About Robert Rosenthal

Robert is Director of Communications at VolunteerMatch. For Engaging Volunteers he writes about media and social trends related to volunteering and service, and how organizations can more effectively use our services to tell their story.

How to Do Good Well at SXSW This Year

This post also appears on Volunteering is CSR.

Heading to SXSW Interactive this year? You won’t be alone. Attendance at the year’s coolest tech conference – where digital creatives, techies, do-gooders and marketers come together to figure out the future — tracks the tech bubble. And with apps these days selling for this many zeros, you can bet SXSW will see more than the 30,000 people who showed up last year.

A round-up of technology for social good sessions at SXSW Interactive 2014.

In years past, SXSW was trumpeted as a great place to launch new products. That’s changed recently, as fewer apps have kept their mojo after getting lots of attention during SXSW. These days, what’s keeping SXSW hotter than ever is an increased awareness of the power of SXSW conversations and ideas to have an impact in society.

That’s great news if you work in technology for social good. When everyone is focused on the hot new app, it’s hard to get in a word edgewise about things like online organizing, new forms of digital activism, digital cause marketing, or microvolunteering. But with the focus on the change that can be wrought with all this new technology, we nonprofits and social do-gooders can finally seize the day.

So without further ado, here’s my roundup of what I think are the important sessions, lounges, and events that will focus on social good this year at SXSW.

The Beacon Lounge

The Beacon Lounge will be back at Austin Convention Center for its sixth year, and it remains as vital as ever, with four days of meet ups, expert-led discussions, beer, live music, food, and casual hanging out. This year the Beacon debuts the Do Good Dialogues, where pretty much everyone is invited to grab the mic and share how you are using design, technology, and communication to lean in to solutions for us all.

SXSW Social Good Hub

The action moves offsite from the convention center to two nearby locations for this series of talks and sessions on social good. The awesome teams at Change.org, Participant Media, and the UN Foundation have put together an amazing agenda of counter-programming on topics like design strategy, innovation, conscious consumption, and more. Plus, a party…of course. (It’s SXSW, after all.)

Why Clicktavisim Is Not a Dirty Word

After a decade of Facebook helping billions on the Web learn about issues, it’s amazing that people still doubt the power of social media. But we see time and again how sharing stories about important issues, filling out petitions, and even just liking organizations can be incredible ways to support an organization. Come hear folks like Tumblr’s Liba Rubenstein set the record straight.

Ethics & Future of Crowdfunding for Communities

There’s so much hype about the awesome power of crowdfunding that the ethical questions – like what makes for a good social impact investment, and what happens to the money – often get ignored. This session with social good tech ombudsman David Neff is definitely ahead of the trend.

Multiplatform Strategies for Making Good Happen

Tons of conversations at SXSW this year will be about multiplatform planning – that is, using all kinds of media formats to keep a story going and influence people to get involved. Nonprofit folks can definitely learn a bunch in this session with some of the best minds in the business like Caitlin Burns and Lina Srivastava.

How Tech Companies Can Renew Capitalism

Over the years I’ve seen dozens of web services get launched purporting to have a business model that will change the world. Most fell flat. That’s why I think tech founders with truly innovative approaches like Ben Rattray from Change.org are worth a listen.

Hackathons for Social Good

With so many smart folks around, it’s hard not to be inspired by the possibilities. The idea of getting down to business to make the future come to life is why hackathons are so incredibly popular at SXSW.

The list above just scratches the surface. Here’s a big hot tip: Follow #sxgood to keep up with events and real-time memes during and round the conference.

How about you? Are you headed to SXSW this year? Let us know what’s inspiring you about technology for social good.

Exploring Our Impact: The Fascinating Economics of the VolunteerMatch Network

With the release this summer of the 2012 VolunteerMatch Impact Report, we’re taking a closer look at some of the most important outcomes of our work in 2012. Read the whole series here.

Measuring the economics of the VolunteerMatch network.

What does it mean to be the Web’s largest volunteer engagement network? For the VolunteerMatch team, it means keeping a laser focus on making it easier for everyone to make a difference. Lots of people are surprised that this “big tent” approach goes well beyond volunteers and nonprofits — it also means developing tools to help government programs, well-known brands, campuses and businesses of all kinds to build their volunteer engagement success on top of the VolunteerMatch network.

