Good ideas can come from strange places. This one came from playing FarmVille, the online simulation game that Facebook users either love or hate.
Andrew Beck, vice president of software consultant Metaformers Inc., was showing the game to President Ed Bouryng, and they were discussing the digital currency system that players use to operate imaginary farms.
"After I stewed a bit, I thought, what about a digital currency that can only be used for charity, a digital civic currency?" Bouryng said. "Then we started looking at providing individuals a way to use social networking as a way to get out into the community and get things done."
The result was CivicRush, a new Metaformers subsidiary based in Lexington that launched Oct. 12 with a party at Cheapside that raised $14,000 for charity. Initially focused on the Bluegrass region, the company plans to expand across the nation within a few months. So far, CivicRush has only 1,000 registered users, but the company has yet to begin marketing.
"We think it could be very big," Bouryng said. "We have a number of new innovations here.
"We think having a single place where charity, business and individuals can get together to make change for their community is very exciting."
CivicRush.com is a free Web site that allows people to make and manage financial donations to charity, and to be paired with volunteering opportunities and build a "civic résumé" of their activities. The company also will provide donation management services to companies and charities.
"One of the complaints of social networking is you develop a lot of relationships, but they're thin, they're virtual," Bouryng said. "CivicRush is designed to get people to use the power of digital socialization, but get out in their community and make things better.
"You can socialize around the good deeds you do for your community."
When users set up profiles, they list their skills and causes they support. They can search for organizations, events, volunteer opportunities or "needs" they can help meet. They also can follow organizations and create events.
"We take an online dating engine, and we apply it to getting out into your community," Bouryng said.
Users can donate money by buying CivicRush's online currency, called "Civ," even through payroll deduction if they wish.
Each Civ is worth a dollar. Civs can be assigned to any government-registered charity, allowing users to manage all their giving without having to go to multiple Web sites and entering personal information in each. At the end of the year, they get a single tax statement from CivicRush's non-profit affiliate, Civillos.
Charities pay a fee of 1 percent to 3 percent when they redeem donated Civs, which Bouryng said covers the cost of bank and credit card fees. Bouryng said CivicRush's revenue stream will come from additional services that businesses or charities can choose to buy.
"All of that right now is in the development phase," he said when asked for specifics. "We're looking at ways to engage businesses that have charitable programs.
"We still need to find ways to make this project self-sustaining. It's a longer-term play because the initial services are all free."
The company hopes to be self-sustaining, if not profitable, within 18 months, he said.
Metaformers, headquartered in suburban Washington, D.C., has based some operations in Lexington since 2006, when the company was hired to fix the city's dysfunctional new financial-management system.
Metaformers' core business is designing human resources and supply-chain management solutions for clients.
When the company was considering where to develop CivicRush, Bouryng said, "We were initially thinking the D.C. region. But when we started to look around at the talent pool, we found that for the tool we were using, ... Lexington had a very strong skill set."
He said Metaformers was able to assemble a "world-class" development team under Lexington software designer Todd Willey.
CivicRush has 12 employees, but Bouryng said that could grow to between 20 and 100, depending on the success of its national rollout.
CivicRush occupies the top floor of the historic McAdams & Morford building on West Main Street, and Bouryng expects the company to remain in Lexington.
"We've had a lot of success here; I like the city, I like the people," he said. "It has a great climate for business."