Volunteer Square matches willing helpers with charitable tasks

A Connecticut website provides a place where people find volunteer opportunities, and nonprofits find new volunteers.

Volunteer Square
'We try to take the legwork out of [finding volunteers] for nonprofits,' says Rachel Reese, executive director of Volunteer Square, an online database used by volunteers and nonprofit groups.

It’s eHarmony for volunteers.

VolunteerSquare.com, a virtual town square, matches nonprofit agencies in Connecticut with potential volunteers who want to help but aren’t sure where to apply their particular skills.

It's the invention of Ned Brokaw of Darien, Conn., who spent 27 years in the financial services industry, most recently as executive director of investments for Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. Mr. Brokaw wanted to create a centralized resource that was user friendly and harnessed the power of social media. And he wanted something both youths and adults could easily navigate.

 IN PICTURES: Volunteering for Thanksgiving

In 20 minutes or less a person can log on, create a profile, and sign up for email alerts from various agencies and groups, from those who deliver meals to the elderly or to those who help repair a home. Volunteers apply directly to an agency for an opportunity through Volunteer Square. After that it’s up to the agency and the volunteer to connect with each other and decide if they are a match, says Rachel Reese, executive director of Volunteer Square.

A year old, the Volunteer Square database focuses on Fairfield County, sometimes called Connecticut’s Gold Coast.

“It’s a little jarring for people because there is this sense that everyone in this county has money,”  Ms. Reese says. “But that’s not true. There are places in every town with tremendous need.”

As of October, unemployment in the county stood at 7.5 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The city of Bridgeport, Conn., has a whopping 12.5 percent unemployment rate.

Superstorm Sandy highlighted local needs. More than 6,000 people sought temporary housing, and the number of people needing access to food pantries also rose. Volunteer Square’s activity increased, Reese says.

In Fairfield County residents used the site's blog as one way to organize a beach cleanup. More than 1,000 volunteers turned up to clean a three-mile stretch of beach. In Darien, Conn., the nonprofit group Person-to-Person used the site to publicize the need for food donations in Stamford and Norwalk, Conn.

The uptick in activity came because of the storm but also because it's the start of the holiday season. Nonprofit agencies are often booked with volunteers six months out for Thanksgiving, Reese says.

“It’s so exciting to see this huge boost, but there’s a lot of need the other 364 days of the year,” she says. About 14 percent of Connecticut is “food insecure,” meaning families at times run short of food, according to a 2012 Connecticut Food Bank study.

Volunteer Square says it believes every citizen can contribute as a volunteer regardless of their age.

The centralized database lists about 100 organizations and more than 600 registered users. Participants range from agencies such as the American Red Cross to Home Front, LLC, a community-based home repair program that helps keep low-income people in their homes.

“Its exciting that big legacy agencies are using us, but we are also getting smaller, mom and pop agencies; the start-ups. It’s exciting to me to see smaller agencies using the site,” Reese says.

One of those agencies is Kids Helping Kids. Based in New Canaan, Conn., the youth-led nonprofit focuses on projects that impact other children. Each Thanksgiving kids gather to bake and sell bread at $10 a loaf. All of the proceeds go to various philanthropic projects. This year the proceeds will help renovate a playground at a homeless shelter.

“They have been amazing for me,” says Jennifer Kelley, director of Kids Helping Kids, referring to Volunteer Square. Ms. Kelley found a summer intern and an administrative assistant through Volunteer Square, she says.

Volunteer Square receives no state or federal funding. It relies on individual donations. It has no office building and its staff are themselves mostly volunteers.

The interactive online community also works like a community room. Agencies can post pictures, videos, and news. With a few clicks the posts can be shared on multiple social-networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

“Nonprofits are very strapped and very short staffed. The whole process [needs] to be as simple as possible,” Reese says. “We try to take the legwork out of it for nonprofits.”

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