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The perfect match

Created date

March 30th, 2009

Website helps volunteers find their cause

By Michael G. Williams

It s hard to think of a key moment in history where volunteers didn t play an important role. They were the first to face the might of the British Army at the start of the American Revolution, and they were among those pulling victims from Hurricane Katrina s wake four years ago.

Whether in 1775 or 2005, these people off ered their services because they believed in a cause and the power of uniting with those of a similar mind to do good.

Even so, much has changed over the two centuries separating them, especially our sense of community, which has expanded to near global proportions thanks to rapid transportation and split-second communication.

Today s world is a bigger one, and coupling the cause with the person is no less important and all the more overwhelming for volunteers and the nonprofit groups that depend on them. But a San Francisco-based organization is changing this.

Connecting good people, causes

VolunteerMatch hung out its shingle in 1998 with the mission of creating a network that would, in the words of its catch phrase, make it easier for good people and good causes to connect.

The group made good on its word that same year when it launched, a free online service through which nonprofi ts can post notices for helping hands, and those willing to lend them can search for the one that best fits.

Just over a decade later, the site is the number one search result for the word volunteer on Google and Yahoo! In 2008 alone, received ten million unique visitors logging on to search the site s database of some 63,000 participating nonprofits posting openings for volunteers.

As the page loads, visitors will notice two windows where they can enter their location and a keyword related to the opportunities in which they re interested.

After clicking on the listing they want, they register as a VolunteerMatch user and the page automatically sends an e-mail notifying the nonprofit of their interest.

Infinite volunteer opportunities

Since the site s launch, this process has amassed 1.8 million registered members and made 3.7 million volunteer referrals. While impressive, these numbers should come as no surprise considering the sheer breadth of opportunities available around the country.

For example, a search of New York State with the keyword history returned dozens of openings that included a history educator at the Dutchess County Historical Society, a docent at the Battle of Plattsburgh Museum, even a trolley conductor in Kingston, N.Y.

Another search of Chicago with the keyword reading turned up opportunities ranging from reading to the blind and teaching children how to read to recording books to tape for the visually impaired and dyslexic.

Before any organization appears on the site, it must submit to a background check. We have someone who screens the application and checks the organization s information to determine authenticity, says Robert Rosenthal, director of communications for Volunteer-Match.

There are websites that don t go through that process, but we think that it s an important additional service to provide because it helps volunteers rest assured that the experience they have will be in their best interests as well as those of the community.

A serious commitment

And many volunteers, particularly those 55 and older, take this experience very seriously. According to the 2007 VolunteerMatch user research study, Great Expectations: Boomers and the Future of Volunteering, 75% of those 55 and up said that they viewed volunteering as either very important or one of the most important things in their life.

Additionally, over half of the users in this age group believed that they would be volunteering even more in the coming years something that Rosenthal notes is especially important given the recent economic downturn.

Based on what our surveys have shown us, people want to volunteer no matter what the economy is doing, he says. They understand that there are a lot of benefits to volunteering. For instance, many get involved to sharpen their skills or acquire new ones, both of which are handy at a time when people are concerned about their job status and their competitiveness in the marketplace.

Still, Rosenthal says that, by far, most people volunteer because they simply want to make a diff erence in their communities. I think volunteering always returns to that basic desire to give back and do something good for others, regardless of what s happening in the world.

This basic desire to which he refers is what satisfies the constant demand for helping hands, and, so long as there is a limited supply of money and a seemingly infinite amount of need, the old slogan a few good volunteers will continue to ring.