Archive | March, 2010

Catchafire Is Looking For Uber-Creative Social Media/Communications/PR/Events Expert

26 Mar
Catchafire’s launching its Beta website summer 2010.

We’re looking for an uber-creative social media/communications/PR/events expert to create the strategy and manage communications and outreach prior to and just after launch.

This includes managing a team of industry experts and pro bono volunteers. This 3-4 month paid consulting project starts ASAP.

If interested, please email rachael at or ping Catchafire via Twitter by March 31, 2010.


Catcha What? Catcha Who? Catchafire!

11 Mar

When introducing Catchafire, there’s always the inevitable question: “So, what’s with the name?”  Quite a bit, actually! As we revolutionize the way people volunteer, we need our passion to “catch a fire” as volunteers and nonprofits spread the power of skills-based volunteering.

Sounds pretty serious, right? Well, we’ve got a bit of a secret…we got the inspiration for our name from Catch a Fire, one of the greatest Bob Marley albums of all time! Here’s how the album’s songs align with some of Catchafire’s core volunteer values.

Concrete Jungle – It’s a tough world out there as a busy professional. We blaze a trail through the thick of the concrete jungle so you can easily get where you want to go.

Slave Driver – Just because you volunteer doesn’t mean your time is free. We make sure nonprofits know that.

400 Years – We understand that your time is precious. Sign up for short-term projects when you have the time, but don’t sign away your life!

Stop That Train – Things aren’t working out? No worries. We’ll find you a new match!

Baby We’ve Got a Date (Rock It Baby) – Set the time. Set the scope. Get it done, baby!

Stir It Up – Shake things up a bit by networking with professionals within and beyond your industry.

Kinky Reggae – We take the guesswork and kinks out of volunteering.

No More Trouble – Volunteering made easy. Sign up, we make the match, you change world.

Midnight Ravers – Work hard. Play hard. Volunteer hard.

“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve…”

4 Mar

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve” — but today, I wonder if “everyone” can even find an opportunity to serve.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In 1994, MLK Day was no longer just a Federal Holiday, but it also received the designation from Congress as the “National Day of Service.” Since then, I reckon that most of us had forgotten the significance of this day as “a day on, not a day off” until last year when President Barack Obama and the First Lady breathed new life into this very special day. In a proclamation of this year’s MLK Day, President Obama acknowledged that Dr. King’s work “remains unfinished” and appealed to all Americans to serve on this day:

Today, let us ask ourselves what Dr. King believed to be life’s most urgent and persistent question: “What are you doing for others?”

When my friend Dan asked me this question yesterday, I went straight to the Web to search for opportunities that would allow me to act on my desire to serve on the National Day of Service. My first search result offered up ONE, single opportunity.

I was shocked. I live in New York City, and there was only ONE volunteer opportunity available for nearly 9 million New Yorkers. How could this be? I searched a bit harder and only found a few more opportunities, most of which are ongoing projects that happened to overlap with MLK Day.

The Corporation for National and Community Service claims that there are more than 10,000 service projects planned across the United States for MLK Day this year. It’s not that I don’t believe them; I just wonder how I missed the memo on where to find these projects?

Maybe I would have had more than a handful of choices on MLK Day had I planned my volunteering in advance, but considering how much need there is out there, I think that it should be easy to find opportunities to serve, especially on this day that we’ve honored as our National Day of Service.

In any case, I did find a project I’m excited about today. I’m spending my morning in Bedford-Stuyvesant at Sue Rock Originals Design Studio sewing wrap skirts for women and children in Haiti. I found this opportunity on the Web site. Check it out.

Until it’s easier to find opportunities to serve (and trust me, people are working on solving this issue), let’s be creative. Here’s an article with some good ideas. I’d also love to hear about where you found your opportunity to serve on MLK Day and what you decided to do.

Cause-Related Marketing: Just Plain Ol’ Marketing?

4 Mar

Cause-related marketing is arguably one of the first “fields” that brought the nonprofit and for-profit worlds together for mutual benefit. Appearing at about the same time as microfinance, the first cause-marketing campaign occurred in 1976 through a partnership between Marriott Corporation and the March of the Dimes, a nonprofit that works to prevent birth defects in babies. March of the Dimes’ goal was to increase fundraising for its chapters in the Western U.S., and Marriott’s goal was to generate cost-effective PR and media coverage for the opening of their family entertainment complex, Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara, Calif. The campaign was a hit. Since then, cause-marketing expenditures by companies have exploded from almost zero in 1983 (when IEG first started tracking cause-related activities in the U.S.) to an estimated $1.57 billion in 2009.

