Xerox sales executive Michael Kim, 41, enjoyed volunteering for worthy causes but felt he could do more than stuff envelopes or attend galas. He wanted to put his Duke business degree and corporate experience to broader use.
Three years ago, he got his chance. Kim signed up with Compass, a District-based group that serves the growing number of altruists who donate not only time and money to charity and the arts but also their professional expertise.
Since then, Kim has provided free research and counsel on fundraising strategies to nonprofit groups in Fairfax County and Alexandria that help the homeless. This year, he's heading a 10-person Compass team aiding the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"All of my past [volunteering] experience had been stocking food kitchens and things like that. I wanted to do something a little more substantial," said Kim, who lives in Herndon. "Shifting gears to do fundraising for nonprofits was a really good fit for me," he said. "It's what I do all day. I'm always thinking about how to convey the benefits of our brand." The holidays are a time when we think of what we give back to our communities. For many, this means sending checks to do-good organizations before the tax year ends.
Kim's experience shows there are other ways to contribute. “Skilled volunteering is on the rise. People get to a point, especially in business, where they're pretty good at their job and want to do more," said Suzanne Laporte, executive director of Compass. "They want to take the skills they have from their careers, their education, and put them to work in a different way." Two Harvard Business School graduates founded Compass in 2001. It now has 242 volunteers working on 30 projects in our region and recently opened an office in Philadelphia.
Other groups do similar work. The Taproot Foundation's Washington office opened in 2008 to channel pro bono labor from people with at least three years' experience in design, technology or other business fields. Since then, according to its Web site, 581 volunteer consultants have donated $9.4 million worth of services to 135 nonprofit groups.
The time commitment is considerable. A typical Compass project lasts nine months and requires an average of two to four hours a week. Volunteers say it doesn't feel onerous because the mission is rewarding. "The more you care about the cause, the less time-consuming it feels," said Amanda Robison, 24. A corporate strategist, she's on Kim's team studying how the trust can make its local historic sites more self-sustaining.
The groups on the receiving end appreciate the help. Their staffs do fine running a food bank, health clinic or ballet troupe. But they lack prowess in crunching financial numbers, building a Web site or drafting a marketing strategy.
For instance, Kim's first project was helping Facets, a Fairfax program that serves the homeless, to bolster its fundraising to handle a surge in families seeking assistance. The Compass team advised Facets to rely less on one-time, money-raising events, such as banquets and golf tournaments. Instead, it urged Facets to cultivate lasting relationships with donors by showing them the good accomplished with their contributions. "What Compass really did is help to focus us ... in a way that was very data-driven and based also on private conversations with funders," Amanda Andere, executive director of Facets, said.
As a result, she said, the group now retains about two-thirds of its donors each year. Previously, it kept only half. "We have seen an increase and retention in our donors that is important," Andere said.
Susan Thaxton, 41, of Annapolis, who is on her sixth Compass project, said nonprofit groups value an outsider's perspective. "You're able to come in, listen to people and look at the data, and just give an objective idea of what's going on and what can be done," Thaxton said. A former Navy officer and production manager for General Motors, she has worked with Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and Washington Ballet, among others. "For me to see years later that things have turned out well and we have made a difference, that's what keeps me going," she said.
In this season of giving, we should be grateful to those who contribute brainpower as well as time and money for society's benefit.
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