PMD Turns 30!

Since November 7, 1992, more than 10,200 awesome people have volunteered for 1,390+ one-day PMD community service projects, helping 153 charities and their clients in Greater Boston and beyond. PMD’s database records that these 10,200+ people have volunteered nearly 20,000 times, and this means that most have enjoyed a homemade cookie or meal-That’s A LOT of yummy cookies!

The very first PMD volunteer project only had nine volunteers, one consumer, and one charity partner (11 people total), but everyone cleaned an mental health clubhouse for Riverside Community Care for a marathon day (9 hours!). Since then, we’ve learned to schedule shorter, less ambitious/exhausting volunteer projects 😉 offering shifts when possible.

Although the covid-19 pandemic eliminated PMD’s in-person volunteer projects for five months when gatherings were not allowed in 2020, and we pivoted to some remote projects when we could, we’ve been organizing mostly outdoor and virtual volunteer opportunities since 2020, gradually aiming for pre-pandemic levels. Interestingly, the only volunteers who have not yet returned in force are corporate/employee volunteers, probably since they don’t work together in the office as a daily practice anymore and since omicron infections, illnesses, and other surges mean that more people stay home when they are sick to minimize exposure and cross-infection.

PMD’s new website quietly launched last month after a massive volunteer efforts by webmaster Phil Cartagena and UX/UI Designer Sarah Kuo, along with board member Ian McEmber and me updating its content for individual volunteer as well as (new!) potential corporate and charity partners. There are even a couple short, introductory videos by Girl Scout volunteer Melanie Clark. Hopefully visitors will find more useful information beyond the link for joining PMD’s private email list and then never returning to the website, which was the case for the first 25+years…. 😉 We still need help with SEO, so please contact me if this is your expertise and you can help out-Ty!

Hip Hip HOORAY 30 YEARS TODAY

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

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.

PMD is much more than a clearinghouse.

If you volunteer for a few PMD projects a year, it’s tempting to focus on the tasks for these isolated activities, not what PMD is doing throughout the year. (The PMD board and project manager volunteers govern and lead year ’round, so they have a better sense of this bigger picture.) Plus, PMD annual appeals (and I when I’m planning a service project) focus on direct services and details, like feeding the needy and helping the illiterate through specific, ordered steps.
PMD is much more than a clearinghouse (or an online database), connecting volunteers with existing service opportunities. PMD plans the tasks, amasses the tools and materials needed, as well as recruits, prepares, orients, and manages the volunteers who participate in service projects that serve 2/3 of the charities with which PMD partners, since these charities have no ongoing volunteer programs with staff and resources to support them–with these limitations, the 20+ charities PMD serves annually cannot engage volunteers effectively.

PMD also mobilizes its volunteer recruitment tools (i.e., web site, email list, blog, and Facebook Group and Cause) to assist established volunteer programs at the remaining 1/3 charities (~10/yr) when they have seasonal volunteer shortages. PMD is building awareness of these neediest times so that people will develop new volunteer traditions beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Furthermore, PMD sees its service projects as opportunities to help all programs improve their volunteer programs by more effectively engaging episodic/one-time volunteers. PMD has collaborated to produce Standards of Excellence for individual volunteers, group leaders, and charities to clarify key elements that contribute to mutually successful volunteer experiences for the faith-based community and others, and provided targeted, pro bono training (see 11/22/08 blog post) and consulting services to help established volunteer programs near (like the National Braille Press behind Boston’s Symphony Hall) and far (like RightRides For Women’s Safety in NYC) adapt specific strategies that PMD has developed during its 16 years engaging nearly 4,000 volunteers and 23 businesses who have directly helped 109 charities and their clients.

Training/Learning Improves Volunteer Programs

I’ve been training a lot this autumn, and it’s been a pleasure to work with people who genuinely want to improve their volunteer management skills and thus their agencies’ effectiveness. With the incoming Obama administration promoting more people volunteering, we’ve really got to increase and to improve our capacity to attract, screen, manage, and recognize (and thus retain) more volunteers, regardless of whether the government invests any resources in our generally underfunded, volunteer programs.