Over the years VolunteerMatch has developed a rich and diverse set of products and services that go beyond our award-winning site, VolunteerMatch.org.  These include enterprise-level APIs, hosted platforms for employee and consumer volunteer programs from partners, and consulting services for businesses and organizations that are ready to take their programs to the next level but aren’t quite sure how.

What all these efforts have in common is that they provide millions of people, programs and organizations with free or affordable access to the VolunteerMatch network — and they really do work. Not surprisingly, as access has grown, so too has the scale of our impact.

Measuring Our Growing Scale

Every mentor, community gardener, volunteer librarian, or graphic designer who uses VolunteerMatch is woven into the fabric of the network – and more volunteers use VolunteerMatch than any other service in the nation.

In 2011 VolunteerMatch facilitated some 622,000  connections between prospective volunteers and great organizations, the most ever. A year later, thanks to some big improvements to our system and significantly more visitors, we increased our overall connections by more than 20% — to 788,000, or about 1.5 new connections every single minute. (You can see this activity live for yourself here.)

Valuing the Volunteer Experience

Taking into account the likelihood that a new connection will result in an actual volunteer experience, the depth and duration of the experience, and the average value of a volunteer’s time, each of those connections will eventually produce $3,158 worth of support for the organizations that use VolunteerMatch – an increase of $83 compared to last year.

Even experts in volunteering are often blown away when we share this number, but we have lots of reasons for believing it to be true. In an article last year about the comparable value of volunteers recruited from VolunteerMatch we explored in detail the complex economics of volunteer recruitment. I don’t have space here to reproduce it all in detail, but I invite you to check it out for yourself.

But two factors from the equation really stand out.

  1. Volunteers serve five hours each month with nonprofits they find at VolunteerMatch.
  2. The typical commitment lasts 2.5 years.

Of course, these are averages. Some folks help out for a single night at a gala event. Others come in twice a week for whole days at a time. Still others — often times with support from their employers — work diligently on research projects for three or six months at a stretch.

In my own family, my mom has been volunteering at a public school serving Tucson, Arizona’s Native American reservation community for more than eight years now. And if you look around, you’ll start to see many others with longtime commitments to specific causes and favorite organizations. Through this lens, it’s easy to begin to see how VolunteerMatch is able to help generate more than $85,000 in comparable social value for organizations every single hour. 

Stay tuned for more analysis of this year’s VolunteerMatch Impact Report. And in the meantime, how about you? We’d love to hear the value of your volunteering for the causes you love best.

Pro Bono at Conferences: Reflections of an Expert After Nonprofit Boot Camp

Public relations pro Jennifer Kern hangs out at the VolunteerMatch booth during Nonprofit Boot Camp, 6/12/13, in Silicon Valley.

I go to a lot of conferences and so I know it’s not always easy to get the help I’m looking for when I’m there.

For example, I may not know anyone else at an event — putting the onus on me to reach out and network just to feel a human connection.

If I attend a panel or a  workshop it might have interesting content, but the speakers don’t have the time or flexibility to make it especially relevant for my needs.

And, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just hard to feel at home in a big room full of strangers.

Last week the much-loved – and much-missed – Nonprofit Boot Camp series returned for the first time in three years. As part of the program, VolunteerMatch teamed up with the Silicon Valley chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals to coordinate a series of one-on-one “Ask The Expert” consultations taking place throughout the day.

Attendees could sit for 30 minutes at a time with one of 25 experts in volunteer engagement, marketing, finance, fundraising, technology and other areas of nonprofit management. Cool, right?

I jumped at the opportunity — not only to put VolunteerMatch’s muscle behind helping the sessions be a success, but also to volunteer as an expert myself. What better way to help attendees have a terrific experience and while also putting our money where our mouth is about the value of pro bono service?

What Constitutes Pro Bono at a Conference?

These days most conferences can’t afford fees for panelists, moderators and often even keynote speakers. So in essence many of the thought leaders who appear on the program at our favorite conferences are working “for free.” But there’s usually an unspoken quid pro quo: Come talk about what you do and think, and we’ll promote you as a superstar in your field.

