By Gary Gately Stop mindlessly surfing the Web -- you could spend at least some of that time helping others. Here's a Web site that makes becoming a Good Samaritan easy: VolunteerMatch.org, which just won two Webby awards, connects volunteers with nonprofits that need help.
Since its 1998 debut, the site has proved immensely popular, linking more than 476,000 volunteers with more than 16,000 nonprofits nationwide. Part of VolunteerMatch's appeal is its ease of use. To check out the opportunities, just type in your Zip code, enter how far you're willing to travel, and -- if you have a preference -- choose the people you want to work with, such as the disabled, the hungry, the homeless, addicts, illiterates, senior citizens, children, or immigrants. Volunteers also can choose according to the type of work from categories such as arts and culture, computers and technology, media, and politics.
Think of VolunteerMatch as the Yahoo! for volunteering -- and as something to turn good intentions into reality. A visit to the site underscores just how much need exists even in what seems a solid, middle-class enclave. That's no cause for getting bummed: This site is about hope, counting your blessings, and sharing them with others.
NO LAME EXCUSES. I punched in my suburban Baltimore Zip Code and found all sorts of possibilities: working construction for Habitat for Humanity, mentoring troubled teens, writing a newsletter for a literacy group, serving food to the hungry, editing a children's Web site, helping poor patients apply for free medicine, tutoring students, coaching children in Special Olympics, writing grant applications for a crime-prevention organization. Along with ongoing volunteer gigs, the site lists one-time charity events and volunteer orientations for nonprofits.
Also listed are e-mail and phone contacts, eliminating the guesswork and potential run-around -- and making excuses for not volunteering seem all the more lame. For nonprofit groups, which post their own listings, the site provides free, easy access to potential volunteers, considerably cutting recruiting time and costs.
VolunteerMatch -- and similar sites like CityCares, SERVEnet, and Idealist.org -- go to the heart of what's best about the Net: its ability to connect people. Run by San Francisco-based ImpactOnline, the site operates on a yearly budget of about $2.9 million. Funding comes from philanthropies, corporate contributions, and companies that license its software.
LOG ON, HELP OUT. AOL uses the software for the AOL Time Warner Foundation's similar helping.org. VolunteerMatch has also inked deals with powerhouses such as Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nike, Yahoo, Excite, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard Fund, Mayfield Fund, the American Red Cross, the United Way, and the YMCA.
"E-volunteering" has grown markedly. Independent Sector, a Washington-based research organization that studies the nonprofit market, estimates 1 million Americans who volunteered in 1998 found the opportunity on the Net. It can be a whole lot easier to do so than the old-fashioned way.
I recall a journalist colleague who wanted to tutor prisoners. She called the state corrections system to ask about possibilities. After making numerous phone calls and getting bounced around, she gave up because nobody had any idea how one might become a tutor.
Absent matchmakers like VolunteerMatch, plenty of obstacles to doing good can test the patience of the most charitable among us. With them, you can just log on -- and help out. Gately writes about business and technology issues from Baltimore