Online volunteers save the Great Lakes Bay Region’s nonprofits over $820,000

A rising tide lifts all boats. 

The Great Lakes Bay Region’s community foundations and United Ways have joined forces to offer a Catchafire subscription to local nonprofits, which kicked off in June 2020. 

Sharon Mortensen is the President & CEO of the Midland Area Community Foundation.“Really what Catchafire does, is it democratizes talent, so talent is available to anyone that is looking for that to help with specific projects within their nonprofit,” says Sharon Mortensen, President & CEO of the Midland Area Community Foundation (MACF).

Catchafire (pronounced “catch a fire”) is an online, professional volunteer subscription. Services include COVID-19 essentials, finance & operations, fundraising, human resources, marketing & communications, professional development, program management, and technology.

Across Midland, Gladwin, Clare, Bay, Isabella, and Saginaw counties, 200 nonprofits volunteered to trial Catchafire. Since its launch, more nonprofits have elected to join. In the first three quarters since its launch, the region saved over $820,000 from projects performed for nonprofits. That’s the work of 218 volunteers putting in more than 4,100 hours. 

“This was just one area where we know that we’re all interested in strengthening the nonprofits that we serve,” says Mortensen.

Mortensen first learned about Catchafire at a Council of Michigan Foundations conference years ago. Prior to the start of the pandemic, Mortensen started conversations with the community foundations and United Ways in Midland, Isabella, Bay, and Saginaw counties. 

When the pandemic hit, they questioned if they should move ahead. “If anything, this is the time that we need to move ahead more than ever to provide resources. … Having this as a support tool for them was incredibly helpful,” says Mortensen.

A single Catchafire subscription is shared across the Great Lakes Bay Region. The four community foundations and the four United Ways share the funding for the service. The Michigan Health Endowment Fund covers the annual technology fee.

Nonprofits post a need, and volunteers from across the country are matched with the posting. Nonprofits can then interview volunteers and choose the best fit, and Catchafire coordinates the entire interview process.

A Catchafire volunteer analyzed years of data collected on the Legacy Center's Barton Reading and Spelling program, a one-on-one tutoring program. The number of hours per volunteer and total volunteer time since 2010 can be seen on the monitor.“It’s a pretty remarkable platform, and the talent that they have and the products that come out of these volunteers are just outstanding,” says Mortensen.” 

In Midland County alone, nonprofits supported by the Community Foundation and United Way completed 148 projects. That equals over 2,300 volunteer hours, saving them over $440,000.

The ROCK Center for Youth Development, The Arc of Midland, Rural Community Health Worker Network, Hidden Harvest, and Midland Area Wellbeing Coalition are a few of the nonprofits in Midland County that have used Catchafire.

There’s no limit to the number of projects that can be completed or volunteer hours that can be used. The Legacy Center for Community Success alone has saved over $66,000 by leveraging Catchafire. They’ve used Catchafire to refine internal procedures, build up their website, and create an accessible diversity, equity and inclusion podcast.

The Legacy Center for Community Success has used Catchafire to refine internal procedures, build up their website, and create an accessible diversity, equity and inclusion podcast.“I think we see repeat use among nonprofits seeing how easy it is, how effective the projects are, [and] how excellent the volunteers are in terms of their expertise and skills,” says Mortensen.

Catchafire helps nonprofits to build their capacity, meaning they’ll have improved knowledge, tools, and resources — enabling them to function at a greater capacity. And the better capacity these organizations have, the more efficiently they’ll use grant dollars that are given to them from community foundations. 

“When we look at, how do we build capacity for nonprofits, and how do we provide resources that they can really use — this has just been an outstanding way to do that, and I love the collaboration across the region with all of us working together,” says Mortensen. “I think that’s been very exciting too.”

The region plans to renew the Catchafire subscription through June 2023. If your nonprofit would like to get involved, reach out to your local community foundation.

Isabella County

In Isabella County, 19 nonprofits have used Catchafire so far. For those nonprofits, skilled Catchafire volunteers have contributed 400 hours of skilled volunteer time, saving the county’s nonprofits over $100,000.

“Launching this program and this connection with Catchafire was perfect timing,” says Amanda Schafer, President & CEO of the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation. “Organizations have had really different needs over the past year and I think that’s probably going to continue.”

Amanda Schafer is the President & CEO of the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation.Various projects have been completed in Isabella County. The Isabella County Restoration House had organization goal-setting and strategy work done, saving over $6,000. The Women’s Initiative Committee had help crafting a donor letter, which resulted in over $20,000 fundraising.

“It was what they would’ve said anyways, but it was how they did it, right? [The volunteer] helped them think of different ways to reach the audience that they were hoping to reach in a time they couldn’t hold an in-person fundraiser,” says Schafer.

The Safe & Sound Child Advocacy Center had a flyer drawn up; the Humane Animal Treatment Society had a logo designed; the Chippewa Watershed Conservancy had an infographic built; Art Reach of Mid Michigan asked for an audit of their website.

“Sometimes, it’s not that someone inside the organization doesn’t have the skill — it’s a matter of time. They’re doing other things, so their time is needed elsewhere,” says Schafer.

Schafer says the need for in-person staff and volunteers isn’t going away. When you’re a completely volunteer-run organization though, Catchafire can be an especially great resource for capacity building.

“It’s a place for folks to reach out and get help and they don’t have to be worried that it’s something they should’ve known, or it’s something that they should’ve gotten training on before they started,” says Schafer. “It’s not like that — Catchafire is a resource that can be there for an organization as their needs change.”

If you’re wondering if it’s worth it, Schafer recommends calling someone from one of the nonprofits who has used Catchafire.  

“When you learn about something that helps you do your job better, you want to tell other people. And I think that’s definitely the case. … We all want to help one another be as efficient and as able as possible to deliver on our missions,” says Schafer. “... When one of us does better, we all do better.”

Bay County

“From Bay County’s perspective, [Catchafire] has been astonishingly impactful,” says Diane Fong, President & CEO of the Bay Area Community Foundation.

Leveraging Catchafire’s services, Bay County’s nonprofits have saved over $200,000.

The Bay Area Women’s Center has completed several projects with Catchafire, saving them over $50,000.The Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy was coached on email marketing and had a logo designed; the Bay Community Tennis Association had a flyer designed and a press release written; Studio 23 focused on improving their digital presence with branded assets and website updates. The Bay Area Women’s Center has completed several projects, saving them over $50,000.

“The projects we have been able to get done were on my to-do list for the far future, and likely would need to be hired out to complete, but thanks to Catchafire they have been completed now and at no cost to us,” says Lindsay Richardson, director of development at the Bay Area Women’s Center. “The projects available on Catchafire help me to think long-term about our agency and our needs.”

Diane Fong is the President & CEO of the Bay Area Community Foundation.Fong is grateful the region launched a Catchafire subscription. There were mixed opinions: either everybody needs it now, or everybody will be so overwhelmed, they won’t use it.

“With the ability of all of us to come together, we all were able to share in the financial cost of it. Something that was cost-prohibitive for any one of our organizations to do became very manageable and incredibly impactful for all of us,” says Fong. “Many thanks to Midland for bringing it back up and helping us push through on it.”

Beyond the camaraderie in the Great Lakes Bay Region, Fong reflects on how Catchafire brings people together to make our communities a better place. 

“We’ve learned through the pandemic in this virtual world that we’re all neighbors. It doesn’t have to be your next-door neighbor, or your neighbor from down the street,” says Fong. “We’re all one, big human family.”

Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.