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Sparked: Volunteer work, right in your cubicle

Sparked, a recently rebranded version of The Extraordinaries, crowdsources volunteer work so employees can contribute to causes right from the office.

Sparked graphic
Sparked volunteers can work with nonprofits around the globe. (Click to enlarge.) Sparked

When Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati needed a nine-page English document translated to Arabic, the children's advocacy organization turned to Sparked. Someone living in Jordan logged on and translated the prose in a few hours. Then someone from California confirmed the accuracy of the piece. Crowdsourcing skills and bite-size volunteering is what Sparked is all about.

Sparked connects corporate employees with nonprofits via the Internet, giving employees a way to volunteer right from their cubicles. Sparked co-founder Jacob Colker calls this micro-volunteering, a term he's trying to coin.

When I visited the small, barren Sparked office in San Francisco's hip SOMA neighborhood, Colker showed me the company's volunteering platform, which it licenses to major corporations. Employees from companies including new client LinkedIn or Google, Frog Design, Kraft, and SAP can sign in and volunteer during their lunch breaks--and people can focus on certain regions or specific issues. But the volunteer work is not limited to corporate partnerships. Individuals can also sign up at their leisure to help nonprofits with all things digital, from branding issues to blogging advice.

Originally, Colker thought people would volunteer their time while sitting on the bus or lounging by the pool. As it turns out, people out and about are probably not going to be able to help a nonprofit with a branding issue, Colker said. Instead, he maintains, people would much rather help others from their office, right at their desktop, during the free time they have between work-related tasks. The company started as The Extraordinaries in 2008 and within the past eight months rebranded itself to switch its mobile focus more to the Web.

Sparked challenge
Arizona Myeloma Network explains what kind of help it needs. (Click to enlarge.) Screenshot by Boonsri Dickinson/CNET

"Mobile is just a solution," Colker said. "Our focus is helping nonprofits get great work done, by helping companies engage their employees." Traditionally, corporations spend money on employee-volunteering programs to help strengthen company culture and help employees feel good by making an impact on society. But these programs require people to physically show up to do volunteer work.

Old-school volunteering programs require a lot of overhead: Nonprofits need to interview volunteers, train and manage them. Through Sparked's network of 2,500 nonprofits, organizations can just post and let people find the projects. Volunteers just have to search to find projects that suit them.

There are other crowdsourcing options out there. Catch A Fire is a skills-based volunteering Web site that helps professionals to assist nonprofits. But unlike Sparked, which lets people volunteer on their free time with no strings attached, Catch A Fire requires a commitment of 50 or so hours, depending on the project, and is not focused on corporate volunteering. "It's still traditional volunteering made easier though an online profile. We have a white-label solution," Colker said.

Choosing a challenge
During lunch yesterday, I logged in to Sparked in search of a volunteer project. For causes I'm interested in, I ticked off environment, health, and food (because my stomach was grumbling, but also because I want to help those who don't have enough to eat) and I listed my skills as blogging, research, and social media.

Apparently, there are 26,118 people who share my interests and 48 current challenges I could choose from--from helping the Arizona Myeloma Network with its social-media strategy to assisting the Cameroon Association of Active Youths in moderating Linked In, Facebook, and Twitter pages. The Asheville International Children's Film Festival wants a catchy tagline.

Depending on how I was feeling, I could choose a volunteer challenge or, "American Idol" style, rate other volunteers' suggestions that have been posted online. I picked a challenge requested by East Metro Youth Services that solicited advice on what platform to blog on. I suggested Tumblr. Next time I log in, I might look for a nonprofit in need of a blogger.