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Hubs of Inspiration: The folks behind Synapse pair nonprofits with members of the business community



At 10 a.m. on a sunny morning, a dozen business professionals are gathering around a table at Art 180 to hear about how the McShin Foundation is helping people recover from substance addiction in Richmond.

The occasion is a Synapse hub meeting, with members of networking group Synapse aiming to introduce and grow connections between business people and nonprofit groups. Simply put, it's networking for the greater good.

After a dozen years working in banking, Keith Reynolds was a pro at networking but starting to realize that not everyone was comfortable with the hard-sell of typical networking meetings. "I wanted to get away from that and create a professional network that connected people in a meaningful way," he says of trying to envision a new model of networking.

The result in 2013 was Synapse, a members-only group dedicated to regularly bringing together business owners, entrepreneurs and sales professionals with leaders of local nonprofit organizations in what are referred to as hubs. The goal of each is for the nonprofit representative to inspire people to volunteer, join the board, be a sponsor, go to an event and be an ambassador for the organization.

With an annual Synapse membership, each of the 350 members chooses a home hub, although each person also has unlimited visiting privileges to all other Synapse hubs, as well as a standing invitation to monthly Happy Hour Hubs.

Jane Helfrich, chief executive officer of Richmond Metro Habitat for Humanity, recalls being the first nonprofit for which a hub was set up. At the initial hub meeting, she set out to clear up many of the misconceptions about Habitat for Humanity, including explaining that it doesn't give away houses as so many people mistakenly believed.

She sees the connections made through Synapse and its hubs as quality relationships, an opinion she is sure is shared by all Synapse members.

"You personally get to know the people and trust them at a hub meeting," she explains. "There's lots of trust and integrity because it's not just exchanging business cards. It's building relationships." As a result, she's had hub members come out to assist with construction of Habitat houses.

Word of mouth has been so good about Synapse hubs that Reynolds finds himself in the enviable position of having nonprofits approach him, requesting their own hubs. He sees no limit to the number of hubs that Synapse can create going forward, saying that all that's required are the right people. At the time of reporting this article, there were 29 hubs meeting every other week, making for multiple hub meetings five days a week.

In 2014, Synapse created its fourth hub for Unbound RVA, a group that empowers talented Richmonders from low-income communities by providing them with paths to entrepreneurship. When Helfrich heard about the group's mission, she immediately thought of a talented man for whom Habitat had built a house and recommended him for the program. He went through the application process, made the cut and wound up with his own business.

It was the kind of networking success story that Reynolds had been hoping for, and in the first year of Synapse's existence at that.

"Look how we can impact a life if we can get the right people thinking about these things," he says with pride. "It was life-changing for him and extremely motivating for us."

At its most essential, Synapse's goal is to make its members see businesses and nonprofits as the same thing — community organizations — and use that mindset as a starting point for collaborating and working together.

Reynolds sees Synapse as a solid win-win for everyone involved. "I can't even tell you how many times lives have been changed by a person being directed to the right nonprofit," he says. "All we ask of our members is that they keep showing up with an open mind and make connections that make sense." S

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