the best of who they are.”