IS members represent nonprofits, foundations, and corporations engaged in every kind of charitable endeavor, with missions that reflect the nearly infinite ways of working for the common good. New member Inspiring Service provides solutions to inspire and empower people and organizations to strengthen and improve their community and themselves. Inspiring Service is the parent organization to Cincinnati Cares, which operates as the only 100 percent volunteer-focused organization in Greater Cincinnati, OH, implementing technologies to rebuild the volunteer ecosystem and connect the public with what nonprofits need now through platforms addressing complex nonprofit needs and opportunities.
Inspiring Service was also a semi-finalist for the 2019 Innovate for Good Challenge, recognizing it for its one-of-a-kind technology platform using artificial intelligence to help communities create WIDER (welcoming, inclusive, diverse, equitable and representative) nonprofit boards.
We talked with Doug Bolton, president and CEO of Cincinnati Cares, about their work to leverage innovative technologies to help the public discover and connect with what nonprofits need now.
Tell us a little bit about your career path and how you arrived at your present position.
DB: My career started as a journalist – as a business reporter, editor, and publisher of newspapers. That turned out to be very foundational to what I’m doing today. I also ran a commercial real estate services firm in the Cincinnati and Dayton markets for many years, and that gave me additional insight into the business community in those regions. I also volunteered and served on boards, particularly for Cincinnati nonprofits. I was starting to think about my third act, and that’s when I intersected with the founder of our current organization. There was a broken volunteer ecosystem in Cincinnati and Inspiring Service was created to rebuild it, so I joined him two years ago in that effort. Together with the rest of the team, we’ve moved Cincinnati from worst among our peers in terms of volunteerism to best. That turnaround helped prepare us for the challenges we’re facing in 2020, with the pandemic, a deep recession and now civic unrest. Our work has expanded to help the public discover and connect with what nonprofits need now (not just volunteers) – much of which has changed as a result of the tumultuous environment we’re facing.
What does a typical day for staff at your organization look like? Was there a day you remember that was extraordinary?
DB: Our work really is focused on innovation, using emerging technologies, and thinking about scalable technologies. With the 700+ active nonprofits in Greater Cincinnati, our typical workday is engaging them with our technology platforms. We help them understand how they can use our platforms to attract volunteers, find new donors, communicate what products and supplies they need, tell how COVID-19 has impacted them through data and stories, as well as help them find new board and committee members and skill-based volunteers. We also work with the public, educators, community organizations, governments, faith-based groups, and businesses to help them, their members, students, or employees find a way to help in our community using our platforms. We began working with other communities in 2019, showing them how to use platforms we set up for them in their communities. And now in 2020, we have expanded our platforms to nearly 20 regions as a way to help those communities assess their active nonprofits and provide pathways for response, recovery, and rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic, the recession, and .
Before COVID-19, some of our most special days have been around our board-connecting platform (https://boardconnect.org/), which is truly making a difference in addressing the issues every community faces in diversifying nonprofit boards and leadership. An example that really sticks out to me is we had a diverse staff member from Procter & Gamble who used our board platform to discover his first board service opportunity. As an executive in a leadership role with a prominent company, he could certainly have chosen a board role with a well-known nonprofit. But he ended up connecting with a nonprofit he never would have found his way to otherwise without our technology. Those kinds of connections show the power of technology to help start relationships, and to help nonprofits make greater strides towards their missions. In the post-COVID-19 era, our days are very special in the work we’re doing with passionate and committed leaders from California to Boston and Tampa Bay to Michigan and everywhere in between.
What are some of the challenges your organization faces and how have you responded to them?
DB: Skepticism around technology — people assuming something is too good to be true and will never work – because there is a lot of technology and a lot of apps that don’t work. Fortunately, we have outcomes in Cincinnati that prove that our innovative platforms are making a difference, and are seeing encouraging stories of hope in the many communities we’re now serving.
The other challenge is a lack of innovation that is funded by the sector. Philanthropists and foundations are more focused on direct service programs. While it makes sense to focus support on areas of high community need, there needs to be more innovation in the infrastructure that supports nonprofits.
Describe some of the programs or services your organization offers.
DB: Cincinnati Cares is the source for connecting the Greater Cincinnati public to what nonprofits in the region need now – such as donations, products or services, and volunteers. Through a comprehensive registry of more than 700 active nonprofits, Cincinnati Cares’ technology platform (https://cincinnaticares.org/) connects thousands to nonprofits and helps nonprofits tell their stories and data. The organization, a Points of Light affiliate, is a certified Service Enterprise (an organization that excels at engaging volunteers) and has been the designated hub for delivering the Service Enterprise program to all nonprofits in Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and southeastern Indiana. Cincinnati Cares also operates a platform connecting volunteer leaders to nonprofit boards and committees, and provides another platform giving nonprofits access to skills-based volunteers for projects and consultations. Additionally, the organization provides technology to ProBono Partnership of Ohio, which connects about 600 volunteer attorneys to provide free legal advice to more than 200 nonprofits.
Inspiring Service provides some of the same technology platforms delivered in Greater Cincinnati to 20 communities nationwide. Inspiring Service is working with another 20 communities on putting its platforms in place.
What is one of your favorite places to be in your community?
DB: Cincinnati doesn’t have mountains or oceans and beaches, but we are at the intersection of three states along the Ohio River, and the vistas and skyline we enjoy – along with the commerce and recreational activities in our hilly river valley – make the riverfront in our region my favorite place.
Is there an unsung hero on your team you’d like to recognize? What makes this person special?
DB: Our founder, Craig Young, is a volunteer, our board chair, our chief technology officer, and a visionary leader. Craig is a Los Angeles native and Cincinnati software entrepreneur, creating Inspiring Service in 2017 to solve a big problem in the city where he’s lived the longest. His vision is that we will end the absurdity that you can do almost anything online except easily discover and connect with what nonprofits need now. He has put his heart and soul into the work of this organization, merging his highly successful entrepreneurial career with a commitment to create technology for social good.
How is your organization adapting to your work during the COVID-19 crisis?
DB: Before the pandemic, we were 100 percent focused on building and rebuilding volunteer ecosystems. With 40 percent of the average nonprofit’s resources coming from volunteers, this put us in a critical role in every nonprofit sector where we are working. Now, we’ve moved into a role that lets a community use our technology tools to build and rebuild their entire active nonprofit sector. Our platform is a public-facing comprehensive registry of every active nonprofit in a community, with the ability to connect the public to what each of those nonprofits needs now. This can be donations, volunteers, products or services, and nonprofits use the platform and its innovative search capabilities to position themselves with the public and donors through stories and data. Every community must know what nonprofits are doing, how COVID-19 has impacted them, and how the community can create a resilient nonprofit sector. Once this assessment, response, and recovery plan is in place, the platform and its extensions – the board connecting and skills-based platforms — can then begin rebuilding a community’s nonprofit sector in a way that may look very different from a pre-COVID-19 ecosystem.
Hear more from Doug Bolton of Cincinnati Cares by watching a recording of our recent webinar about Volunteerism during COVID-19.
Visit Independent Sector’s members page to learn more about our members and the wide spectrum of their missions.