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The Mother Teresa of All Web Sites

Despite the dot-com bust, VolunteerMatch -- the Webby-winning site that helps people volunteer -- is enjoying wild success. What does it mean for corporate and community life in the tech age?
 
 
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There is an eerie quiet in America's tech boroughs these days. Restaurants are emptying out. For rent signs are going up. Just last week, I witnessed a dot-com employee whose ever-shrinking company occupies the floor beneath me try to palm off his limited edition Lotus. "It's a great family car too," he said to a middle-aged executive peering into the window of the tiny vehicle. Passing by was a homeless man with a cart full of candy-colored wires, evidently torn up from a hole in the street where new cable lines are lying fallow.

Such is the current clime for the wildly young, once wildly optimistic dot-com set. They have floated back to earth, if not slithered underground. But for some workers of the narrowing Internet economy, these are good times. Jay Backstrand, the 33-year-old founder of VolunteerMatch.org, is a quintessential example. His San Francisco-based Internet site, a nonprofit that helps people find volunteer opportunities online, proves that the Internet is not just for shopping and viewing porn in private. It's also for finding ways to connect with people -- and even beyond the cyber-realm.

Come Labor Day, VolunteerMatch will have put a half million people in touch with a manifold of volunteer gigs, assisting 16,000 nonprofits in over 4,000 U.S. cities. Basically, the site makes giving over your free time easy. You just get online, enter your zip code and chose your area of interest -- be it environmental cleanups, after school tutoring or, one of Backstrand's favorites, pretending to be a victim for disaster relief training at the Red Cross. Sounds interesting: look desperate, cry, pass out!

And unlike the volunteer positions of old -- the summer-long commitment at the local hospital, the semester of reading to kids -- the site mostly caters to the employed and the technologically minded. Most VolunteerMatch users do good for a day or a couple of hours. Nearly half are in the 18-29 year-old range. Most are college-educated. They are essentially the public service-minded set of Generation I.

It makes sense that VolunteerMatch would be the brainchild of someone raised on the wired Left Coast. Backstrand grew up in Palo Alto, California, and after attending Brown University and completing a master's in international relations at Johns Hopkins, found himself back home in a rambling New Year's eve conversation with John Gage, chief scientist of Sun Microsystems. Gage wanted to use the Internet to find volunteers to put public schools online and together they created NetDay 1996, which did just that.

Backstrand stayed on as a marketing manager at Sun Microsystems until '97, when he became intrigued about how to use the Internet for other volunteering projects -- and perhaps hungry for his own start-up. "NetDay was interesting for tech and schools," he says. "But I thought, What other types of volunteer opportunities? I had found it hard to find volunteer opportunities myself, online or otherwise, so I figured other Americans did too." After a year pooling funding from Palo Alto philanthropists and working with engineers, he launched the site with a friend. Today Backstrand has a young staff of 18, who sit in front of tangerine and blueberry iMacs in a sparkling clean loft-type office with requisite exposed brick.

But the secret of VolunteerMatch's success is not just "extending America's great tradition of volunteering," as Backstrand puts it. Such a narrow mission could well result in under-funding, the great killer of nonprofits. Backstrand is also an excellent businessman. One year after launching VolunteerMatch, he came up with a private version of the site to license to Fortune 500 companies, which brings in about $1 million a year. VolunteerMatch Corporate, as it is called, has a client list that would make any organization drool. Coca-Cola, Dell, Gap, Levi Strauss, Nike, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Arthur Andersen -- they all pay Volunteer Match between $10,000 to over $100,000 a year to license the site's backend.

What that means is VolunteerMatch places its database of volunteer opportunities on a company's Web site. Backstrand has arranged deals with American Online to create its Helping.org site and Oprah's Oxygen.com also pulls from VolunteerMatch's 28,000 volunteer opportunities. The success of this particular endeavor does not elude Backstrand.

"I think what's interesting about VolunteerMatch Corporate is what it shows about people's lives," he reasons. "The emphasis for a lot of people today is their company. It's the center of what we do. You work a lot. And you get not just your health care and your 401K, you get your cafeteria and maybe your gym and other stuff. So companies want to provide their employees a way to give back to their community too."

In the end, VolunteerMatch is proving to be not just an online site with a good niche. It's a model nonprofit company that -- unlike so many others -- offers a service to corporate America. After just three years, it has an annual operating budget of $3 million, and receives close to $2 million in funding from foundations like Carnegie, Kellogg and Packard but also from a dozen Silicon Valley-based philanthropies that expect nonprofits to operate like businesses, which VolunteerMatch does.

I mention Robert Putnam's recent book, "Bowling Alone," and Backstrand nods his head. Putnam, a Harvard University sociologist, has argued that since 1950, the U.S.'s spirit of community activity and volunteerism has been on a serious wane. But a half million e-volunteers in three years proves some of Putnam's thesis wrong. Communities are being built online, whether urged on by corporate leadership or not.

Backstrand mentions a recent volunteer who showed up at one of his office get-togethers. "Through VolunteerMatch and a nonprofit that uses us, she's been going into the jail system and helping inmates who recently have been incarcerated. She's helping people without families, lawyers, the most basic connections, maintain contact with the outside world, which amazes me."

Backstrand turns back to his computer and muses a while. "You know what thrills me still? It's just seeing the range of interests, how people give their time. Half the country volunteers every year. And that's not declining. What's changing some is how they're doing it." Backstrand adds that beyond sustaining his nonprofit and winning two Webby Awards this year, what keeps him content is watching the number of VolunteerMatch referrals rise. Every day, the site sets up between 500 and 1,500 volunteer arrangements. The site also has been a boon to nonprofits. VolunteerMatch tends to save them between $200-$1,000 annually in volunteer recruitment costs.

And as for the dot-com demise and the thinning out of start-ups in his neighborhood -- is Backstrand smug? Far from it. "I didn't have a problem with it myself," he says. "Sure, a lot of people got involved in the Internet for the money. That's just the capitalist system. What are they supposed to do?" Yet Backstrand is relieved that the Internet economy is settling back into a period where ideas and technology will not be just flashes in the pan.

He's not certain, though, what will the future of the Internet will look like. "Community building is a weird idea," he says. "I think the Internet can lead to an increased understanding of what's happening and what the needs are in communities. But I think there are limits to what it can do socially, in the sense that if people don't want to volunteer the Internet's not going to make them do it."

So it seems Backstrand and his VolunteerMatch have melded old economy logic with new economy aplomb -- a rarity in his neck of the woods. "Technology doesn't solve problems," concludes Backstrand. "Technology makes things easier. We had a good idea simply because we are a good reflection of human behavior."

To test your more beneficent online behavior, go to VolunteerMatch.org.