As a member of the Millennial Generation, cause-related marketing seems like plain ol’ marketing to me. It’s commonplace. I’d guess that most of us have worn pink ribbons in October to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a campaign started by the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure in 1991; or we’ve sported the iconic yellow silicone wristband for the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LiveStrong campaign launched in 2004; and we’ve probably bought something from Product Red, a campaign launched in 2006, and most notably promoted by lead singer of U2, Bono, to help fight AIDS. But do most of us know what our easy support of these causes has contributed to? And maybe this is the more important question — do we truly care about where our money’s going when we buy into a cause-related marketing campaign or is it just really good marketing?

Well, in terms of hard cash, these campaigns seem to generate a heck of a lot money for their causes. Product Red and its corporate partners such as Dell, Apple and Gap, to name a few, have contributed more than $140 million directly to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (100 percent of the funds go to programs). The pink ribbons for the Susan G. Komen Foundation raise about $30 million a year through 130 corporate partnerships, and Ford Motor Company executives estimate that they’ve funneled more than $100 million to the cause over the past 15 years. And what about those yellow plastic bracelets that only Lance could have made cool for boys to wear? The LiveStrong campaign has raised over $70 million for cancer research from those things. Seventy million sold at $1.00 a piece. (Hmm, I wonder how much space that takes up in a landfill.)

So if we put the $1.6 billion that companies spend each year on cause-marketing and the lesser known $7.6 billion per year that large American nonprofits spend on marketing and public relations, we have a fast-growing $9 billion plus sector focused on getting the attention of consumers through cause-related marketing. I’d say this number is something to think about. What type of return on investment does the $9 billion that goes into marketing “for good” generate for its respective causes? And how are we measuring this impact?

Given the load of well-articulated articles against cause-related marketing or “consumption philanthropy”, including one by Angela Eikenberry published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review over the summer, I thought it would be nice to hear from the other side on the issue. My friend Simon Isaacs heads up the cause-marketing division for ignition Inc and works with major corporate (think Coca Cola) and nonprofit brands (think United Nations Foundation) to develop and launch global awareness, fundraising and marketing campaigns around issues such as clean water, malaria, HIV/AIDS and education. In fact, in a few days, Simon’s off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for clean water with Jessica Biel and Lupe Fiasco in his stead. I thought I’d catch up with him and give him a hard time before he goes on another one of his amazing cause-marketing adventures.

Q: Simon, as someone behind some of the world’s most famous cause-marketing campaigns, and, more importantly, as the deeply conscious global citizen that you are, tell me more about how you are changing the world for the better through marketing.

A: Wow, that’s nice of you. For the most part, my team at ignition helps large consumer brands to develop and launch cause-marketing campaigns. I am passionate about this work because I believe that consumer brands can serve as catalysts and critical platforms for broad public engagement and support for a cause or organization. But I don’t want to overstate the role of cause-marketing. We will not solve the AIDS crisis through the purchase of a t-shirt or find the cure for cancer in the grocery aisle; but we can use the reach and tools available to us as marketers to spark people to get involved and raise awareness for an issue. Not only is cause-marketing proving effective for causes and nonprofits, it’s also incredibly effective in driving the bottom line for our clients as the consumer brings their social and environmental values to the market place. This work isn’t just about the business of good — but it’s also proving to be very good business. I hope we are changing the world for the better. I know we are trying.

Q: Does cause-marketing always revolve around consumerism? For instance, how do these campaigns help with environmental causes when consumerism is generally bad for the environment? In the past, cause-marketing campaigns have been associated with initiatives by big companies to re-brand their sooty images. Remember BP/Amoco’s $200 million PR and advertising campaign in 2002 where they came up with the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” and tried to make us feel warm and fuzzy with a green, yellow and white sunburst logo? Clearly, BP didn’t change anything about the fact that they remained an oil company through-and-through, deriving the vast majority of their profits from drilling rig to oil tanker to refinery to gas station which clearly has contributed to a global environmental crisis. However, BP did throw money at green groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, which allowed BP to brand itself with NWF toys and logos. In retrospect it seems naïve that a company would think that by associating itself with a nonprofit or a cause that the consumer would be easily conditioned to believe that the company must be good or, at least, not so bad. Thank goodness the consumer was smarter than those campaigns and could see past the marketing! Since then has anything changed in the way a company spends PR and marketing money to associate themselves with causes? How do we know when a company that says they’re supporting a cause is being authentic?