In October, I traveled to VolunteerMaine‘s 22nd annual, state-wide conference on volunteerism (Sadly, Massachusetts does not regularly organize anything like this, which makes me wonder about its commitment to increasing the volunteer capacity of all nonprofits in the Commonwealth, not just ones with AmeriCorps and Commonwealth Corps members.) to give a workshop on developing partnerships to a “sold out” audience. In a nutshell, I compared the process to dating and using an approach like eHarmony’s to promote your strengths and help you clarify what you seek in a way that is attractive to potential partners. This is contrary to the typical way charities seek support, by leading with needs. Later, on 11/6 I also shared my philosophy and handout with 30 people who attended the DOVA meeting on corporate partnerships. Note: I also heard Jean Twenge discuss her meta-data-analysis for Generation Me, so look forward to DOVA’s May ’09 topic on subsets of Millennials/younger volunteers.
I also organized a workshop at the first conference of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network for four Directors of Volunteer Administration (DOVA) members to share their approaches* for tabling at community events. From the large, fairly unique New England Aquarium and Greater Boston Food Bank to educational charities Boston Partners in Education and Generations Incorporated, we shared why we table and our rationales for using specific items and staffing. *I don’t write that we shared our “best practices” since I’ve grown to think that one organization’s best practices only work in the complex environment of that organization.

Then I gave my semi-regular clinic on volunteer management at TDC, where I addressed concerns from from five, local charities. There was a bit of a scheduling snafu, so I didn’t receive people’s questions in advance, but the clinic pretty much covered everything from developing position descriptions to probationary periods, followed by recognition, based on the primary things that motivate people to volunteer as usual.

All in all, I’ve worked with volunteer managers representing 80+ charities this autumn, so am hopeful that I’ve been able to help them think differently about the way their agencies do things so that they can find more well-matched volunteers and partners who help them make a difference in New England.

For-Profit Advice that Makes Sense for NonProfits and their Volunteers

While current economic problems may make many in the nonprofit sector want to oppose, not adopt, most business practices at for-profits like American automakers, many entrepreneurs have good practices that make sense. Brad Feld highlights Ted Rheingold at Dogster (where you can learn more than you ever want to know about Vesta, Ben, and the late Nyx) makes a great point about hiring slow and firing fast (#9).

Most of us in volunteer management focus on recruiting volunteers, so it behooves us to make a real effort to ensure there is a good fit between potential volunteers and our needs and agency cultures, particularly during the screening/selection and probationary periods. Otherwise, as I have heard from countless charities complaining about “problem volunteers,” we waste precious time and energy trying to salvage situations rather than aiming high at the beginning. Instead, we should focus our post-recruitment resources on recognizing and thanking our excellent volunteers so that they stick around and help us attract additional volunteers like them.

I’m Guest Blogging for VolunteerMaine

I’m a guest blogger for VolunteerMaine today, in anticipation of their October 14th conference in Orono, where I will be presenting a workshop.

They expect primarily new Americorps volunteers to attend, which is why my workshop on building community relationships will assume basically starting from scratch. Although PMD is 15 years old, we are newbies compared to established charities like hospitals, museums, and those founded at the last turn of the century.
What originally drew me to this VolunteerMaine conference is the keynote address by Professor Jean Twenge about “Generation Me”, a group born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. I’m particularly interested in (dis)satisfaction as it relates to retention.

PMD Projects Going Greener

If you’ve cooked with PMD lately, then you know that for the past year we’ve been vermicomposting our non-meat, primarily vegetable food scraps (peelings, stems, egg shells, etc.) instead of disposing them in the trash. It has greatly reduced waste, allows the worms* to thrive, and eventually generates rich compost for our outdoor projects.

Since we purchased and installed a composter in the Lee Outdoor Classroom (as well as helped them start a bin in one of their preschool classrooms) in early spring, we’ve had the responsibility of feeding them regularly until the kids return next week. We’ve fed them with food scraps/waste from meals we’ve prepared from scratch for clients of Hearth’s Anna Bissonnette House, Rosie’s Place, and Community Servings.

Restaurants are “going green” in this way, and I hope that our recipient charities will be someday be able to do so on their own, instead of just when PMD volunteers are helping them. Hopefully, our setting this example will demonstrate how easy it can be.
*The red worms are special, not earthworms, suited for higher temperatures, and were generously donated by PMD volunteer Louis D.

It’s the Infrastructure/Barriers, not the Hours!

While there are many things that I like about Senator Barack Obama, his plan for universal voluntary service which aims to “set a goal for all American middle- and high-school students to perform 50 hours of service a year and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year” if he’s elected president misses the mark like many other programs mandating service hours.

The nonprofit sector lacks the infrastructure/staffing to screen, train, supervise, and physically host many of the volunteers it currently engages (hence the abysmal 1 out of 3 who volunteered in 2006 but didn’t return in 2007, as reported yesterday), let alone all high school and college students.

And rather than compensating college students $4,000 (or $40/hr), most of the nonprofit organizations who host them require at least $30/hr if not alll of it to develop adequate work space, trainers, and supervisors for all of these mandated volunteers.

While Obama’s plan does indicate interest in investing in the nonprofit sector, it assumes that the resources are available to carry out what has already been identified by the Urban Institute and many others as best practices, when this simply is not the case. Two-thirds of the charities PMD volunteers serve lack the staff and other needed resources to develop and to maintain their own, ongoing volunteer programs.

