August 27, 2013; Oregonian

At first blush, it might seem crass; enticing volunteers to give their time to local nonprofits in exchange for something in return – a latte or a pizza. But in fact, it’s already a common practice for big companies underwriting big events to give away product. Now SwapServe, a new for-profit social enterprise in Portland, Ore. is banking on a web-based strategy to connect small businesses and volunteers to smaller scale nonprofit initiatives. Its mission is to “make volunteering a way of life for more people.”

The SwapServe business model is a web-based matchmaking service through which local nonprofits list projects for which they need volunteers (generally episodic, with a typical duration of 1-2 hours), businesses pledge gifts for volunteers at the projects the business wishes to support (generally in the form of a coupon for something free), and individuals sign up to volunteer for specific projects in specified time slots. SwapServe makes its revenue from the $1 per volunteer payment participating businesses make to the company in addition to the gifts they pledge, and plans to expand nationally.

At that price, the volume of volunteerism will have to be significant to support SwapServe’s operations. For businesses, the project offers a potentially cost-saving way to reach new customers and brand their business as socially responsible, affiliated with tangible nonprofit endeavors. Even the smallest business can afford to participate, unlike typical event sponsorships that tend to attract corporate underwriting.

For nonprofits, they can broaden their network of volunteers for future events by exposing their organization to new audiences. They can also build new allies in the business community. Essentially, SwapServe solicits business donations as a tool for opening a spigot of volunteers for nonprofits, rather than as cash or in-kind contributions for direct program implementation. Whether the volunteer labor and connections, that nonprofits receive in exchange for indirect vs. direct business funding, prove worth the trade-off will become clearer over time.

For potential volunteers, the site offers a novel way to find opportunities for episodic volunteering, and a hip on-line community of like-minded volunteers. Whether the experience leads them to seek out additional volunteer opportunities with or without gift incentives will also become clearer over time.

For sure, the SwapServe model will not meet all nonprofit needs for highly skilled volunteers and business investment. However, it is innovative in how it’s aligning market-based incentives to incrementally generate new resources for nonprofits, and it’s an experiment worth watching. –Kathi Jaworski