Monday, October 19, 2009

I just need a moment

I just need to take a moment and vent.

PEOPLE! I cannot get volunteer groups for your site if you never return my emails.

OK, I feel better now.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Thanks, Volunteers, I Guess ...

How do you politely give not-so-great feedback about a volunteer group?

I had a group of 5 grad students come out from one of the area universities a couple of weeks ago. There were two projects we asked them to do
  1. Set up an apartment for a new resident, and
  2. Give the small group kitchen a thorough cleaning.
I wasn't able to stay and supervise the whole project, but I greeted them and - along with another staff person who was there the entire time - thoroughly explained the tasks that made up each project. I even left them written instructions on what to do in the kitchen.

And yet, when I asked the site director how the kitchen looked the following day, she hesitated and said: "It looks alright, I guess."

I had my doubts about the group. One girl came in a dress and espadrilles. Never a good sign. And the two girls (they were all girls) who made the bed didn't really know what they were doing... they didn't know to tuck the sheets in under the mattress. Who doesn't know how to make a bed?

I'm sure the kitchen cleaning would have gone better had I been there overseeing each step, but honestly, what part of "take items out of the cabinets, wash the cabinets, and put the items back in, getting rid of the expired foods" is hard to understand? And even though we asked them to also clean out the fridge, they didn't even touch it. And, I was told, the group left two hours early (after arriving an hour late - although that part I didn't mind because I got lost on the way to the site too).

I realize my blog is turning into a never-ending rant and whine about volunteers and volunteer coordination, but good grief!

I have had fantastic groups of grad students from this same university so I don't want to dismiss them entirely. But the so-so groups vastly outweigh the good ones.

My question is, how do I politely let the volunteer coordinator at the school know that the volunteers they sent weren't very good? Is there even a point in doing so? And how much is my fault? I thought I provided adequate instruction and supervision, but maybe I didn't.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Volunteer Hoardes: More work than help

Dear Boston colleges and universities,


Do you ever wonder why it's so hard to find placements for your hundreds and thousands of freshmen? It's because you all choose the same week - even the same day in some instances - to carry out this event.

Boston University is even competing with itself: I've received requests from BU FYSOP (Boston University's Freshman Year blah blah blah Program) whose program runs 8/26-8/28 and BU Law School whose volunteer day is 8/26.

MIT's City Days is mercifully Sept. 4th, but their Freshman program lasts a whole week: 8/25-8/28.

I know it seems all convenient and nice to pair up freshmen orientation with volunteering, but I've got news for you: most of the freshmen could care less. They usually come dressed improperly and last year, out of a group of 15 students, only one student actually did yard work while 14 others spent the entire time staring at a snail. I won't name the school, but our property manager won't take them back again, and yard work is pretty much the only thing a group of 15 can do for 4 hours (and even that's a stretch).

So stop calling me, stop emailing me, and stop talking about how you'd love to work with me to develop a project. I don't want to "develop" a project, nor do I have time. If we have a need that coincides with your day, time span, and group size, great. If not, that's just too bad.

Honestly, I pity the poor staff and unknowing student workers who are roped into organizing these events every year. They are not paid nearly enough. That said, why not consider a mid-semester community service holiday? Or better yet, forgo the school-wide days entirely. Let residence halls or departments pick a day, and coordinate them through the community service office to keep everyone from choosing the same day - or week, even.

Do you know when I need volunteers? February and March, and June and July. Just small groups to come in and socialize with the residents (maybe bring ice cream, or a movie, or practice your one-act play in front of an audience). These are the months when nobody thinks of volunteering (it's not the beginning of the school year, it's not Christmas, it's not the end of the school year). Guess what? People are hungry and homeless all year round, elders are lonely and isolated all year round. I am much more willing to sit down and develop a project during the volunteer "off season."

Just think about trying something new, OK? Or at least sneak a peek at the competitions' calendars and pick a different day.


One very tired, overworked 1/4 time volunteer coordinator*

*The other 75% is divided between fundraising admin, communications, and being Human Rights Officer

Friday, June 12, 2009

AmeriCorps - Good Investment?

Despite the fact that I am an AmeriCorps and VISTA alum, I kind of agree with Lori's logic in her latest blog post - Should MA fund Americorps? My unpopular view - that funding more AmeriCorps positions may not be the best use of funds.
Direct philanthropic investment in experienced volunteer recruiters and volunteer managers paid to serve on charity staffs may be a better route to increase volunteer engagement, versus “hiring” inexperienced people with limited training and resources for short stints without long-term vision and commitment to volunteerism from charity leaders.
Putting money in volunteer program infrastructure (yes, actually paying people to run volunteer programs!) for either actual charities who utilize volunteers or for organizations like PMD who organize volunteer projects for charities (best service ever!) is probably a better long-term investment.

However, I can't ignore the fact that upon graduating from college I had no direction. Not a clue what I wanted to do with my life. So I joined AmeriCorps and volunteered with the Greater Dallas Habitat for Humanity. I honestly have no idea where I would be - most likely I never would have come to Massachusetts or met my husband. And Habitat for Humanity is an organization that actually knows how to use AmeriCorps effectively and has the capacity to do so.

Even so, I must admit that I could not have survived my two years with AmeriCorps and the VISTA program if I didn't have the support of my parents. They helped me with rent and my car payments (Dallas is not a pedestrian-friendly city), not to mention other small emergencies that came up from time to time. It's not really fair to only partially fund the work AmeriCorps volunteers do. Especially as more and more people view it as something to do after college and not before which means they aren't (or not interested in) living at home with their parents. And a lot of people use it they way I did, as a way to move to a new part of the country (there actually weren't many AmeriCorps options I was interested in, in my home state).