A: We are seeing a major spike in the number of companies and brands integrating environmental or social messages into their corporate communications and advertising campaigns. Too often, these campaigns lack any real credibility. This is what is known as “green-washing” or “cause-washing.” Fortunately, consumers are paying close attention and rewarding those who play by the rules and punishing the “sinners” who don’t. Consumers don’t want to simply be told that a product is “green,” they want proof. Winning in this space demands a deep commitment to “proving it” and being open and honest. Put simply, consumers are demanding transparency and authenticity. Last month, a Chase Bank found itself in a world of trouble related to a Facebook campaign they ran. You can check out the drama here. In addition to consumers, governments are now paying attention and regulating these claims — which is really terrific.

Here are five things consumers need to watch out for:

  1. Fluffy Language: Words like eco-friendly or “good for you”, which fail to provide any specific meaning to a claim
  2. Silly Pictures: Suggestive pictures to promote an unjustifiable green image, like flowers in exhaust pipes
  3. Unproven or Irrelevant Claims: Unproven sustainability claims or playing up one green or cause-related achievement of a company’s operations, while other areas are lacking
  4. Fake friends: Made-up third party endorsements and labels
  5. Just downright not credible: Promoting the social or environmental benefits of “harmful” products like cigarettes

An authentic and effective cause-marketing campaign is a win-win for the brand and the cause/nonprofit partner. To answer your first question, “winning” for the brand does not necessarily always mean direct sales. It can also be about corporate reputation, brand love or employee engagement, but it does need to connect back to the business.

Q: I definitely see that consumers are becoming more discerning of cause-marketing campaigns. To me, it seems like changes in the way companies approach corporate citizenship are driven by the consumer. Are companies banding together at all to create standards or metrics by which we can measure a “successful” cause-marketing campaign? Are there market leaders — companies that are pioneering a new brand of corporate social responsibility that comes from within the DNA of the company as opposed to being externally motivated (like PR)? I immediately think of the new B Corporation companies, but I don’t believe that any of the multilateral companies you work with are B Corps. Why do you think this is? Can you give me some examples of what you would consider a “successful” cause-marketing campaign?

A: I don’t know of any companies banding together on standards. There are, however, cases where companies are creating and publishing scorecards for sustainability commitments. Chevron and Timberland both do a good job here. There are also some efforts to rate individual products. Most of this is on the product or operational sustainability side and less on cause-marketing campaigns and efforts.

The B Corp movement is very interesting. I grew up in Vermont around brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation and Stonyfield Farm. These were some of the original B Corps. Companies, like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Walmart, etc are learning a tremendous deal from these smaller brands. Coca-Cola, for example, has begun their Live Positively sustainability journey that is about redesigning the way they work and live to bring sustainability into the DNA of the company and its brands. To do this authentically, it takes a lot of time and a lot of investment. That’s why there are not any major multinational B Corps. For me, working bit by bit with the bigger guys to weave sustainability into their DNA is more interesting (and impactful) then working with the “super green” companies who already get it.

There are a lot of cause-marketing campaigns that I find inspiring — I don’t know where to begin. I will say, the best cause-marketing campaigns are those that ladder-up to larger sustainability efforts of the brand, relate to the brand and the target demographic, are brought to life through as many channels as possible (e.g. online, on packaging etc.), are authentic, have significant ROI for the cause and partner organization, and, finally, are a bit of fun.

Q: Hmm I can name a couple of new cause-marketing campaigns I’m fond of. How about the Give a Day, Get a Disney Day campaign? That one’s a lot of fun. Beginning January 1, 2010 Disney Parks will commemorate the volunteer spirit with a free one-day admission ticket to a Walt Disney World Resort in Florida or Disneyland Resort in California theme park to the first one million people who volunteer a day of their time. I like that you bring up the concept of ROI (Return on Investment) for cause-marketing campaigns. For this Disney one, it seems pretty straightforward — 1 million volunteers * 1 day of their time = x dollars contributed to the nonprofits involved. Is that what you mean by ROI?

I also think the Summit on the Summit expedition that you’re involved in to raise awareness for the billion people worldwide who lack access to clean drinking water is a pretty cool cause-marketing effort too. You’re off to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with a bunch of celebrities, including Jessica Biel and Lupe Fiasco, for the cause in a few days. Sounds like a lot of fun and celebrities definitely bring attention to issues. What’s the ROI from this campaign? As a group have you defined some concrete goals for the expedition? I am always curious how much it costs to pull off a big campaign like this versus how much the campaign actually raises for the cause. Have you guys thought about this for Summit on the Summit? How will the group be measuring their impact?

