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How Haiti's Earthquake Inspired LinkedIn's Skill-based Volunteer Marketplace

It’s not just for landing your next job anymore. In the event of a natural disaster, LinkedIn has a new service—LinkedIn For Good—that will connect people in need with people with the skills to help them. It’s all part of their desire to increase volunteerism, and create social change with human capital.

In 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake stuck west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, disrupting life for millions of residents and razing infrastructure across the impoverished country. The widespread destruction led to an outpouring of support, with donations flooding in from around the world. But the country needed more—more than just Sean Penn and Wyclef Jean, at least—and some turned to an unlikely source for help: LinkedIn.

"When the Haiti disaster happened, they called us and said, 'We’re getting lots of money and physical goods, but what we need are electricians and plumbers and people who can help us rebuild homes,'" recalls Deep Nishar, LinkedIn’s SVP of product. "'How do we find them?'"

LinkedIn is a network of 135 million users; it’s the backbone of the professional social graph. But while the service has endless access to talent, it didn’t yet offer the right tools to harness that talent in the event of a tragedy, such as the earthquake in Haiti. Nishar and others set out to change that. "Let’s have a skill setting for people to say they love helping out when there are natural disasters—if you happen to be a contractor or a home builder, you now have a ready audience," Nishar says. "We can target you, and say, Here’s an organization that needs your help."

Soon after the disaster in Haiti, the company established LinkedIn for Good, an organization that focuses on connecting talent with volunteer opportunities, and brought on Meg Garlinghouse, a veteran of Yahoo’s philanthropic wing, the World Bank, and the Asia Foundation, to head up the group. She aimed to use LinkedIn’s technology and data to create what’s essentially a pro bono marketplace—to establish a volunteer interest graph. "I don’t think one really exists right now yet," Garlinghouse says. "Essentially what LinkedIn does is connect talent and opportunity—we’re just pivoting toward social impact." In September, for example, the company added "Volunteer Experience & Causes" to its profile pages, enabling users to weave social impact into their professional identities.

The next step is making sure organizations can reach that talent in the event of a disaster. The company is working with nonprofits such as Taproot to refine the experience and build out its skill-based pro bono marketplace. "When there’s a disaster, there’s not time for people to write a RFP, describing exactly what they’re looking for," says Garlinghouse. "People tend to be identified and found through relationships, and because LinkedIn is a relationship platform, we can do this much more efficiently." When an earthquake struck in Turkey this past October, for example, an organization reached out to LinkedIn to find Turkish translators—and because LinkedIn’s graph is broken down by skill set, potential candidates aren’t difficult to find.

Garlinghouse envisions creating more direct and effective lines between volunteer organizations and professionals, and potentially moving people to act beyond armchair charity (text-message donations, microloans). "Human capital is the future of philanthropy. Cash is important, but the ability to leverage people’s skills and experience, I think, will create far more reaching, long-term impact—real sustainable change," she says. "For example, for [LinkedIn founder] Reid Hoffman, spending two hours cleaning a beach versus spending two hours consulting with the executive director of an environmental organization—those two things are not comparable. It just makes so much more sense for him to be using his brain to make a measurable impact on the world."

Other organizations and companies—including Dell and Microsoft—have worked to create similar pro bono marketplaces. But none have been built on top of LinkedIn’s professional social graph. "There are probably a half-dozen organizations that currently formally connect skill-based volunteers with opportunities—probably less than a couple thousand opportunities in all," Garlinghouse says. "In terms of scale, that’s not interesting to us."

LinkedIn is now focused on building out the service—Garlinghouse and Hoffman met last week with the LinkedIn for Good team to discuss product strategy for the skill-based volunteer marketplace. For skeptics of the service, who might be more interested in using LinkedIn for career advancement than charity, Garlinghouse reminds me that volunteer experience is crucial to the hiring process. According to a survey by the company, roughly 20% of hiring managers in the U.S. have hired job candidates because of their volunteer work experience. For organizations on the receiving end, that’s especially helpful: two-thirds of people who volunteer for organizations become donors, and donate an average of 10 times more than non-volunteers.

Says Garlinghouse, "Volunteerism is a gateway drug."