In the end, whether a volunteer has a positive experience, not how much s/he is compensated, will determine retention.

When I reflect on the common barriers to why I don’t volunteer more, I think that deficiencies in the recruitment and the management process contribute most. Long gaps without any communication about the application process while seeing/hearing advertisements that a charity needs volunteers which leads to my feeling personally unneeded, having my time wasted/disrespected, and not having adequate resources to serve as an effective volunteer are the most common reasons why I bail out. (On a more petty level, horrendous traffic has also taken a personal toll on my participation.)

Some things, like traffic, cannot really be addressed for one volunteer*, but adequate staffing of the recruitment and screening process certainly can, as can good supervision and resources.

*MIT senior Kevin Vogelsang thinks that transportation is a significant, limiting factor to college students volunteering, and I observed this with fellow WriteBoston writing tutors at the West Roxbury Education Complex this past school year, so organizing transportation may address barriers for small groups of college students so they don’t face spending 1.5 hours or more each way to volunteer.

Despite PMD’s requirement that people participate for the entire, PMD project time span, which addresses our ability to complete all tasks as well as each volunteer’s level of satisfaction, I think that if the government is going to mandate something, it should be the quality of the volunteer experience, not the quantity of hours, as the real determinant. If a volunteer experience of 7-100 hours is required in order to be able to understand different perspectives beyond one’s own, then so be it. This can be conveyed (and measured) through a portfolio of work reflecting one’s experiences.

Thoughts on Volunteering as a Commonwealth Corps Reviewer

Earlier this month, I figured that I had a civic responsibility to do more than just criticize the governor’s new Commonwealth Corps (CC), so I volunteered as one of nearly 100 citizen grant reviewers, to make sure that our tax dollars are spent as effectively as possible.

Our task was to read (in 4.5-6 hours) eight proposals, then come to consensus in one of ~20 small groups about their relative ranking. Actual funding decisions will be made by the commission.
What made this RFP unique were parts about what corps members would specifically do to generate more volunteers for the recipient charities, beyond direct service to people in need, which is presumably addressed by their existing volunteer pools.
Sadly, of the eight nonprofits whose proposals I read, only a couple indicated any existing infrastructure to recruit, screen, manage, and expand volunteer roles, and I heard similar observations from two other volunteer grant reviewers. While I don’t doubt that some corps members may have human resources/recruiting talents, none of the proposals I read targeted these professionals, and I am doubtful that a 9-12 month stint by 3+ corps members will change this capacity of these nonprofits for the long term.

As I wrote in December, I believe that what is really needed are resources made directly to nonprofits to develop their capacity to work with potential and actual volunteers effectively (like developing a strategic volunteer plan) and the staff (or part-time equivalents) to carry out the plan would make a more lasting difference.

Since there were many more applicants than funding, my fellow small group readers and I wondered whether the CC Commission will offer training and resources to the many nonprofits that will not receive funding but still need more volunteers to service their needy populations throughout the state. Commissioner David Roach indicated some interest to me after he noted that the commission does not have any hands-on volunteer managers serving on it yet, but the commission’s first, big milestone is to award its first round of grants. I think that someone with direct volunteer recruiting, screening, and management experience should join to commission, to help the commission identify barriers to volunteer participation that can be addressed through the CC and/or other programs.
Here’s hoping that the CC or some funder will recognize the huge need for deliberate, resourced volunteer recruitment and management in the nonprofit sector and address it directly.

While PMD can continue to service a handful of Boston-area nonprofits with episodic needs who lack the resources to maintain ongoing volunteer programs and to serve as the fiscal sponsor of the Directors of Volunteer Administration (DOVA), there are still many more nonprofits that have ongoing volunteer needs and insufficient staffing and expertise to begin or to sustain volunteer programs that are integrated into their organizations.

Disconnect between what people want and do?

I can’t afford a subscription to The Chronicle of Philanthropy to read the latest study about giving to the poor, but I’m not surprised that it concludes “Many donors say they want to support charities that help the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, but their giving patterns don’t support that goal,” since many people say that they want to help the homeless, for example, but then these same people are uninterested in volunteering to help this population.

Volunteering in direct service gives participants first-hand experience in shelters and other programs that serve the needy. These experiences, while short of actually personally utilizing these services, make lasting impressions on PMD volunteers.

Our younger volunteers have even gone so far as to tell us that they think that everyone should have the awareness-building experience of volunteering in a shelter, despite the obvious greater issue of eliminating the need for homeless shelters.

And while many people will decide to try to help the needy in more ways than direct service volunteering, I think that their early experiences do shape and influence how they do so, whether by voting choices, personal and corporate philanthropy, etc.

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