But volunteering as an expert in a one-on-one session setting is different. Like so much pro bono service, it involves a lot of listening. You tailor your deliverables to a specific organization. And you accept the fact that success in the engagement will be defined as much by the attendee’s involvement as by your own.

That means there’s some risk involved – it’s a collaboration. Even so, there are tons of reasons why offering free expert one-on-one consulting makes sense for pretty much any conference:

  • For attendees, getting free one-on-one consulting allows you to get custom help, create a relationship with an expert in the field, and come away from the event feeling like you got deep-dive support on the issues you face on the job.
  • For experts, volunteering with one-on-one consulting at an event is a great way to demonstrate a deep commitment to advancing the field, exercise your listening and presentation skills, potentially develop new business leads, and meet other leading consultants and practitioners.
  • For conference producers, adding a free one-on-one consulting element to your events is a terrific way to add an element of diversity and depth to the content program, widen the network of experts who are likely to help promote your event beforehand, and facilitate authentic relationship building.

Talk about win-win-win. PR guy Dan Cohen, principal of Full Court Press Communications and one of last week’s volunteer consultants, said it best from an expert’s perspective:

“Aside from the consultations, there was amazing networking among my peers.  While our firm has some very good tools in our toolbox, the expert tables were packed with a complete set of solutions provided by folks who think like we do.  We’ve already included one of the peer firms in a proposal.”

My own experience at Boot Camp was also great.The four or five folks I consulted with presented different challenges. One consultee was struggling to inspire volunteers to her wild cat conservation organization, who seemed to all want to get out in the field and count cougars even though most of the need was in the office. Another woman I met with managed volunteers for a retail store that sold second-hand items to benefit a nonprofit. How could they build a cadre of happy volunteer cashiers?

I felt this last consultation went well, but when I got an email from her the next day I knew for sure: “Your input on our volunteer program…was incredibly valuable,” she wrote.

Equally important, I was able to spend my breaks networking and making new friends with dozens of other experts, all of whom have tremendous knowledge and big hearts to share.

Hats off to all the amazingly talented folks who volunteered their time as experts at Nonprofit Boot Camp last week:

  • Hallie Baron, Hallie Baron Consulting LLC
  • Leyna Bernstein, Leyna Bernstein Consulting
  • Dan Cohen, Full Court Press Communications
  • Stephanie Demos, Alum Rock Counseling Center
  • Eric Facas, Media Cause
  • Jennifer Kern, PR & Company
  • Karen Kwan, Community School of Music and Arts
  • Jessica LaBarbera, Nonprofit Finance Fund
  • Beverly Lenihan, Reesults Consulting
  • David Livingston Styers, Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership
  • Sara Morency, Sara Morency Coaching & Consulting
  • Suzanne Oehler, Yapper Girl
  • Aaron Pava, CivicActions
  • Anna Quinones, Independent Consultant
  • David Russo, American Cancer Society
  • Carla Schlemminger, Socialbrite
  • Adam Straus, Straus Events
  • Sharon Svensson, Essex & Drake Fund Raising Counsel
  • Alisa Tantraphol, Second Harvest Food Bank
  • Connie Wang, LinkedIn

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experiences about pro bono consulting at conferences and events below.

SXSW 2013: Do Nonprofits Need a Place at the Web’s Biggest Event?

Signs of social good at this year’s SXSW

Anyone hoping to find the next new standout consumer tech star like Twitter or Foursquare at this year’s SXSW Interactive Conference was probably disappointed. Nothing this year truly captured everyone’s imagination, or pointed to the next new toy nonprofits will be using to engage supporters.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean tech has reached a plateau, says SXSW’s Hugh Forrest, it may just mean that today’s SXSW audience can’t recognize tomorrow’s breakthrough tech.

It also means that SXSW — a truly massive event with more than 20,000 attendees — lacked an immediate focus of attention and conversation this year. That could be one reason why many of us who represent the nonprofit technology world spent a lot of time at SXSW this year talking about, well,  our own role at the conference. Certainly from my own perspective I’d say three things really stood out… and they all had to do with the “place” that nonprofits inhabit at SXSW.

Who Moved Our Cheese?

SXSW taps 3,000 volunteers.

