Rachael Chong is an Australian-born, globally-raised social entrepreneur with an affinity for Bob Marley and volunteering. Since she especially loved Marley's album, Catch A Fire, which she condensed to one word to form the name of her venture, because it's fun, lively, and energetic, she says. Catchafire, now a two-year-old company, matches skilled people with targeted volunteer opporunities. It focuses on short projects that utilize specific professional skills. The company's sleek, savvy website that Chong describes as "eHarmony meets idealist.org," helps visitors find projects that are not only skill-appropriate, but that also speak to their passions. Esha Chhabra spoke with Chong.
What inspired you to start the organization? Did you have a horrible experience volunteering that compelled you to build a better platform?
Actually, I had really amazing experiences volunteering. But I had really horrendous experiences, trying to find meaningful pro-bono work. I knew that there were opportunities out there to get involved and lend my skills to, but finding them was difficult. I had been working in banking and wanted to volunteer. The bank had programs to do so, and I did projects like Habitat for Humanity through the bank—that was great and I still do it today. But, what I really wanted to do was give my newly-minted financial skills back to the community. But I couldn't find an easy way. I looked for things that would fit my busy schedule and match my skill set. But there was nothing, even though I knew the need was out there. It was just that a platform for finding the opportunities didn't exist.
So you built Catchafire. What distinguishes it today from other sites that list volunteer opportunities?
We're not about just listing opportunities. We really match people to the right opportunities. That's why why we connect to your LinkedIn account, find out your professional skills, and then present you with a variety of short projects that you can contribute to. You apply through a relatively simple process. If the organization selects you, in three days, you'll hear from them, receive basic training, and then be expected to complete those commitments in the time frame determined. It's about making the whole process more thoughtful, so it fits the busy lifestyle of a working professional, it's on-target with the skills that you specialize in, and it's a meaningful opportunity for you.
Catchafire is a for-profit social enterprise. How have you been able to build a for-profit element to your organization to ensure sustainability?
We charge the organization a fee for signing up with us and accessing our professional skills, which makes sure that they're really engaged in this and are serious about working with us. It's not supposed to be a barrier. Also, even though they're paying a fee on a sliding scale, that fee is considerably less than what it would cost them to go hire someone in the marketplace to do the work. So, it's a win-win and this will help us become self-sustaining. With the non-profit structure, you're always forced to cater to the donor. That's really misaligned. You should really be focused on the customer, not the donor. So, as a for-profit, we're able to do that.
Have you seen greater interest in volunteering because of the recession?
Yes. It's a great way to keep your skills fresh, to distinguish yourself from others, and keep yourself sharp. It's interesting that our industry is actually counter-cyclical to the economy. But, yes, this is a great alternative for those who are unemployed.
What do you say to others who want to start a social enterprise like yours?
Ah, so much advice! The most important thing I'd say is be authentic and find the model or structure that works for you. Figure out what your motivation is and find a structure that works with that. There are so many models these days that range from the completely for-profit companies like TOMS Shoes to more hybrid models. Find the one that works with your intent and go with it.