A: The Disney program is beautiful on so many dimensions. It builds upon a growing movement around volunteerism. Yes, the ROI here is huge for ALL who are involved. Disney is creating real value for their nonprofit partners by encouraging their consumers to volunteer, and in doing so, create direct (and hopefully long-term) relationships with those causes. The consumer gets a high level of return by getting something of real value — a day at the park. And, in addition to the overall reputation gains for Disney’s brand, I believe the campaign will channel more people to the parks — as those who’ve volunteered will likely bring others who will pay full price (not to mention the in-park food, beverage, accommodation and merchandise). Finally, I LOVE the Give a Day, Get a Disney Day ads — they are in true brand spirit and fun.

For Summit on the Summit, the return is somewhat different. Hewlett Packard, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft’s Windows are amongst the main sponsors — and each of these brands is leveraging their support for different purposes. In addition to the return that the sponsors are looking to see, I think it is important to look at the campaign as a continued part of an awareness-raising effort around the water issue. That’s really the point here. Water is life — it is vital to our health, to empowerment of children, to the development of economies, but tragically, one-fifth of the world’s population is without clean water. The global community has ignored this problem for far too long. We need to do whatever it takes to raise the bar for awareness on this issue. Through the involvement of people like Jess and Lupe, this issue is popping up for the first time on the pages of mass media magazines such as US Weekly, Okay, MTV, and E! We need to do more of this. When stars started to wear the red ribbon for AIDS awareness at the Academy Awards, there was a massive shift in public awareness and support for the issue, which led to changes in policy and governmental funding for those in need. We need to see the world’s most pressing challenges popping up in unconventional places, from Seventeen Magazine to NASCAR, because only together can we make the difference that’s required to shift the needle.

Start-up Capital for For-Profit Social Entrepreneurs, Part 2: A Resource Guide

4 Mar

I have received lots of great tips from readers of Part 1 of this post pointing me to resources for both nonprofit and for-profit start-up social entrepreneurs. Below is my list of investors, incubators, networks and other resources that support start-up social ventures in the United States (some also fund non-U.S. organizations). I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible, but if I have failed to mention any investor or resource, please feel free to give it a shout-out in the comments section below. Please note that start-up is broadly defined as an organization that has been operating for less than three years and that is looking for a first-time or primary funder.

Investors in both for-profit and nonprofit start-ups

Echoing Green – 12-15 fellowships to start-up for-profit or nonprofit social entrepreneurs with funding of $30,000 for an individual or $90,000 for a two-person partnership over two years. To date, Echoing Green has invested over $28 million in seed grants to over 471 social entrepreneurs. The 2009 application is now open. Apply by December 2, 2009.

Unreasonable Institute – Cool new early-stage funder and incubator. The Unreasonable Institute has a $150,000 fund in which 25 selected entrepreneurs choose to allocate amongst each other. The Institute also holds an Investors’ Conference at the end of a 10 week-summer institute, giving entrepreneurs the chance to pitch their ideas to potential funders for serious capital. Applications for the first group of 25 social entrepreneurs will open November 15, 2009. To qualify your venture must have a plan to be financially self-sustaining within one year, to scale beyond country of origin within three years, and ultimately to meet the needs of at least one million people.

Sparkseed – Incubates start-ups led by freshman and sophomores in college. Seed capital is capped at $1,000 and web tools worth $10,000, but it appears that the value of the program is for aspiring social entrepreneurs to develop entrepreneurial skills, network, and benefit from mentorship. Applications for 2009 are already closed.

Investors in for-profit start-ups only

Investors’ Circle – Investor’s Circle’s Fall Conference takes place next week from November 15-17 in Washington DC. Investor’s Circle invites 20-25 companies to present at their Fall and Spring venture fairs, where their 225 angel investors, professional venture capitalists, foundations, family offices and others gather to make investments on companies from early or expansion-stage for-profit social ventures. This Fall Conference, they invited 22 companies of the 250 that applied to present. The application fee is $150, and if you’re invited to present, you have to pay $995 to “cover some of the cost of producing the event” that they help you prepare for. Companies that do not expect to generate revenues of at least $5 million within the next five years will not be accepted. Investor’s Circle also encourages minority and women-led companies.

