Archive for December, 2007

Questions Raised by Boston Homeless Census

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

I just returned from helping out for a third year with the annual Homeless Census for the City of Boston. This year, I was part of a team of six assigned to some of the subway stations. (Last year, I was assigned to the South End, and a few years before I was assigned to the Fens.)
Most of the recently improved MBTA stations don’t have good places for shelter from winter weather, with few nooks and more metal and stone in windswept areas. Yet at the last station we visited, we observed an “emergency exit only” door propped open, and transit officer Steve (who accompanied us for safety and T access) confirmed that someone was indeed sleeping in the warm space above. Another volunteer and I introduced ourselves, and the slightly inebriated man welcomed an opportunity to sleep in a shelter and perhaps obtain some medical attention for a shoulder injury sustained when he had slipped on the ice earlier in the day.
While we waiting for the City’s emergency van to arrive and give him a sandwich and ride to a shelter, I spent a half hour chatting with Jerry, who thought that he had been homeless for at least 10 of his 48 years. As a volunteer, I felt pretty good about myself, having found a homeless person, made a personal connection, and gotten him into some shelter for the night.

Yet after the van departed, the transit officer revealed that Jerry is a regular occupant of a simple piece of cardboard in the nook of that particular MBTA station.

Should transit workers continue to allow Jerry to sleep in the emergency exit area of this station every night, thus enabling him to continue to drink and be homeless? Or, should they follow the rules and force him out into the elements (since most shelters require guests to be sober) when they close?

Is it more humane to respect Jerry’s life choices versus letting him risk severe exposure while he is drinking and homeless?

For people like Jerry who are chronically homeless and substance-dependent, I am uncertain.

PMD is an accredited charity of the BBB

Monday, December 10th, 2007

Attention donors and potential donors:

PMD recently became an accredited charity of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) by meeting or exceeding its 20 Standards for Charitable Accountability.

How Commonwealth Corps can become unique

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

I’d been hoping that MA Governor Devel Patrick’s early goal of creating a Commonwealth Corps would not come to fruition because, in my opinion, so far it seems redundant and misses the opportunity to distinguish itself from Americorps and charities’ existing volunteer programs.

Unfortunately, it appears that the administration is launching Commonwealth Corps. While I am excited that resources will be dedicated to promote volunteering, I am concerned that like many existing charities that seek to engage older/experienced people in volunteerism (like our local Generations Inc.), the governor is focusing resources into small stipends instead of critical charity infrastructure that would better recruit and retain volunteers.

For example, rather than providing a very modest stipend per volunteer, the Commonwealth Corps should invest in building faster and more efficient models that will use professional marketing and recruitment plans to generate applicants and then respond to and screen them rapidly, so people don’t lose patience and interest (and come to feel unneeded) while over-burdened staff struggle to respond, which we saw after crises like the hurricanes, but occurs regularly. The Commonwealth Corps should also incorporate metrics for analyzing effectiveness and retention, and perhaps conduct marketing research that they can share with all nonprofits to engage more volunteers overall, for which there is a distinct need.

And before marketing the need for volunteers, considerable effort should be made to help charities prepare unique and high-impact volunteer titles with responsibilities clearly defined, much like for-profit companies develop job descriptions.

Furthermore, as I’ve found as both a volunteer and a manager of volunteers, investing in training for supervisors of volunteers and supporting these supervisors, will go a long way toward retaining the new Commonwealth Corps volunteers. In order to keep at it, volunteers need to feel needed, understand how they are making a difference, be adequately prepared to be useful, and not that their time is being wasted. Volunteers also need to have a host of other, personal needs met. Most of the time, efforts made by their direct supervisors, not just stipends for parking or lunch, are responsible for these key determinants for success and retention.

Holiday volunteering onslaught begins

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

As some of you know, PMD has been receiving inquiries from well-intentioned people seeking volunteer opportunities for their families on Thanksgiving and Christmas, to my chagrin, since PMD pretty much promotes volunteering on any day of the year EXCEPT these hectic and overly popular holidays.

