Over the past decade, a number of programs have sprung up to channel that desire to help into specific volunteer roles. "We can create opportunities online that would have been impossible before," Sproull says. "We can connect volunteers around the world with community development projects in Africa that need specific expertise they're not going to find on the ground."
For These Businesses, Profit Isn't Sole Goal
The plus for volunteers is that their work can be done anywhere, at any time --no plane flights required. Think of it as the nonprofit version of outsourcing: A volunteer with accounting experience can review financial documents over a few evenings at home; another volunteer with Web design skills can be brought in to overhaul a Web site. Rather than signing up for a set number of hours indefinitely, the volunteer can work on a project-to-project basis, giving as much or as little time as their schedule permits.
The United Nations, for example, runs an online volunteer program that matches volunteers with development projects around the world. Recent in-demand skills included writing and editing; graphic and website design; IT development; and project management.
Another initiative is the Business Council for Peace, which supports small entrepreneurs in conflict-affected countries. While cash contributions are vital to the group's work, volunteers can also sign up to share their expertise. The group runs on a membership model; you pay a set fee per month ($15 to $50), which gives you access to volunteer opportunities; you also have a chance to meet sponsored entrepreneurs when they travel to the U.S. for further training.
In addition to donating your time or specialized skills, you can also donate a resource most businesses take for granted: computing power. The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (known as BOINC) allows researchers to access the processing power of personal computers around the world; download the software, and it puts your computer to work on a particular project when you're not using it. Both public and private research projects from around the world are posted on the site, from climate studies to astronomy research.
Of course, if you believe good works should start at home, the Internet also makes it easy to find specific volunteer projects in your community. Visit volunteermatch.org, and you can get a list of needs customized to your ZIP code. The tough economic times have hit nonprofits particularly hard, and most are willing to work with individuals to craft flexible volunteer opportunities.
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Private businesses and nonprofits depend on the same human capital to stay afloat. The skills an entrepreneur has honed by starting a business can also make life better for those less fortunate -- down the street or halfway around the world.