Venture Well – Developed by the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), Venture Well promotes collegiate entrepreneurship by investing in a select number of for-profit student ventures (nine this year) that address “health, wellness and the environment,” are broadly scalable, and address a big opportunity for Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) customers, Top of the Pyramid (ToP) or both. Investment is expected to range from $50,000 – $100,000 and comes in the form of convertible debt. 2010 application information and deadlines will be posted soon.

Good Capital and The Hub, Code named “HUB Cap” – This spanking new initiative, not yet launched, is an example of good things that happen when organizations collaborate. Details will be announced early next year, but what I can tell you is that there will be a few new avenues for for-profit social entrepreneurs to access start-up capital in the range of $25,000-$100,000 for a total of up to $1-1.5 million. In addition to funding, HUB Cap will provide peer support, mentorship and professional services. It’s super exciting, so stay tuned.

Investors in nonprofit start-ups only

Draper Richards Foundation – Six fellowships are granted to start-up nonprofit social entrepreneurs with funding of $100,000 annually for three years. Apply anytime – Draper Richards receives and reviews applications throughout the year and award grants throughout the year.

Blue Ridge Foundation – Blue Ridge couples seed money with in-kind support and networking opportunities. Portfolio organizations receive five years of funding and office space for up to three years. Blue Ridge does not fund organizations that are more than two years old.

New York Foundation – NYF funds nonprofits that address a critical need of a disadvantaged population. The applications that stand the best chance of receiving funding emphasize advocacy and community organizing and involve New York City or a particular neighborhood of the city. For start-up organizations, NYF may provide funding for a total of five consecutive years. Grants range from $40,000 to $50,000. In addition to grant money, NYF provides extensive technical assistance in the form of workshops, training, and consultants. The next application cycle is March 1, 2010, but due to the economy NYF will be making fewer new grants this year.

ZeroDivide – ZeroDivide funds, supports and incubates nonprofit social entrepreneurs that leverage technology to benefit low-income, minority and other underserved communities. They receive and review applications on a rolling basis and award grants of no more than $75,000 throughout the year. The first step is to submit a Letter of Inquiry.

The Manhattan Institute – Funds up to five individuals who have originated and effectively implemented a new nonprofit organization providing direct services to those in need (mature nonprofits also quality for the award as long as they have a new idea or approach to a social problem). Nominations for the $25,000 awards are solicited from donors who have demonstrated a belief in the organizations they nominate. Nominations for the 2010 awards will be accepted from January 25 – March 19, 2010.

RSF Social Finance Seed Fund – The RSF Seed Fund provides small gifts (between $1,000 and $5,000) to seed new initiatives that fall within their mission statement and one of their focus areas – social finance, food & agriculture, education & the arts, and ecological stewardship. Grantees should demonstrate capacity for growth, and plans to reach financial independence. The deadline to submit a grant proposal to the RSF Seed Fund for the annual grant cycle is March 15, 2010.

The Social Venture Capital Foundation (SVCF) – SVCF funds nonprofit social entrepreneurs based on the belief that they are “planting Seeds of Change.” While they hope to provide seed money grants in the range of $5,000-50,000, they are currently only able to fund in the $2,000-$5,000 range.

Chinook Fund – Grants of up to $4,000 are awarded to start-up nonprofits four years old or younger for up to two consecutive years.

Kauffman Foundation – In general, Kauffman Foundation grants are limited to nonprofit organizations that have significant potential to demonstrate innovative service delivery, in support of education and entrepreneurship. On their website, there is no mention of a cap on the size of the grant.

Business plan competitions

Global Social Venture Competition – The GSVC funds both nonprofit and for-profit student start-up social ventures. Organized by the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in cooperation with five Regional Partners and four Outreach Partners, teams around the world compete for the top prize of $25,000 while gaining valuable professional feedback on their ventures. To qualify, each team must include a graduate business student from any business school in the world or an individual who has graduated from a graduate business program within the past two years (from the date that the plan is first submitted). The graduate business student must be actively involved in the venture. Deadline to submit your executive summary is January 10, 2010.

SocialReturns – Previously the Yale School of Management- The Goldman Sachs Foundation Partnership on Nonprofit Ventures National Business Plan Competition, which ceased operations in September 2005, SocialReturns (a much better name!) is launching a new series of Social Enterprise Business Plan Competitions in the next several months. Stay tuned for an announcement about the award categories, the criteria for entrance, and the start date for the first competition by registering online.

