Around this time 10 years ago, Amber Smith had just returned from a whirlwind adventure around the country with a handful of like-minded friends. With better planning, she says in retrospect, they could have stayed out longer.
“We quit our jobs – in my case I put off going back to school – and drove around the country for 21/2 months, volunteering in every state we visited,” Smith recalls of the 2004 road trip. “We ran out of money in state 22 or 23.”
There aren’t many photos from the trip – their camera was stolen along the way – but the ones that exist show excited young friends posing by a 2003 Chevy Cavalier with “do good” spray-painted across its driver’s side.
Along the way, they learned that people, by and large, wanted to volunteer, but weren’t always sure how to connect or make the time. So, upon returning to Raleigh, they started Activate Good to connect volunteers and nonprofits. Today, Smith is executive director, and the organization has grown; Activate Good’s listings on its searchable database coordinate more than 200 nonprofit partners and thousands of volunteers. A volunteer can browse needs listed by nonprofits or search for specific causes or skills needed.
Its aim is to connect both parties, sure, but also to improve the experience on both sides.
“One of the smartest things we ever did, early on, was connect with Activate Good,” says Dallas Bonavita, executive director of Note in the Pocket. Her organization, which provides clothes for poor and homeless kids in Wake County, started its life as a nonprofit two years ago. Back then, she searched the Internet for nonprofit partners. Then she found Activate Good, and it was like a floodgate opened. The quantity and quality of her group’s volunteers improved immediately, she says.
“We’ve had several really highly qualified professionals who started out doing little things and just stuck around and became part of us,” she says. Activate Good’s Pro Heroes Initiative, in particular, brings out professionals like videographers and web developers – people whose work Note in the Pocket could never afford otherwise, Bonavita says.
The Pro Heroes initiative has done the same for Helps Education Fund, even bringing in needed legal support. The Helps Education Fund works to close the gaps in the education system, and Activate Good, aside from bringing in volunteers, has also scouted locations and provided food. “I think they are a critical piece to a lot of nonprofits,” founder John Begeny says.
The way Activate Good makes these connections stems from that fall 2004 road trip. Smith learned then that many people fail to volunteer because they’re not aware of opportunities fitting their skills, interests or schedule. “Just like a job, not every volunteer opportunity is right for the right person,” she says.
On top of making those connections, Activate Good battles below-average volunteerism in the Triangle: “Across the country, compared with other metropolitan areas of a similar size, we are 40th out of 51 in volunteerism – even though we’re ranked No. 1 in all these other things,” Smith says.
The theory Smith subscribes to is that local population growth – the constant influx of new people – is the cause. Those who feel a connection to an area are more likely to volunteer, and many new residents simply haven’t lived here long enough to feel part of their immediate community.
But Smith has a plan. And, true to Activate Good’s mission, anyone can chip in: “I would say, beyond just volunteering, one thing you can do as an everyday person to help is ask all your friends to volunteer,” she says, adding that about half the people who volunteer got their start because a friend invited them. Her mission, then, to bring the Triangle’s volunteer rate up is no more difficult than getting existing volunteers to bring friends along.
“Let’s make a viral effect here,” Smith says. “If everyone asked, like, three or five or 10 of their friends to get started, we could probably boost that rate pretty quick.”