However, PMD is advertising that volunteers of all ages are needed on Christmas Eve Day, Monday 12/24, to sing carols and to prep and serve hearty appetizers 2:30-5:00 PM to cheer up a small group of frail, formerly homeless elders who are now permanently housed in Boston’s South End. (We organized a much longer Thanksgiving meal preparation for them on 11/18.)

In lieu of volunteering to help strangers on a hectic holiday flooded by too many volunteers, too little work, and small spaces, consider volunteering on non-holidays when you are needed more, OR include isolated neighbors and colleagues in your family’s traditional gatherings (or just for dessert) on the holidays themselves, OR do something that a charity says it needs, like collect specific, needed items, and deliver them. (See PMD’s Answers to FAQs.)

To avoid my holiday grumpiness, please note that I am not aware of local charities seeking volunteers to serve meals on Christmas. (Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly seeks people to deliver meals and visit elders in the late morning.) Charities’ regular volunteers can usually handle holiday meals–and guests tend to prefer to be served by people they know rather than strangers. Plus, there is the matter of the criminal history record checks that are taking in excess of 10 business days this time of year. (Read my past blog entries about CORI checks and confusion.)

If you must volunteer at a shelter, group home, or the like, I strongly recommend gently contacting volunteer coordinators at local shelters to see whether they need help on “lesser” holidays when they tend to be understaffed and post-holiday morale may be low, such as Boxing Day (12/26), New Year’s Eve (12/31), New Year’s Day (1/1), Martin Luther King Day (PMD has an easy and fun project on 1/21/08), the day AFTER Thanksgiving, and the summer time (when their core volunteers and college students take vacations). Be gentle-they are likely hearing from orders-of-magnitude-more volunteers than they can place in their programs on Christmas, and we, of course, want them to focus on their guests and the people who will definitely be volunteering, rather than distracted and stressed by the sheer volume of demanding messages from those who they cannot match/place, right?

There is an art to finding a good match between your needs and interests and those of the recipient charity and its clients. I regard this as a lifelong process, much like finding a profession/job that one loves, as your needs and interests evolve and as you learn more about people, charities, and their needs. Hopefully, volunteering with PMD throughout the year will help you “survey” the charity scene so you can get to know a few charities beyond their web sites.

For example, last month when PMD turned 15 years old, I heard from someone who volunteered with PMD nearly two years ago. She wrote:
I only did one activity with PMD and that was to help make lunch at the Women’s Lunch Place. It was such a positive experience for me though that I have been making donations of clothing and sundries and other supplies along with money to the WLP ever since.

Super greatness from those who show up

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

PMD volunteers who show up as planned, on-time, for the entire project, are super great! We had just such a group preparing our eleventh annual Thanksgiving meal on 11/18.

I just read a guest posting in Tactical Philanthropy about volunteers who don’t show up and create other problems.

PMD strives for 100% attendance. We carefully plan our volunteer projects so that we match the right number of volunteers to the tasks needed and work spaces.

Having the expected number of people to complete the tasks needed is important. We know from experience that too few or too many people, or people arriving late or leaving early, compromises effectiveness and satisfaction.

PMD achieves 90%-100% attendance is because we clearly

  • Explain how volunteers will make a difference
  • Require and thank them for a firm commitment 10-30 days in advance (and have found that most people cannot commit reliably more than 30 days in advance)
  • Confirm and then communicate details in advance
  • Articulate the effect (on charities, clients, and the rest of the volunteers) from not participating as planned
  • Repeatedly provide clear instructions on what to do if one discovers s/he cannot participate as planned, since this happens occasionally to the best of us.

If someone is unexpectedly absent, the project manager and I follow up to find out what’s up, and I go so far as to describe the negative impact of someone’s absence.

If it happens again, I caution the potential volunteer to be sure s/he can reliably and responsibly commit in order to do more good than harm. And if it happens again, I remove the person from our lists until assurance of changes that will ensure reliable participation.

Doing more good than harm is one of the expectations that PMD regularly communicates to volunteers. This helps clarify the impact of not showing up or not following safety measures.

Putting things in perspective helps, like when you’re new and you find out that a charity’s clients are looking forward to the meal you help cook because past PMD volunteers did good to engender this positive attitude, or that not giving money to a client will keep things uncomplicated for the PMD volunteers who follow you.