Scaling Social Impact Competition – The “early-stage growth” competition is for U.S. nonprofits with a focus in education, youth development, health, poverty alleviation or community economic development and that have an “intent to scale.” The winner will receive up to $50,000 in cash and the services of a consulting firm to further develop its growth plan. The annual competition includes three rounds of evaluation. To apply for Round 1, submit your application by December 18, 2009.

Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition – Students from around the world, and across fields of study, are invited to apply with their innovative, commercially sustainable business solutions to problems of poverty in developing economies. Applicants go through three rounds to compete for a total of $17,000 in prize money. Applications for this year closed earlier this month.

Incubators, networks, blogs and other resources that help start-up social ventures
Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University
Global Social Benefit Incubator
GoodCompany Ventures
The Hub
Net Impact
New York Women Social Entrepreneurs (NYWSE)
RISE (The Research Initiative on Social Entrepreneurship)
Social Capital Markets Conference
Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA)
Social Venture Network

I hope to write a Part 3 to this blog series to dig deeper into the choice of being for-profit versus nonprofit and to share stories of how successful for-profit social ventures “made it”. Please help me but letting me know about your favorite for-profit social ventures and how they raised start-up capital.

Start-up Capital for For-Profit Social Entrepreneurs – Part 1: What the Heck Is It?

4 Mar

Last week, Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey was named one of US News and World Report’s “America’s Best Leaders” for her important work breathing life into both nonprofit and for-profit, start-up social entrepreneurs.

Since 1987, Echoing Green has awarded more than $27 million in start-up capital to over 450 social entrepreneurs worldwide. Ashoka, which put social entrepreneurship on the map in 1981, has invested in over 2,000 social entrepreneurs; and since 1992, Investor’s Circle, an angel network of social investors, has facilitated the flow of over $133 million into more than 200 social mission companies.

While impressive, the cumulative amount invested in start-up social entrepreneurs pales in comparison to the $1.6 billion that went into US seed and early stage investments in just the third quarter of this year in this slouched economy. Put another way, about 10 times more money was invested in regular start-ups in just this third quarter than in the 28 years that Ashoka has been funding social entrepreneurs.

With all the recent attention given to social entrepreneurs, when will we actually begin to see an acceptable level of investment directed towards these leaders of social change?

It’s old news now, but effecting social change and turning a profit are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, in many ways, the for-profit structure is better suited to making sure that social impact is achieved most effectively. The pressure to earn a return for your investors results in tough and often good business decisions. Yet, frustratingly, traditional notions of for-profit and not-for-profit are deeply rooted and all too often reflect an unwillingness of key players to embrace new perspectives. A clear example of this was the decision made earlier this year by President Obama’s newly established Office of Social Innovation to exclude for-profit social mission companies from federal funding through this Office. It’s unclear how the Office can aim to support “social innovation” while estranging some of the most innovative ideas simply because they lack the increasingly antiquated 501c3 non-profit status. The exclusion of for-profits is even more perplexing when you consider that advisors to the Office during its formation included well-known champions of for-profit social enterprise such as Echoing Green’s Cheryl Dorsey, Howard Buffett, and Ethos Water co-founder Jonathan Greenblatt (Ethos Water was sold to Starbucks in 2005 for $8 million).

By NOT supporting for-profit social entrepreneurs, the Office of Social Innovation missed an important opportunity to guide funding and support towards the best social enterprises that are measured not by their poorly-defined legal status but rather by the by the impact they make. Prior to the White House Office of Social Innovation’s decision that it wasn’t ready to fund for-profit social ventures, Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and Vanessa Kirsch and Kim Syman of New Profit Inc. forcefully articulated to Huffington Post readers why “breaking down the antiquated assumption that all social innovation is the province of the non-profit sector” is critical. It’s painful that the White House Office of Social Innovation passed up the chance to bet on a winning strategy – our socially innovative entrepreneurs – when the government is struggling to rectify our broken economy and failing social systems, namely education and healthcare.

But don’t fret, social entrepreneurs are showing us that very little can keep them down. As they work on bettering our world, we need to figure out how to empower these hidden heroes. How does a for-profit social entrepreneur find the start-up capital to turn a potential world-changing idea into reality? And if they still can’t find funding, what are some good bootstrapping tips to get through the start-up phase?

