Archive for the 'media' Category

What’s Missing from the Calls to Volunteer

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

2009 has already had unprecedented numbers of leaders encourage more Americans to serve: President Obama on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the massive Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, and Michael Bloomberg encouraging more New Yorkers to volunteer last week. Last year, Deval Patrick created the Commonwealth Corps in an effort to increase volunteerism and the capacity to volunteer among Massachusetts residents and charities.

However, not much has changed for the ordinary person who still has to work, pay rent, and put food on the table, who cannot dedicate more than a few hours a week to volunteer, or for local charities struggling to serve more needs with fewer resources in this economy slump. Beyond leaders telling the public to do more for the common good, little has (or has so far) changed to remove barriers to involvement since few resources and directives have been created to improve the volunteer programs and capacities of local charities.

For significant growth in the for-profit sector, a supply chain (which translates to the nonprofit sector as volunteer program development, recruitment, screening, placement, and feedback loops) is developed to handle expansion, but it seems like our leaders are overpromoting one aspect, general volunteer recruitment, instead of the whole process for volunteer engagement. I’m concerned that many people may try to volunteer but then not feel valued or utilized effectively if local charities can’t respond and place them immediately. For example, at the very beginning when someone is newly inspired to volunteer, s/he is typically directed to a web search engine like VolunteerMatch that assumes s/he knows who s/he wants to help, has skills to do it, and what will be personally fulfilling, then generates an overwhelming number of purported matches. These sites have been around for decades, and yet they still lack eHarmony-like interfaces to help people identify their passions, temperaments, and resources and display appropriate matches based on more than physical proximity and a cause/needs. If these sites aren’t improved, then we have/will plateau since they are geared for people who think they already know what they want to do.

Volunteer program development (such as ongoing needs assessment and the creation of fulfilling positions) is static/outdated at most local charities. During the past two decades, the number of volunteer programs with professional managers/coordinators/administrators on staff has significantly contracted; some volunteer programs have been totally eliminated, while others have staff who also has significant fund raising and programmatic responsibilities (like PMD board director Jenny Hartwell at HEARTH). Volunteer programs are typically absent from nonprofits’ strategic/business plans, often with unwritten assumptions that if funds cannot be raised to accomplish documented goals and objectives, then uncompensated volunteers will somehow do so to meet these needs without additional charity staffing to recruit, screen, and manage them.
Furthermore, without fewer staff to welcome and screen potential volunteers who have been inspired to serve RIGHT NOW, long response times can be a huge turn off. There’s nothing like hearing a barrage of calls to volunteer since charities need more help, responding by calling/emailing my interest, and then hearing nothing back or delayed responses while those general messages continue. This phenomenon can really make someone feel unappreciated when, conversely s/he needs a really positive, first experience so s/he doesn’t give up.
Beyond finding out what’s needed locally (since I’m unconvinced that knowledge was provided by the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, the National Council of Nonprofits, and other national organizations among the 300 who met at the White House on 5/20), leaders must fund real volunteer capacity increases at local charities and must help the public understand that volunteering is like searching (and finding) a perfect job. This process depends on

  1. Determining what one is passionate about and the types of activities one is suited for (and can make a difference at)
  2. Learning what is needed in one’s community, and
  3. Understanding that this takes time and special effort. And, like many of our professional paths, it could mean a series of several volunteer commitments to determine and to find a good fit.

I fear that another volunteer web site snafu like the former one (since removed) on MLK Day (didn’t collect phone#s or allow charities to email informative attachments or close sign ups when capacities were reached) will jeopardize a White House call to serve this summer.

Every time I volunteer in my free time, it’s not reported as news, but this time…

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

On Saturday, I traveled down to New Bedford with a friend to help Jim Stevens start his GiftsToGive warehouse. We assembled repurposed  (i.e., used) shelving and tables–it was just like playing with a life-size erector set. Without the responsibility of orienting or training anyone else, I was able to focus on accomplishing the tasks, so didn’t even notice the newspaper photographer. There were a few dozen volunteers who working all morning, but I was pictured in the article in the New Bedford Standard Times. This is unusual since when I personally volunteer, I aim to be low-key and not make it all about me.
Gifts to Give is going to be a well-organized charity that serves many people in need in this commonwealth, including kids over age 13 and their parents, by collecting and sorting new and gently used donations of clothing, toys, books, child safety equipment, prom dresses, etc., and distributing them to families who need these items. It has an ambitious outreach plan, as well as one to engage volunteers of all ages in meaningful work. And, of course, it has a good distribution chain of dedicated, front-line social workers and assorted distribution sites planned.

After the G2G warehouse gets going in early ‘09, PMD will likely organize a service project so people can get acquainted with this charity AND so we can respond to requests from some of our volunteers for opportunities beyond Boston.

It’s good to carry your volunteer weight and then some

Friday, June 8th, 2007

If you want to make a real difference, then you have to be contributing more than the resources you are consuming in the process. Otherwise, awareness building aside, it would be more efficient for charity staff to carry out the tasks.

Volunteer time + donations > staff time + resources used

Today’s Wall Street Journal article about the “Helping Hordes” straining New Orleans charities that the volunteers purportedly seek to help describes problems that are not, sadly, unique to the Gulf.

I am fortunate to work with individual volunteers and select companies that really understand this. Every time PMD cooks a meal, we use donations from the actual volunteers and our other donors to purchase all of the groceries from top-notch purveyors. This removes the burden of time and funds a charity would have to spend grocery shopping so that volunteers could cook a meal. Most charities simply cannot accomplish this unless they employ a full-time cook and supporting staff for their kitchens, and since PMD tends to help the small, grassroots charities, our resource-committed role is essential to feeding hungry people.

In April, McKesson did a great job with its annual Community Day for which PMD organized the volunteer projects for their Newton, MA, employees. Together, we planned for and provided all of the tools and materials, as well as feeding lunch and giving t-shirts to the nearly 60 volunteers and the dozen charity staff who worked with them. We had funds remaining in our materials budget, so we purchased needed items that recipient charity Cradles to Crayons identified on the regularly updated, ”Top Ten Most Needed Items” on its home page.

This weekend with PMD’s organizing help, Cornerstone Research’s Boston staff will converge to give a “yard makeover” to a residence for frail, formerly homeless, elderly women, followed by a do-it-yourself ice cream social that will enable volunteers and the women to interact after several hours of hot, yard work. I’ve spent quite a bit of time purchasing all of the materials (flowers, composted manure, mulch, etc.) and tools for 30 people to garden simultaneously. And I’ve become quite the penny-pincher since I want to get as much value as I can for each dollar Cornerstone is contributing.

I could share many more PMD examples since PMD chooses to work with companies that believe in creating more net value. Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time attempting to convince other companies that this is The Way to do things. Many businesses just don’t get it, and want to believe that participation from their group is enough, despite the obvious associated costs, even their internal organizing capacity. I find it odd since they seem to reserve this thinking for their volunteer activities and not their meetings and business activities, yet expect even greater productivity and enjoyment from their volunteer activities. Maybe this is like childish wishing one can “get something for nothing”?

PMD Volunteer Featured in 1/1/07 Boston Globe

Monday, January 1st, 2007

Congratulations to PMD volunteer project manager Jennifer Blackmon, who is featured in today’s Boston Globe on page C2 of the Living/Arts section. Reporter Don Aucoin interviewed Jen with a focus on her PMD activities in Boston.

The “Six and the City” special profiles volunteers whose efforts help make Boston a better place.

There is also an audio slideshow.

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