On-Time Volunteers Shine

During this summer’s torrential downpours, heat, and humidity, I have experienced both the privilege and the pain from working with several hundred volunteers. I have been privileged to work with some amazing, motivated people who truly wanted to and did make a difference to local charities and their clients. Conversely, I have suffered from some unprepared and late people who have toed the line of doing more harm than good.

Savvy charities are aware of these potential outcomes. Fortunately many have been pleasantly surprised when they’ve hosted typical PMD projects with 100% attendance and less than 10% tardiness (thanks to our cancellation policy of calling at least one day before a project and our stressing taking personal responsibility for arriving on-time or early if one is unfamiliar with an area).

Preparedness and punctual participation are major factors. Volunteers who dress and otherwise prepare as recommended for safely performing planned tasks (e.g., painting, assisting with kids’ crafts, improving trails) arrive ready to work, as are those who show up reliably on-time. There is nothing more frustrating than those who disregard specific directions and dress such that they would risk their personally safety or who do not want to ruin their couture by volunteering.

Every volunteer counts. Volunteer projects are in trouble when even 10% of expected participants do not show up on-time. Though this may arise due to frustrating, slow public transit or the recent Big Dig tunnel closures and resulting traffic, it almost automatically means that the group will be unable to accomplish everything the charity needs in the designated time. This can have a significant impact, such as when clients we strive to serve do not have the ability to wait out delays.

Luckily there are a small handful of extremely dedicated volunteers who will work harder as well as stay later than planned to compensate for any staffing shortages. I also try to recruit 10% more volunteers, to create “back up” lists of potential participants, and to allocate extra time to accomplish tasks. The challenges are that sometimes there are not enough participants and that accomplishing new tasks for new recipient charities may take longer than expected regardless of prior experience and advance planning.

Since you can prepare as directed and control whether you’re on-time by planning your exact route in advance and by departing with ample time to arrive, do these essential things when you volunteer. And I’ll do my best to help the recipient charities be fully prepared for your on-time arrival.

Volunteering as a New, Summer Tradition

More volunteers are needed during the summer in Greater Boston, due to reductions in college students and ongoing volunteers who take summer breaks and vacations. This is a sharp contrast to the huge numbers of people who think of volunteering primarily on Thanksgiving and Christmas, when most charities cannot accommodate them due to space, logistics, and cultural constraints.

PMD’s popular, one-time service projects and even Boston’s largest and most recognized shelters, Pine Street Inn and Rosie’s Place, face volunteer shortages during the summer, so for the past decade I have worked to increase awareness of this problem and have organized more PMD projects to address it directly. As a result, PMD has evolved from assisting only charities with no staff dedicated to working with volunteers to including more than a third that do have staff dedicated to recruiting and managing volunteers.

My rationale is that learning that volunteers are really needed during the summer will change the mindset of some people who previously were only been interested in doing so on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Furthermore, organizing PMD projects that assist specific charities each year gives people opportunities to make these volunteer activities their annual, summer traditions among friends and family.

I deliberately avoid planning PMD projects and personally volunteering on Thanksgiving and Christmas. (In fact, you’ll often find me washing dishes or cooking as a volunteer the day after these holidays.) Charities are busy with additional programming during the holidays and overwhelmed by well-intentioned and clueless people who require specialized responses from understaffed programs. Most actually don’t need that many more people to help their ongoing volunteers serve meals (as they do daily throughout the year), and repeatedly tell me that their guests/clients feel more comfortable spending the holidays with the staff and ongoing volunteers who they already know, rather than newcomers. It makes good sense to respect what these charities say they need since they know how best to serve their guests during the stressful holidays and throughout the rest of the year.

Why else should people volunteer during the summer? A much more relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere. The turmoil and stress of driving, shopping, organizing, cooking, and hosting guests for Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to make even the most devoted volunteers, stressed, overwhelmed, and unable to follow through on their obligations, so why add another commitment to your holiday schedule?

Another good reason to volunteer during the summer is that some charities* may be willing to be flexible about their requirements. While many may advertise that they require a six-month or longer commitment and want volunteers to participate once a week, if they have a summer volunteer shortage and you can be trained and involved enough to meet their needs (e.g., every other week, or for the summer when your office is only open half-days on Fridays), then you may be able to strike a deal that balances your and their needs and serves the greater good. So be sure to speak with the volunteer manager and inquire as to whether any flexibility may be possible during the summer.*PMD’s requirements are minimal (i.e., get to/from the project site on your own and participate for the entire 2-7 hour project that you select), so we cannot offer additional flexibility.

I sincerely hope that you will find a way to make time to volunteer this summer. I would be thrilled to learn that you have involved others to make it a new, summer tradition, much like spending a week on the Cape & Islands.

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