For those wondering why social entrepreneurs should be given special treatment over any other entrepreneurs, consider one key point: a social entrepreneur strives to create a positive externality that cannot be quantified in simple dollars and cents. While a traditional entrepreneur looks to create wealth and may or may not change the world in doing so, a social entrepreneur purposefully uses her business as a vehicle for effecting social change. In light of our current economic situation, spiraling fiscal deficits, and overstretched social safety net, there is no better time for social entrepreneurs (and potential social entrepreneurs) to be encouraged and cultivated. Moreover, at a time when the government is struggling to support traditional businesses and industries that have failed, shouldn’t we be looking to support innovative and non-traditional ventures?

Let’s not allow another missed opportunity. Invest in start-up, for-profit social entrepreneurs! Social entrepreneurs need like-minded social investors that evaluate a company’s social mission alongside their prospects for revenue generation. Without more social investors, we are hampering the growth of social ventures that could be the answer to many of our public problems at a time when the government is struggling to provide its own solutions. We need more funds like Echoing Green, Ashoka and Investor’s Circle to take notice of a growing and vibrant social enterprise movement. Money needs to be invested in start-up social enterprise not just for the aspiring social entrepreneurs of today, but so that the next generation of social entrepreneurs can thrive. We certainly should not make it easy to get funded simply because someone has an idea to make the world a better place, but it certainly shouldn’t be more difficult for a for-profit social mission business to get funded than a traditional one.

In my next post, I will share some resources for start-up social entrepreneurs (both nonprofit and for-profit). Please help me compile this list by emailing me at rachael [at] Catchafire [dot] org or by commenting below.

What Does It Take to be a Good Volunteer?

4 Mar

I am starting a social enterprise that provides skills-based volunteer opportunities for professionals. These busy individuals, who will volunteer their professional skills from 2-5 hours a week, on average, include marketing experts, publicists, strategy consultants, hedge fund managers and even nonprofit development staff. We recently launched our pilot program in New York City, and I find myself inspired as well as totally scared by our first, small batch of 100 professionals.

I am inspired because these individuals have taken time out of their very busy lives to give their time and skills to nonprofits and social entrepreneurs that have articulated discrete, short-term (less than 3 month) needs. Projects include design for a tote bag for The OpEd Project, online marketing strategies for Out Against Abuse and United Prosperity, public relations support for Arts to Grow‘s upcoming gala, board development for Women’s Education Project, and the development of a business plan for a for-profit social venture called Public Stuff, among others.

I am totally scared because the fate of my company lies in the hands of these individuals. In many ways, our success is tied to whether or not these people do a good job on the projects they’ve committed to. But there’s a catch. These highly skilled professionals are volunteers. They are not getting paid. So the question we constantly ask ourselves is: how do we motivate busy professionals who volunteer to be as dependable and high-performing as we know they are at their regular jobs?

Instead of trying to theorize about this, I want to ask one of our most promising volunteers, A. Lauren Abele, her opinion on the matter.

1) Lauren, you work for a nonprofit as your day job, but you still choose to volunteer a significant amount of your time to a number of other causes. Who are you currently volunteering for and what motivates you?

I volunteer with Green Edge NYC,, New York Women Social Entrepreneurs, Climb the Green Ladder, and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of NYC. From 9-5 I work on one social issue that I care about, but I’m passionate about more than just one cause. Volunteering gives me an opportunity to to work on issues I care about in my free time. Another main reason why I volunteer my skills is for professional development. As a volunteer you have freedom to pick the types of projects you want to work on, and a lot of the time organizations will let you run with this. I have had wonderful opportunities to sharpen my skill-set through volunteering.

2) Wow, you’re doing so much! How do you juggle all of this on top of having a life (which I know you have)? Don’t you ever get burnt out? Furthermore, you’re volunteering the skills you use at your day job, which for many people I know is the last thing they want to do. Why volunteer your skills when you can get away from it all and, arguably, do something more enjoyable like planting trees?

I actually had someone ask me recently, “So, what do you do for fun?” And I thought to myself, “Is this a trick question?” I assume when people ask that question they want to know what you do that is completely unrelated to your professional life. I am really passionate about what I do and am constantly thinking about ways to help nonprofits and social enterprises successfully achieve their missions. I also rationalize my high NYC rent as my “All Access Pass” to amazing opportunities to participate in social enterprise–so I plan to take advantage of that.

It’s funny, I actually wrote a blog post on why putting me to work planting trees would probably be a disaster and would definitely not lead to maximized benefit for the environmental movement as a whole. This was all prompted by something a guest lecturer, Peter Cuming, said way back when I was in college: “You best help the cause by doing what you do best.” What he was encouraging us to do was utilize our comparative advantage. Comparative advantage is “the ability to produce a product most efficiently, given all the other products that could be produced” and is usually applied to international trade, highlighting the benefits of specialization in order to maximize benefits. So as far as planting trees versus writing grant proposals, planting trees doesn’t leverage my comparative advantage but writing does–which is not just something I am good at but also something I really enjoy (most of the time those two are synonymous).

