When a non-profit organization needs help stuffing envelopes, handing out flyers, staffing a bake sale or passing out water bottles at a 5K run, it usually isn’t difficult to find able volunteers. But when it comes to more complicated issues involving business plans, marketing, and finances, qualified assistance is harder to find.
It is just this challenge that VolunteerConnect, the 15-year-old Princeton organization originally known as Hands on Helpers, is tackling with its emphasis on skill-based volunteerism. By pairing non-profits with professionals, the organization is following a national trend, according to its executive director Amy Klein.
“This is a unique and valuable service,” Ms. Klein says. “Essentially, you have professionals defining their experience, education, and skills to make an impact. Before, we matched what we call day-of-service volunteers to help with things like stuffing envelopes — sort of your traditional view of volunteerism. And that’s very important. But this is helping non-profits at the strategic level. We want them to be able to focus on their missions and move forward.”
By taking volunteers with such specific skills as accounting, finance, communications, marketing, technological development, and strategic planning and matching them with non-profits, VolunteerConnect is aiding organizations where they need it most, Ms. Klein says. “We did some restructuring a few years ago, and our board members are doing a fantastic job, not only seeing what was happening nationally but also talking to local non-profits,” she adds. “A huge piece of what they found was that these organizations needed someone to help with these things they couldn’t afford, like developing a strategic plan. So we’re providing them this service at no cost.”
Marketing professional Andrea Topper was between jobs when she approached Ms. Klein about offering her services to an organization in need. Ms. Klein knew that The Boys and Girls Club of Trenton and Mercer County needed someone to research a business model for a new program, and she put Ms. Topper in touch with the club last summer.
“She has a really strong business background. She had been commuting to New York, and she wanted to connect to the community,” Ms. Klein says. “Being a commuter, she hadn’t had that opportunity before. I hooked her up with the Boys and Girls Club, and the end result is that the club now has a fabulous computer exchange program they are about to launch.”
For Ms. Topper, involvement with the club has been a positive experience. “My background is business and marketing, from the perspective of managing a business and developing a business plan,” she says. “The Boys and Girls Club wanted to start a computer exchange. They already have a bike exchange and a barber shop, and this would be following along the model of doing these entrepreneurial endeavors that train kids and also raise money for the organization. The next opportunity they thought would make sense was a computer exchange, and they wanted someone to help them map out what they needed to do to get started.”
Ms. Topper provided the right kind of structure for the project, which gave them the impetus to get it going. “Really, what I did was figure out what questions they needed to ask, and how to identify some best practices from anyplace else this is happening around the country. The major thing I did for them was to bring them together with Mercer County Community College, which turned out to be their best partner. I made some calls and did some of the legwork for them, and it has helped them.”
The computer exchange will offer recycled computers, which have been refurbished by trained members of the Boys and Girls Club, for $35 to $75. The service will open April 2 and a ribbon-cutting will be held April 18.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this as fast as we have without Andrea’s help,” says David Anderson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club. “One of the challenges with non-profits is that you have more work than you have hands to do it, especially when you’re trying to do something new. Andrea was able to come on board and help with this new social entrepreneurship project. She was just invaluable to us.”
For Ms. Topper, the experience allowed her to use her skills in a positive way. “It allowed me to become involved in the community, and it was a transition for me out of the corporate world,” she said She is currently doing some work for the Anti-Defamation League as project director for “Making Diversity Count,” an online diversity education course.
The professionals VolunteerConnect matches with non-profits work a limit of 25 hours on a project. “If they want to stay longer, that’s fabulous. But we know their time is valuable,” Ms. Klein says.
The program “… is almost a no-brainer,” she continues. “But it just hasn’t been something that’s been collectively put together. I’m really thrilled to be able to provide that to non-profits here, and the response we’re getting is phenomenal. I think it’s because we’re providing a unique service. I’m doing the work for them of finding the professionals, and giving them someone of value. That money they would have used to hire someone can be used instead for client services, and could be thousands of dollars.”
VolunteerConnect will host an informational evening about its opportunities on May 1, at a time and location to be announced.