For many of us, the awesomeness of SXSW is that it’s usually the best chance all year for social good tech proponents to get together with leaders in the wider worlds of technology, media and marketing. Nonetheless, after years of growing awareness about the great work that nonprofit do to make tech a platform for social good, there’s still debate about what role we should play at SXSW.

As nonprofits, is it enough to come to a conference in order to learn new things that will make our work more effective, or is it also necessary for us to arrive prepared to contribute to the conversation?  That is, are we at SXSW to soak up knowledge, or are we primarily there to help the wider community of techies learn how to use their skills to make a difference?

This year the debate began in earnest with the shake-up of session tracks and it only grew louder as the conference went on.

With so many sessions, panels, meetups, events, and screenings happening at once, finding sessions that apply to your field or interests has become a significant challenge for some people at SXSW. For social good fans, the problem was exacerbated this year as SXSW organizers did away with “Greater Good,” the track which cobbled together sessions on topics related to tech in civic participation, community engagement, online social actions, tracking and measurement of public improvement, and interactive storytelling to inspire audience to make a difference.

Instead of Greater Good, SXSW participants had to wade through hundreds of session descriptions in theme area like Community and Activism, Social and Relationships, Design and Development, Health and Medicine, and Government and Civic Engagement in order to find talks that may specifically apply to nonprofit management or executing on a complex mission.

For some people, this dis-“integration” was just a nuisance, while others thought that any complaints would be par for the nonprofit course.

For others, the shift may reflect changes in the relationship between nonprofits and SXSW. As Beth Kanter writes in the comments of this blog post, there was a noticeable dip in “social good and nonprofit peeps” at SXSW this year.

For others like Brian Reich, the big issue at SXSW these days isn’t that nonprofits aren’t participating, it’s that they aren’t having much of an impact at the conference. By not getting organized, by not speaking with one voice to demand more representation, by not leading conversations about social change and technology, nonprofits are opting out of the chance to take advantage of SXSW as a forum for pushing the tech and media worlds to do more to solve real problems.

Or as Reich’s artfully titled blog post “What the f—k are we waiting for?” puts it:

 …Change will only happen if we want it to.  It won’t happen on its own.  The organizers won’t figure out how to properly push a conversation about philanthropy and social good/social change without help.  The technology, design, media, and other communities won’t magically show up and participate in a conversation about changing the world without being invited and challenged and pressed for better answers and ideas.  People will continue to pass in the hallways, fail to connect — and leave events like SXSW without a different lens through which to view the challenges that exist in the world, and without projects and partnerships that have game-changing potential for the future of our society.

The Lounge with a Conscience

But while the debate flared up on Twitter and in blogs, most at SXSW were happy to come and go to various events with social good themes. Fortunately, there was plenty of that going around. For starters, it was the best year ever for one of my favorite hangouts at SXSW, the Beacon Lounge.

The Lounge is a grassroots effort to give nonprofits and social change folks a place to hang out and turn on to each other’s work. This year Beaconfire, the Washington, D.C.-based agency that curates the Beacon Lounge, did a great job arranging special programming about technology trends, solutions and social good.

Hanging out in the lounge I was able to see hundreds of conference-goers come in, look around, make new friends, and fire up their laptops to show off projects and get work done that’s changing the world.

Our panel on measurement in the Beacon Lounge.

VolunteerMatch sponsored the Lounge this year along with Groupon Grassroots, NTEN, Salsa Labs, Change.org and a few others, and I was fortunate to be invited to join with Beth Kanter, Beaconfire’s Lynn Labieniec, and NTEN’s Amy Sample Ward in a discussion on measurement.

In previous years SXSW let Beaconfire promote the Lounge with a schedule of events out in the hallways. Folks would pass by and get inspired, then duck in for a snack and good discussion. This year, for some reason, signage wasn’t in the cards and it wasn’t easy to get the word out to conference-goers. Nonetheless spirits were high, collaboration was solid, and those who found their way to the Lounge inside the Austin Convention Center were uniformly impressed.

Hopefully SXSW can do more to help the Lounge connect with the wider audience of SXSW-goers next year.


Also sidelined at SXSW was GoodxGlobal, a day of panels and talks on “local and global power of social good, technology and entrepreneurship” put on by the World Food Program USA, United Nations Foundation & the Social Good Summit.