3) Given all your experience as a volunteer, what do you think it takes to be a “good” volunteer?

The reality of being a volunteer is that you aren’t being paid to do it. Volunteering is an “extracurricular” activity and naturally falls a little lower on your life priority list–after family, work, health, friends, pets. As a result, volunteering requires a lot of realistic planning and time management as well as communication with your nonprofit manager; for example, giving them realistic deadlines (so that they can plan accordingly) and letting them know if something comes up–and preferably in advance of the 11th hour.

4) As a volunteer, do you worry about how well you do on your volunteer assignment as much as you do your paying job? What do you think are some ways to encourage “high quality” volunteering from volunteers themselves and from nonprofit managers?

I definitely do care about the quality of work that I do as a volunteer. I think of it as personal “brand management.” I want people to see me as a dedicated, high-quality worker who has a lot to bring to the table and can deliver.

I think from the volunteer-side, a commitment to excellence has to come from within. If you don’t have that at the start, I don’t think a nonprofit can or even should spend their time trying to make that happen. However, encouraging continued excellence is definitely something that the nonprofit can share the responsibility for. Volunteer recognition and appreciation are always great motivators for continued excellence. As a nonprofit, maybe you are not able to provide incentives in the form of a check, but there are other ways you can say “thank you” that will mean a lot to a volunteer. For example, connect them to someone they should know in your network, give a shout-out at an event or meeting, comp them a ticket to your annual gala, or send a personalized note.

Lastly, I think it is fair to expect dependability and high-performance from volunteers given that: 1) nonprofits understand that flexibility is necessary for volunteers; and 2) that nonprofits themselves provide the appropriate structure and management for their volunteers to thrive. I actually know a friend of mine who is seriously considering dropping out of a volunteer commitment because of a lack of expectations of her. From her perspective this translates to a lack of resources, leadership, and direction from the nonprofit manager; and without these expectations, it’s a waste of her valuable time that she could be giving to a nonprofit that is better equipped to handle hard-working, forward-thinking professionals.

5) What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a volunteer?

I think there is a fine balance between self-direction and structured guidance. As a volunteer, you are offering assistance to an organization you care about that probably has limited resources and could really use your help–so you want to be thorough, effective, accountable, and do a great job. But you are also taking a small bite out of something bigger. The best nonprofit volunteer managers help you, as the volunteer, understand the impact you are making on the overall mission the organization is trying to achieve. However, oftentimes it’s up to you, as the volunteer, to put the volunteer work you’re doing in context, so you understand the impact you are making. This is tough, and it requires you to step back and look at the bigger picture. Understanding the difference you are making is so important to staying motivated and sticking it through to the end. I always try to remember the organization’s vision and the fact that at the end of the day, I am means to a bigger, more important, end.

6) What advice would you give to a professional who is trying to find a way to volunteer his or her skills?

Find a skills-based volunteer-matching program–that makes the whole process a lot easier and even feasible. In the past I have used, word-of-mouth,, as well as Catchafire. Otherwise, I’d recommend identifying the type of skills you want to give (accounting, design, website, grant writing, etc.) and finding organizations that are working in your area of interest. Try to attend some of their events and get to know the staff to see if the organization and their needs are a good match for you. Pitch your project idea and see what they say. Also, try to find a friend who volunteers their skills. They can help you with the process.

7) What advice would you give a nonprofit that wants to take on a skills-based volunteer?

Take the time to evaluate whether your organization is prepared to take on a professional who wants to give his or her skills. Volunteers don’t just provide “free work”–they have to be managed, communicated with, and recognized. Further, professionals lead very busy lives and want to know that the time that they invest into something leads to a productive outcome, and this is also true for the volunteer work they engage in. New York volunteers are valued at $28.04 per hour. As a nonprofit manager, you want to make sure that you will provide a positive experience for the professionals who are donating valuable skills and time to your organization. Remember that these volunteers can be converted into future donors if they have a good experience, so don’t make the “ask” for skills-based volunteers until you are prepared to make the most of it.

Thanks Lauren! Check out Lauren’s blog for more great insights and thoughts on the social sector and follow her on Twitter @laurenabele

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