Rachael Chong is a 28-year-old New York-based entrepreneur helping to cultivate a new brand of volunteerism that connects volunteers to charities based on people's skill sets.
Whatever help the nonprofit needs – whether it’s in marketing, financial, design or video production—Chong says her company, Catchafire, can assist.
“Those type of services are expensive, and most organizations don’t have the ability to pay for them at market rate,” explained Chong. “So through Catchafire, nonprofit organizations can access professionals who want to volunteer the skills that they do on the job every day.”
The premise that volunteers are better suited – and more efficient – when they’re matched with the right job is logical. And charities seem to agree. Since starting up in July 2009, Catchafire has already helped about 1,000 charities find the right person for the job.
“We are very small resourced and operate on a shoestring budget,” said Jennifer Gootman, director at Global Goods Partners, a non-profit that supports women producers in third world countries by selling fair-trade, handmade jewelry and accessories. Global Goods was able to get a market-research expert to help it analyze its consumers and other potential markets.
“Without Catchafire, that type of professional service would have been out of reach,” said Gootman.
Currently, this for-profit business charges charities $200 per volunteer, but is moving toward a membership service. The website has a sign-up sheet and quick quizzes to ensure that the volunteer has enough skills to deliver the goods.
“We’ve actually created projects so that the nonprofit can pick what they need from our projects menu,” said Chong. “That spells out the deliverables, the scope of the work, the amount of time required. So the project template helps the charity and the person volunteering.”
The company, which raised $500,000 in seed funding, is not yet profitable, but Chong said her team is racing to get it into the black this year.
“My team and I are working really hard,” she said.
Her tips for others entrepreneurs?
“Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and better than you," she said. "Because that’s the only way you’re going to build a really amazing team that can actually execute on a really good vision.”
Six Shooter with Rachael Chong of Catchafire
1. What do you wish you had more of: time or money?
Time. There are always more matches between volunteers and nonprofits to be made!
2. Who is your biggest inspiration?
Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of the international nonprofit organization BRAC -- the largest poverty alleviation organization in the world -- which serves over 140 million people throughout Asia and Africa. It has a $600 million annual budget, and 80% of that comes from its own social enterprises (such as a nationwide dairy and handicrafts store). BRAC is headquartered in Bangladesh, where I worked for four months. BRAC has one of the largest microfinance programs in the world, and on top of this microfinance model, provides education, health services, water and sanitation information, human rights and legal services, and agriculture services to the poor -- just to name a few of their programs.
Since BRAC was founded in 1972, Fazle Hasan Abed has worked tirelessly to build it into one of the largest and most far-reaching nonprofits in the world. While he is well known and a hero among those in the international development world, BRAC is not a well-known organization, especially considering how large its impact is, because Fazle Abed and his team of 120,000 employees are focused completely on programmatic work. He is a hero to me because he dreamed big, achieved this dream and has remained so incredibly humble, despite BRAC's success.
3. How do you feel about making money off of charities?
I spent the first six months of Catchafire researching legal structures to determine whether Catchafire should be a nonprofit or for-profit, but importantly, even if we decided to be a nonprofit, we would have still chosen to charge nonprofits for our service. This is because this model of fee for service is critical to our social mission -- we need nonprofits to be serious and have skin in the game before taking on one of our busy professionals who are giving their time and skills pro bono. In fact, the reality is that professionals feel more comfortable donating money than giving their time, because their time is so precious--and we want to make sure our organizations are properly utilizing our volunteers' time.
So long story short, we believe strongly in our business model, which places a premium on important capacity-building services for nonprofits and social enterprises that need those services but cannot afford them at market rates. We know it's an important part of Catchafire's success as a sustainable business, but also to ensure that the nonprofits and social enterprises that sign up for projects on Catchafire are sufficiently invested in those projects.
4. What has been your biggest mistake?
My biggest lesson has been in hiring. At an early stage startup, when every person is critical, hiring for cultural fit and hiring people who complement the founder--not just in terms of skills but in terms of personality--is key. When I hire, my mantra is that the person must be kick-ass in the skills and talents required for the job--that's the prerequisite--then the rest of it comes down to cultural fit. Are they good for an early-stage startup, will they positively contribute to the Catchafire culture, will the team like them, etc.
5. What do you see in the future for Catchafire?
In terms of next steps, Catchafire will replicate the success we've had in NYC as the largest pro bono service provider to other cities across the United States.
In terms of our future impact, Catchafire has the ability to change the way the nonprofits do business. What I mean by this is that Catchafire is improving the way that nonprofits operate--making them more efficient and effective by strategically using pro bono to build capacity within their organizations under significant resource constraints.
On the other side, the volunteer side, Catchafire has the ability to change the way that people think about volunteering and service. We are creating a pro bono movement where it's normal to give your time and skills pro bono, and where people do pro bono because they know that it's good for them--good for them in building upon their skills, professional development, resume building, networking, making new friends, making a meaningful impact, etc.
6. How does Catchafire differ from other startups?
Catchafire is proud to be part of a new class of startups focused on driving social benefit. We're a for-profit, mission-driven enterprise that views positive social impact as a metric that's just as important as the bottom line.
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