The well-organized showcase took place at Austin City Hall, instead of the Convention Center. And because it didn’t appear in some parts of the SXSW program and website it seemed like a lot of folks were unclear on what GoodxGlobal’s official relationship was to the conference and whether it even made sense to depart SXSW venues to take in more programming.

I took the gamble and I’m glad I did. The 10-, 20-, and 30-minute talks I saw on technology for effectiveness, tech for women, using data, storytelling and the future of the Social Good Summit were fascinating, if short. Although I left wanting more, I made some good connections while I was there. And the packed lecture made it clear that there’s a big audience still at SXSW for a dedicated discussion of issues about tech and nonprofits.

Other Reports

A few others at SXSW did a great job reporting on day-to-day activities of relevance to nonprofits. Peter Panepento and Cody Switzer kept up on things for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Definitely read their reports to get a better feel of the event.

As for me, I’ll be looking forward to going back to SXSW next year. In the meantime, how was this year’s event for you? Share your thoughts here.

Volunteering Annals: Helping Our Community Use Linkedin at the Public Library

Volunteering with skills at san francisco public library

Greg Baldwin teaches the class.

The incredible thing about giving is just how much you get in return – even when you’re not expecting it.

That was one of the takeaways from an afternoon of training a few of us from VolunteerMatch recently conducted at San Francisco Public Library’s main branch, when what was originally a fun challenge for our readers became an important lesson in the power of skilled volunteering.

This story begins earlier this year. As VolunteerMatch prepared to pass a key milestone in our work to make it easier for good people and good causes to connect – our 6 millionth volunteer connection – we bet readers of Engaging Volunteers that they couldn’t guess when we’d hit the mark. To put our money where our mouth is, we promised to let the closest guesser do something special: they could tell the VolunteerMatch team where to do our next employee volunteer outing.

Two weeks later, we hit 6,000,000… a mere 30 minutes after Carla Lehn, a consultant for the California State Library, said we would. Carla, bless her heart, asked us to do our volunteer service in a California library close to us. But what would we – what could we? – do to help?

Moving from Service to Skills

What we came up with was VolunteerMatch’s first ever skilled group employee volunteer outing. Working closely with volunteer program coordinator Kai Forsley and the Volunteer Program at the San Francisco Public Library, myself, Shari Ilsen and Greg Baldwin put together a free hour-long training on using Linkedin to find a job.

The event took place at the city’s popular main branch and was attended by around 15 members of our San Francisco community. We covered how to create an account, set up a profile, network with other professionals, and take a strategic approach to your job search.

Don’t get me wrong: All three of us have presented in the past to much larger audiences. But this was on a topic that had nothing to do with VolunteerMatch and everything to do with the unique needs of the audience served by SF’s library. In short: it was skilled volunteering to support the mission of a local organization.

The hour flew by and we stayed late with the audience to answer questions. Afterwards, as Greg, Shari and I headed back to our office, we talked about how much we enjoyed being able to do what we love — helping people — using the skills we already had. And how great it felt knowing that we were also learning how to talk and present on something we’d never shared with an audience before.

One thing that kept coming up in our discussions was that this was how many other members of the VolunteerMatch team could benefit from getting involved in delivering trainings like this. We all have the ability to put ideas into play for a willing audience. And we can all stand to get better at how we deliver that information.

Laughing, we talked about how great it would be to move beyond the types of unskilled but beneficial volunteering we’d done as groups before (think: fun park clean ups, social service facility rehabs, environmental restorations, etc.). What if VolunteerMatch made it a point to help our team to find skilled roles we could use to give back and also augment our own professional abilities?

Fast forward to today. Shari has stepped forward and has worked with Kai and the Volunteer Program set up monthly training sessions on a variety of topics through the next year. Different members of the team will be invited to take part, meaning we can rotate more people through this exciting opportunity. And of course more of us will be able to help the library fulfill its mission while also strengthening our own presentation skills.

Today we just passed 6.5 million volunteer connections — and we’re moving to the next big landmark faster than ever. What’s that, you ask: Will we have another contest to let the crowd determine where we’ll volunteer? Sounds like a great idea to me!

How about you? Do you volunteer your skills through a program set up by your employer? What have you learned? Share your experiences here.