Then again, most AmeriCorps alumni I know continue to work in the nonprofit/social services world. The few I know who switched over to the for-profit world continue to be heavily involved in community work (including urging coworkers and the companies they work for). So in that sense, funding AmeriCorps does provide a good return on investment as alumni continue to meaningfully contribute.

But who knows, maybe I'm just dwelling in my nonprofit bubble. There could be a ton of AmeriCorps alumni who stop volunteering or who choose to become investment bankers or are behind the million credit card offers I get each week (if there's no credit to be had in the current economy, why are credit card companies so eager to give me credit?).

My conclusion? The answer to the AmeriCorps investment question lies somewhere in the middle, as most answers do. Yes, the AmeriCorps program and its many parts (VISTA, City Year, SeniorCorps, etc) play an important role, though we should reevaluate the goals and structure (like focusing more on having local people work on local issues; I admit that given my own history with AmeriCorps, that can seem like a hypocritical stance for me to take). And yes, investing in lasting volunteer support infrastructure is necessary and overdue in order to fully take advantage of the very American, pioneering, can-do spirit.

So if there are any philanthopists out there looking for something "new" to support, how about supporting volunteer coordination programs?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Delicious (educational?!) Spam

Best spam subject heading of the day:

"Man wrestles leopard hunting pet cnat in bedroom."

Yes, it was spelled "cnat" but I assumed it was supposed to be "cat."

For kicks I googled this (with cat spelled correctly), because the phrase was just to alluring to pass by, and it turns out to be an actual story, dated May 29th, from Reuters.
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli man wrestled a leopard to the ground after it
entered his bedroom in a desert college and tried to make a meal of his pet cat.

I actually learned something from spam. Amazing. Unfortunately I also learned there are only 10 wild leopards left in Israel. Poor animal was so hungry it succumbed to breaking and entering. The pet cat survived, by the way.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A little can go a long way

There's an interesting article on the NY Times website posted on May 20th: How to Make Smart Gifts to Charities.

Working in fundraising, I know that a lot of people are pulling back on their donations. I'm doing it myself. There key to reducing your charitable giving, as the article says, is to adopt a sensible strategy. Look at the charities you give to and think about which organizations:
1) need more help at this time - like social services organizations (food banks, affordable housing, shelters, etc) and the other organizations that support them (like People Making a Difference, for example)

2) can make your donation dollar go the farthest - hint: larger organizations are not necessarily better at this than smaller ones.
PMD falls into both these categories. There are more individuals and groups looking to volunteer, but many nonprofits - especially small ones - don't have the infrastructure to handle the load (believe me, sometimes that's what it feels like: a heavy load of eager would-be volunteers).

Not only does PMD provide a tremendous service to charities by organizing groups and projects (a cook-out at Hearth, packaging books at the Prison Book Program, serving meals at Rosie's Place, landscaping at the Franklin Park Zoo, etc...), but PMD is also extremely cost-effective:

In 2008, PMD organized 642 volunteers and completed 63 high-quality projects which helped 40 different charities - with a budget of less than $100,000.

With a budget that lean, any pull-back from funders hurts PMD - and that ripples out to organizations throughout Boston (and a few beyond).

So, if you're wondering how to make your donation bucks go farther: PMD is a pretty good answer.

Friday, May 22, 2009

If you build it, they will come - and stay!

Brace yourself, dear readers, I'm actually blogging about working at a nonprofit which was what the focus was supposed to be (as you can tell from the web address).

I've been the Volunteer Manager for just about a year now (in addition to my other job duties) - long enough to know that what I mange to accomplish is barely adequate. It's frustrating, but I'm learning to accept the limits of my time and energy:

I cannot be both a full-time volunteer manager/coordinator and also a full-time associate director of development and, additionally, a part-time Human Rights Officer and do any of these jobs to my satisfaction within a 40-hour work week)
A few months ago I joined the board of directors of People Making a Difference (PMD), an organization which promotes informed and responsible volunteerism by involving people in meaningful, one-time, hands-on work that meets the needs of local charities and by assisting companies and charities in building successful community involvement programs. This has given me the opportunity to spend more time with the founder and executive director, Lori Tsuruda, who is one of those amazing women that seem to have endless energy and the devotion to work 60 hours a week on a regular basis for a cause/job they love (I am not one of those people, at least not for more than a few months at a time). Most of the time Lori and I inevitably talk about volunteers and volunteer management.

Volunteer Management is the underdog of the nonprofit world. Few organizations (mine included, I'm afraid to say) recognize how important it is to have the proper management structure. Volunteers - the wonderful, generous people who give their time and talents to charities - need the same structure and support as employees. Businesses have Human Resource Managers to oversee employment. Nonprofits need to have an HR person and a Volunteer Manager.

I'm blogging all of this because, while looking for information on aging/elders/etc, I stumbled across a report from a 2003 conference sponsored by Harvard School of Public Health–MetLife Foundation entitled "Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement." It's fascinating and it includes an entire section on the necessity of building proper volunteer management infrastructure and the current lack of it.

Very often, the job of volunteer coordinator in community agencies is marginalized or nonexistent. Likewise, the costs of managing volunteers often are left out of agency budgets or funding proposals (Cobb and Johnson 2003). Unpaid labor is a resource, just as paid labor is, but unpaid labor is not free. It must be planned, managed, organized, and coordinated, just as paid labor is—and this requires an investment of time and resources.

I'm holding on to this for the day when I propose we hire a volunteer manager who does nothing but manage volunteers. I can't wait.