Effort aims to link volunteers, social enterprise

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Triangle-based Organic Transit is developing a vehicle that will be a cross between a bicycle and a car, run on pedal power and solar power, get 1,800 miles per gallon, and cost $3,500.

To help make that happen, the for-profit company is working with four pro-bono advisers from the Council for Entrepreneurial Development who help Organic Transit on issues such as its pitch to investors, its financial projections, its manufacturing capabilities, and its potential partners.

Findings those kinds of skills-based volunteers can be tough for social-minded companies and nonprofits alike, says Christopher Gergen, co-founder and executive director of Bull City Forward, a Durham nonprofit that operates like a “chamber of commerce for social entrepreneurs.”

Formed in March 2010, Bull City Forward has about 160 members representing just over 80 “high-growth, high-impact” nonprofits and businesses, and works to “give them the resources and relationships they need to be able to grow to their full potential,” Gergen says.

While their need for support has grown during the economic downturn, he says, social-enterprise groups at the same time have seen a decline in available capital and philanthropic support.

So Bull City Forward is looking for ways to provide its members with non-monetary support, including volunteers.

To help address the gap in the region for a matchmaker for social entrepreneurs and volunteers, Bull City Forward has teamed with United Way of the Greater Triangle and the Center for the Advancement of Social Enterpreneurship at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

The collaborative effort has tried to identify “best practices” among other volunteer-matching programs throughout the U.S., and has met with 10 to 15 Triangle-area corporations, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Southern Energy Management, and iContact, to better understand strategies they have developed for connecting their employees with volunteer opportunities.

Each of the local companies has developed its own in-house way of engaging employees in the community, Gergen says, and they do not coordinate their volunteer strategies with one another.

The collaborative also has met with a group of local organizations that serve nonprofits, including Durham Cares, Executive Service Corps of the Triangle, and N.C. Center for Nonprofits, to identify any volunteer strategies or programs they have developed.

Now, it has identified two local nonprofits – the Volunteer Center of Durham, and Activate Good in Raleigh – that have voiced interest in taking on the role of matching corporate volunteers and social entrepreneurs in Durham and Wake counties, respectively.

Whichever group or groups are selected would be responsible for matching volunteers with organizations through a technology-based tool; making sure the interests and skills of the volunteers are plugged into the needs of the organizations; training organizations and volunteers to work with one another; and evaluating how the matchmaking works and can be improved.

In addition to finding a group to handle the matchmaking operation, the collaborative partners plan to market the new service to a group of corporations that would invest in and pilot the initiative.

“We prefer to leverage assets we have in the community,” Gergen says, “rather than recreating or reinventing anything.”


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