Written by Denise Prickett

Rachael Chong began her career in investment banking, seeking to acquire finance and business expertise with the hope of applying those skills to the problem of poverty. Driven by her desire to do social good, Chong left the corporate world and entered microfinance, working first with FINCA International, a charitable microfinance organization, and then helping start the U.S. affiliate of BRAC, an international development organization, where she called on her friends and colleagues to volunteer their expertise for specific projects. This method proved so successful that it inspired Chong to found Catchafire, an “eHarmony for nonprofits and skilled volunteers.” In four years, Catchafire has matched the expertise of 20,000 professionals with 5,000 not-for-profits.

 Our Conversation with Rachael Chong

Duke I&E: You began your graduate studies at Duke in the midst of your quest to find a way to use your business and finance expertise for social good. What led you to choose Duke at this juncture?

RC: I chose Duke because I loved that the Master of Public Policy program was small and intimate, but that it was part of a fantastic university with a lot to offer. Also, when I visited Durham in March, the weather was amazing and the flowers were all in bloom—it was beautiful! I thought that, all around, Duke was the best choice for me.

Duke I&E: You founded the Duke Microfinance Club and participated in the 2009 Duke Start-Up Challenge, winning the Social Enterprise Track with your business plan for Catchafire. You’ve described yourself as “one of the lucky ones to be born with fire.” How did your experiences at Duke help propel you even further?

RC: Starting the Duke Microfinance Club and being a part of the Duke Start-Up Challenge empowered me to write Catchafire as my master’s thesis (which was very unusual). My involvement in these activities really put me on the right track. Duke provided a great playground for me to grow, test and learn—exactly what I think going to school should do for anyone. 

Duke I&E: Catchafire is a “for-purpose social mission business.” It is a certified B Corporation, and its nonprofits pay a membership fee. Can you explain how these elements contribute to Catchafire’s success?

RC: The for-purpose aspect of our structure fulfills our two-fold social mission: 1) help social good organizations build capacity, and 2) provide talented individuals with transformational volunteer experiences. We believe that our legal structure enables us to fulfill our mission in the most effective way. As a quickly growing startup, it is important that we are able to act in a nimble manner. Our B Corporation status allows us to constantly innovate and switch directions, ensuring that we are serving our community to the best of our ability.

Catchafire requires nonprofits that it invites into the community to make a financial investment to confirm their commitment to partnership and Catchafire professionals’ time. This also allows us to continue to provide high-quality matches and support to our partners. This investment serves as “skin in the game” and ensures the organization’s seriousness and commitment to our professionals’ time and energy. Our goal is to provide a significant return on investment for our partners and save them time, money and resources in finding talented and passionate individuals who have the potential to become long-term advocates.

Duke I&E: Two of the matches Catchafire has made team Meal on Wheels of Durham with local professionals Jayme Knight and Frank Pollock. Can you tell us more about those matches?

RC: We actually have a case study on our site that features the success of Jayme Knight’s Membership Strategy project with Meals on Wheels of Durham.

Frank Pollock is another stellar professional in our community who exemplifies our mission. He is dedicated to our mission because he loves using his expertise to help others. In two years Frank has completed nine Catchafire projects! Frank’s Pitch Deck Review project with Meals on Wheels was wildly successful; in the executive director’s own words: “Frank Pollock is a gem. He matched with us for a Pitch Deck Review, and it quickly became apparent that his knowledge of nonprofits and Durham were going to be helpful in ways none of us had imagined. He is able to connect us to resources in the community that we were not aware of. His passion for our collaboration was such that we have matched with him for another project!”

To learn more about Catchafire, click here.

To read about more Duke entrepreneurs, click here.

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