For A Good Time Call

November 1, 2007       Natalie Ghidotti      

Members of SMASHED in various cities race through the streets as part of the Idiotarod, a fundraising event for local causes.

Ellen Shortill never really set out to form a fundraising group made up of Washington, D.C., young professionals. It only happened that way after she woke up one day inspired to raise $5,000 for a local charity — and along the way, inspired her friends.

“I had no idea how I was going to raise the money, but I knew I was going to try,” she said.

After engaging her friends in her big idea, the small group met during happy hour at a local bar and gave themselves a name — SMASHED (Society of Mature Adults Seeking to Help, Entertain and Donate). They decided that the only way to truly get young professionals in the Washington, D.C., area involved was to make it fun and as far from normal (and formal) as possible.

“People like knowing they are having fun and doing what they want to do, while helping a charity,” said Shortill, 38, who said she is one of the oldest participants in SMASHED. Most of it’s volunteers are ages 25 to 35. “If it’s easy and fun for them, they are willing to do it and get involved.”

That is the motto for a new breed of volunteer: the young professional. Nonprofit organizations large and small are tapping into this market for a new crop of volunteer/donor. Many of these younger volunteers are results-driven philanthropists who often take an active role in the charities they support. Most of them are keen on having a good time and networking with their peers while “doing good.” And almost all of them call the Internet their second home and wouldn’t think twice before making all of their charitable contributions online.

“We have the opportunity to get involved (during our 20s) through the Internet, things like Facebook, etc., that the older generation didn’t have,” said Will Schneider, a young professional who works for New York-based Changing Our World. He leads a new group, FLiP (Future Leaders in Philanthropy), a networking group for young professionals in the philanthropy world.

Groups such as FLiP, SMASHED, Party with Purpose in the New York area and the Boston Young Professionals Association depend greatly on online communications to recruit volunteers and keep them coming back for more. These groups make it easy for young professionals to find information about volunteer opportunities donate directly online and check out the celebrity-like photos after all the fun.

The Party’s Where? Fun is really what it’s all about with many young professional volunteer groups. “Young professionals who are 21- to 30-years-old want to be socially conscious, but money is tight and they often don’t have a lot of disposable income,” said Nathan Spencer, director of publicity for the Boston Young Professionals Association (BYPA). “They like to go out, meet new people — but do it for a good cause.”

That’s why the BYPA created a partnership with the national On Your Feet Project. OYFP partners with nonprofits in large cities to facilitate active involvement among young adults in the areas of children’s welfare, domestic violence, education, homelessness, personal/public health and environmental protection. The nonprofit aims to create accessible, event-based outreach programs that harness the power of popular culture and volunteerism.

OYFP taps into BYPA’s more than 10,000 young members to support local nonprofits chosen by OYFP and the BYPA board of directors. Spencer said the BYPA tends to benefit smaller, less-recognized nonprofits in the Boston area. OYFP has operations in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

The fundraisers are far from a typical Boston event, complete with black tie and pricey cocktails. They tend to be more “hip,” such as a salsa event at a local dance club or bowling night at an all-night bowling alley. Shortill with SMASHED said the events in Washington, D.C. are never typical, which is what makes them so popular with the younger crowd.

“It’s great to see a pretty important person on The Hill dressed up as a pirate, relieving some stress and acting completely silly,” she said. “The great thing about our events is that you don’t have to get dressed up in a black tie. Those type of events are great, but sometimes you just want to have a hippity-hoppity race with your friends.”

Hence, the reason the most popular SMASHED event held each year is the Idiotarod, a spoof of the famous Alaskan dog sled race that involves more than 80 costume-clad teams zooming shopping carts throughout the streets of the nation’s capital. Other events include the Rec Room Olympics, the ManPageant and a citywide scavenger hunt on the scale of “The Amazing Race.”  These events are set to raise more than $15,000 this year for Washington, D.C.-based charities.

“We’ve always aimed to benefit small, local charities where $1,000 or $3,000 has the potential to make an impact,” Shortill said. “We’ve turned away charities because they are too big and have other resources.”

Making a Difference — Today The young professionals tend to look for charities where they can immediately make a difference. They also look for opportunities that don’t necessarily take a long commitment, what has become known as episodic volunteering. Volunteer management organizations such as the Hands on Network (HoN) in Atlanta work hard to put together opportunities that appeal to young professional volunteers.

“The Hands on Network was actually started in the 1980s by young professionals who were new in their careers, working long and crazy hours, but who wanted to give back,” said Lisa Flick, vice president of network advancement for HoN. “What they found were a lot of obstacles. They [worked on putting together a network of opportunities] that allowed for flexible schedules, different commitment levels and a diversity of community issues.”

Today, the HoN — which merged with the Washington, D.C.-based Points of Light Foundation this past July — still has a number of programs targeting young professionals. Its TeamWorks program is designed for volunteers age 25 to 35 who are seeking service opportunities but in a long-term social setting. The program allows a group of volunteers to focus on specific issues and neighborhoods and requires a time commitment of up to nine months.

TeamWorks serves as a mini “sampler platter” for volunteering, while allowing young professionals to meet like-minded individuals. Volunteering “gigs” might include cleaning a homeless shelter, providing meals for the homeless, distributing condoms in an urban neighborhood to help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases or painting a neighborhood health clinic. Many of the program’s participants continue as TeamWorks project leaders, who lead up to 12 volunteers and serve as liaisons with the HoN staff.

“TeamWorks has been really popular with young professionals who are new to town and want to understand the issues facing the community,” Flick said. “The social networking aspect has been fantastic and has allowed people to meet each other and volunteer together throughout a series of projects.”

Whether young professionals are sharing a beer at the local bar (with the proceeds going to the women and children’s shelter down the street) or learning about the economic implications of homelessness through a TeamWorks program, it is obvious that social networking is a must for these volunteers. “Acting like a crazy fool for a good cause is what it’s all about,” Shortill said. “It really works. People love it.”  NPT