It’s not easy for busy professionals to connect with meaningful, short-term volunteer opportunities, especially those that would make good use of their on-the-job skills. So says Rachael Chong – and she would know.
Chong, a one-time investment banker, searched every day for a nonprofit cause that needed her business smarts, but she came up short. “I just thought it was so insane for somebody who was so passionate ”to have so much trouble finding a pro bono opportunity," she said.
So Chong launched New York City-based Catchafire, a business that links nonprofits with skilled volunteers who are ready to perform discrete, pro bono tasks. The goal is two-fold: to help nonprofits build capacity within their organization by using volunteers and to provide professionals with high-quality, skills-based volunteer experiences. “We’re always thinking about why people volunteer,” Chong said, “and how we can make that a really meaningful experience for people.”
From a young age, Chong’s focus has been on the social good. As a child, she moved to China just after the Tiananmen Square protests and became deeply affected by the poverty she witnessed. From then on, her cause was poverty alleviation.
After graduating from Barnard College, Chong went into investment banking. Skeptical about whether she could make as big an impact in the nonprofit space, Chong saw banking as a way to build her business skills so she could apply them to the social sector. “I was still trying to find how I would change the world,” she said.
It was important to Chong that she stayed connected to the social sector during her banking days, but she couldn’t find a volunteer opportunity that could use her job skills and fit her busy schedule. She tried volunteering with groups like Habitat for Humanity, but really wanted to connect with a cause that could use her business knowledge.
She quit banking and after a six-month pro bono stint in microfinance, Chong got a job helping to launch the U.S. branch of BRAC, an international poverty alleviation organization. Her job was to mobilize resources and spread the word about BRAC in an effort to help the organization quickly expand.
Out of necessity, Chong enlisted her friends to volunteer for short-term, discrete projects for BRAC. One pal, a professional online marketing manager, helped with BRAC’s web strategy. Another friend aided in the creation of the organization’s strategic plan. Chong managed 10 friends on volunteer tasks, freeing up her own time for fundraising. In nine months, Chong helped raise $40 million.
With that experience in mind, Chong moved on to graduate school at Duke. She studied public policy and spent her final academic year researching the volunteer space. Chong found that existing websites connecting volunteers to nonprofits struggled to facilitate skills-based matches.
On many of those sites, nonprofits have to write their own volunteer posts. While that usually works well for simple requests, Chong said it became more problematic when nonprofits had more complicated projects requiring volunteers with specific skills. Adding to the problem, prospective volunteers didn’t want to be kept in the dark about how much time a project would take and what the deliverable would be.
So Chong wrote the Catchafire business plan as her Master’s thesis, developing a model for a company that would create tailored matches between skilled volunteers and nonprofits that need their services. Every Catchafire project conforms to three standards:
- It is short-term, with up to 50 hours of volunteer work required over three months.
- It results in a single, discrete deliverable, such as a logo design or a social media campaign.
- It can be completed by an individual.
Using an algorithm that marries nonprofit needs with volunteer skills, Catchafire delivers pro bono opportunities to the e-mail inboxes of professionals -- free of charge. Nonprofits, however, pay for Catchafire’s services. Initially, Chong said the fee was meant to ensure nonprofits had “skin in the game.” And it offset the cost for Catchafire to make matches, which the company does using its own technology.
But the reason behind charging nonprofits evolved over time, Chong said. The fees have become an important revenue stream for the company, she said, and one that can help her achieve the goal of creating a scalable pro bono service solution. The quickest way for Catchafire to scale up, she said, is to be profitable and put those earnings back into funding the company’s growth.