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Site gets people involved: Institute uses Web to link volunteers with opportunities

June 19, 2006

When Roger Williams began approaching local not-for-profits early this year about his idea to post their volunteer opportunities for teen-agers on his Web site, many were skeptical.

"What's this guy trying to sell me?" they wondered.

But six months after launching www.helpindyonline.com, part of his larger Emergent Leadership Institute, Williams has more than 80 charities promoting nearly 300 positions on his site for high school and college students interested in volunteering.

The 36-year-old Carmel native and former youth pastor founded ELI, itself a not-for-profit, in August. The mission involves a four-pronged effort to get youngsters involved in their communities through volunteerism and service.

"What we learned from a youth focus group was that they couldn't use leadership skills in a real-time environment," Williams recalled from his days as a youth pastor. "If they're going to be effective, we need to help them do that right where they're at, here in Indianapolis, instead of out at a camp in the woods."

The Web site acts as a volunteer clearinghouse for students who can browse listings from one place instead of having to scour several sites. While a handful of local organizations have youth-volunteer programs-the United Way of Central Indiana also lists volunteer postings electronically-ELI's founder said his creation goes a step further.

Williams and business partner Neal Gore, a former youth pastor as well, meet with not-for-profits to learn about their needs and help create new volunteer opportunities.

The two target students through MySpace.com, the Web site popular with teens and young adults. They also have signed a partnership with radio station WNOU-FM 93.1 for promotional messages. And this fall they hope to hang posters on high school and college campuses.

The second part of the effort should launch this fall, in the form of what Williams referred to as "street teams." The focus is to gather high school students by area and have not-for-profits share their stories with the teens. Business leaders also might discuss why philanthropy is important. The students then will become "advocates" for ELI, Williams said.

The first forum slated for later this month in Lawrence will serve as a test before the program expands to other schools, Williams said.

Challenges exist

Williams attends Central Indiana Association of Volunteer Administrators meetings monthly to seek not-for-profit partners. That's where he met Nora Spitznogle, director of volunteers for Second Helpings, which uses donated food to serve 3,000 meals daily to 50 social service agencies.

Volunteers need to be at least 16 years old. But because the food is prepared during the day, it's difficult to get teens involved, except during the summer months. Second Helpings Inc. already has recruited one teen-ager from Help Indy Online, who brought six other volunteers with him.

"What I like about [ELI] is that they really target that age," Spitznogle said. "I think we're seeing that this is an age group that really wants to volunteer."

To that end, volunteering among teenagers remains strong, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the fiscal year ending in September 2005, 30.4 percent of teens gave their time to at least one organization.

ELI has a first-year budget of $195,000, but is unlikely to meet it, Williams said. A couple of large donors Williams declined to name helped fund startup costs. He currently is drafting four grant proposals in hopes of securing additional support.

Funding is one of three common challenges beginning not-for-profits face, said Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director of The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

The others are identifying a market not already served and maintaining the commitment to carry out a mission.

"We do have a significant failure rate of nonprofits," Burlingame said. "It's really no different than when you think about small businesses, and the failure rate among them."

The biggest test for ELI will be to differentiate itself among the agencies already promoting youth volunteerism, Burlingame said. Among those are the United Way of Central Indiana's Youth as Resources program, the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance Inc.'s Youth Philanthropy Initiative of Indiana, and the Indiana Youth Institute.

After the Indianapolis Zoo signed on as an ELI partner. it received 300 applications for its summer Zoo Teens volunteer program. Half were accepted. The zoo points youths who were not accepted to Help Indy Online, to seek other opportunities.

"To have resources pooled together in one place is a nice option," said Kristin Kraemer, the zoo's volunteer manager.

Combating brain drain

ELI has no headquarters. Williams ultimately wants to have a presence downtown, where 20 college students would suspend their studies for a year to attend life-skills and networking classes taught by staff members. They could intern with one of ELI's not-for-profit partners to gain additional experience. In the summer, they would become camp counselors to high school students and relay what they learned.

"We think this can help combat the brain drain," Williams said. "When they become active stakeholders, we believe they will be more apt to come back to the community and be a part of it."

Williams, a 1988 graduate of Carmel High School, formerly owned The Foolery baseball-card and comic-book shop on Main Street in Carmel with his brother.

In 1998, Williams joined Central Indiana Youth For Christ and later pursued a career with Youth For Christ in San Diego. In 2001, he took a job as a youth pastor with a church in Findlay, Ohio. Three years later, he accepted a similar position at Trinity Park United Methodist Church in Greenfield, so he and his wife could be closer to family.

Not long after, he got the idea to launch ELI. Volunteerism, however, has always been important to Williams.

In March 2005, he, Gore and Michael Fox, ELI's IT director, took two high school students to Thailand to help with tsunami relief. The group spent about a week there, simply because, as Williams said, "we just had a desire to help."
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