DurhamCares: the eHarmony of volunteer service work

By Sarah Rankin

UNC Staff Writer

the Durham VOICE


DurhamCares, one of the newest nonprofit organizations in town, opened its doors less than a year ago but since then has created a whole new way for the city’s residents to look at philanthropy.

DurhamCares interns and volunteers (left-right) Elizabeth Jensen, Jessica Metcalf, Mike Schneider and Jonathan Clarke are hard at work on a Friday afternoon, making do in a crowded office space.

DurhamCares interns and volunteers (left-right) Elizabeth Jensen, Jessica Metcalf, Mike Schneider and Jonathan Clarke are hard at work on a Friday afternoon, making do in a crowded office space. (Staff photo by Sarah Rankin)

Tucked away in a small corner office in the newly renovated Gilbert Street Center, DurhamCares opened last March. It is run by a small group of dedicated employees and volunteers who all serve the same purpose: to help Durham residents love their neighbors.

“We want to be cheerleaders for Durham,” said DurhamCares Executive Director Heather Jones.

Jones offered two key statistics, both established by a 2008 market research survey, that she said continue to inspire the work DurhamCares is doing.

The study, conducted by FGI Research, was based on a survey of 450 Durham households. It found that 64 percent of Durham residents did not volunteer for local charities at all, and only 1.6 percent of household income was given to charity or to religious organizations. DurhamCares is working to change these figures.

Founded by Henry Kaestner and David Morken, business partners in a local telecommunications firm, the program is inspired by Christian tenets, especially the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The key to DurhamCares is its model for community involvement. DurhamCares uses two primary programs to achieve the ultimate goal of increasing community involvement, volunteerism and monetary giving throughout the city, said Jones.

First is its volunteer matching program. Jones said some people call it the “eHarmony of volunteering.”

“It’s a one-on-one free service provided to individuals to find them the perfect volunteer opportunity,” she said. “We find people’s abilities and match that with what nonprofits say they need.”

Angie Hong, a Durham resident and music therapist, went through the DurhamCares volunteer matching program last October.

“I wanted to help. I wanted to volunteer, but I was sort of unsure of how to start,” she said.

She contacted DurhamCares after stumbling across a link to its Web site. Within days, the program’s volunteer coordinator had responded with descriptions of several organizations Hong could get involved with and the time commitment necessary.

Since then, Hong has started volunteering at the Durham Rescue Mission, offering music therapy sessions. She has also helped coordinate and perform in two house concerts for DurhamCares in order to promote the group’s work.

“It’s been a pleasure working with DurhamCares,” she said. “It’s a great way to get plugged in.”

DurhamCares’ second major initiative is its success grant program. First, DurhamCares asks its nonprofit partners to publish a list of self-determined goals. Then DurhamCares solicits donations from community members to go toward the nonprofit partner of their choice. Since DurhamCares’ operating costs are privately funded, all grant donations go directly to the chosen charity.

Grants are awarded only if the selected nonprofit meets its established goals. DurhamCares also awards its own additional success grants.

DurhamCares has nine nonprofit community partners, but it hopes to expand that number to 15 or 20 in 2010. One of its current partners is the Durham Eagles Athletic Association, a program for Durham youth that uses sports to teach life skills like discipline and teamwork.

Don Jones, commissioner of the Durham Eagles, said his organization has benefitted greatly from its partnership with DurhamCares. He said the Durham Eagles met their 2009 goals, qualifying them for a success grant. The organization also received a donated van from DurhamCares last year. But most of all, Jones said the Durham Eagles have gained a priceless sense of legitimacy from their partnership with DurhamCares and its community.

“I cannot say enough about DurhamCares,” he said. “They have their hearts in the right place.”