What I Learned from Volunteering

Guest post by Dylan Manderlink

Dylan Manderlink shares what she learned volunteering - and how nonprofits can and should increase outreach to young people.

Dylan volunteering in Boston, Mass.

This post should really be called: “How I learned more about my community and humanity once I stepped outside my college classroom.” You see, going to college in the heart of a city has an abundance of advantages, and many students are quick to take a big gulp of all the opportunities presented by the fast-paced, busy, and unique city landscape.

While internship opportunities, professional networking events for soon-to-be post grads, company hosted events at local restaurants and bars, and higher education possibilities are readily available and most likely taken advantage of by eager 20-somethings, taking time to volunteer at the many nonprofit social/environmental justice organizations, homeless shelters, advocacy centers, philanthropic fundraisers, local schools and child care facilities that complete the city of Boston are not always at the forefront of young people’s minds while navigating through their college experiences.

But, with a little push from student organizations, local nonprofits and passionate individuals, volunteerism and community change can start to take a front seat and become not just an opportunity, but also a priority in the lives of young people.

Volunteerism, civic engagement and advocacy are the driving forces for creating change and making a positive impact in your community and society at large. While gaining internship and job experience can lead to community impact and social change, it’s important for us to remember that before we start advocating for change and informing others about issues we care about, we need to fully understand the complexity and depth of the social, environmental, or economic issue we are passionate about.

Not only do we need to understand the ‘issue’ or ‘societal problem’ that many people face and are impacted by every day, but we need to meet and work alongside those whose daily realities are shaped by injustices, while not creating any divides or barriers in the process. Everyday people are affected by the issues that organizations fight for or against, and once we realize how people-centered things like advocacy, outreach and service are, I believe young people will realize their call to action and their potential in their local landscapes to really affect change.

My Experience

How can nonprofits appeal to more young people in order to get them more involved in community issues?

Dylan volunteering in Boston, Mass.

For example: Recently I had a very unique volunteer gig. A few times a semester I would take the Red Line to Quincy to volunteer at the Prison Book Program, where I would read letters from incarcerated individuals from all over the country and find 2-3 books that match their interests and reading criteria. Opening each letter and hearing people’s stories reminded me of the harsh realities of our world today, and the difficulty many people face in preserving their human dignity and self-worth.

Whether guilty of crimes or innocent, our incarceration system is an issue that many activists rally around in terms of its success and promise in correcting and rehabilitating criminal behavior. So, to read letters and hear the voices of those who are living on the marginalized edges of our society, but who rarely have a voice in the issue that’s being nationally rallied around, is an uncommon circumstance that should be noted and have more attention and action drawn to. Their desire to educate themselves within the confines of a prison wall is real and heard by those of us who take time to spend their weekday evenings in the bottom of a church basement, sorting through donated books, and reading literary wish-lists of those who are incarcerated.

Another meaningful experience that sticks out to me is when I regularly volunteered at a children’s homeless shelter in Roxbury, Mass. for two years, and was reminded of the fact that the statistics we hear every day about homelessness are real people – not just numbers. Every child I played alongside, made a puzzle with, and created art work for, reminded me that the largest percentage of people who are homeless is in fact, not the men people see on the street who are waiting in line for the soup kitchen, but families: Mothers, children of all ages, infants, and fathers.

I was reminded that every human and every family deserves a place to call a home, a place to grow up, and a place to feel safe and comfortable. Helping the shelter to provide an afternoon of safety, comfort, respect, and joy for children who don’t have a home or much stability was a small but meaningful contribution to a much greater familial and societal obstacle.

What I Learned

I learned from my volunteer experiences in Boston that people are not powerless; in fact, we have a great deal of power and potential, despite sometimes being told we may not have any because of the zip code we were born in, economic status, family life, sexual orientation, or employment status. Through the volunteering I made as a priority and a cornerstone of my life in college, I learned how empowering it is to realize how much agency you have in your own life and how beautiful it is to share that with others in hopes of them discovering it themselves.

I learned how giving human beings are, even when they don’t have much to give. I learned how one of the biggest equalizers of our society is storytelling and the sharing of self. We open countless doors of understanding, compassion, education, and empathy when we let the chaos and speed of the cityscape subside, and take time to actively listen and communicate with our community members. Our community is a diverse fabric of human beings, and we all have a voice in enacting change, improving the lives of our neighbors, and promoting a more just and verdant world.

I learned that local nonprofit organizations have the potential to amplify their outreach to colleges, and young people in general, through matching passions with skills. You as organizations need to purposefully identify for us why promoting service and civic engagement is not only important, but necessary if we want to improve our lives, the lives of others, and the dilemmas and misfortunes our world faces every day.

The relationship between young people and nonprofits can be the start of a significant change in our community, and should be a reciprocal and powerful educational experience. An open-minded and encouraging flow of communication between organizations and community members can be the launchpad for the social and environmental change organizations talk about and try for every day. Together, we can make change – not just a semblance of idealism, but reality, as well.

How does your organization engage with college students and young adults? Share what you’ve learned in the comments!

Dylan Manderlink is a recent graduate of Emerson College in Boston, Mass., who with a self-designed major, Investigative Theatre for Social Change. She is now a Teach for America corps member, teaching high school in rural Arkansas. She is passionate about working in the nonprofit sector and providing educational opportunities for students to creatively inform themselves and others about social justice, community change and human rights.

People Make the Difference: Matching Volunteer Interests to Nonprofit Needs

Everyone should have the chance to make a difference - don't you think?At VolunteerMatch, we believe that everyone should have the chance to make a difference. And we REALLY believe that the best way to make sure this happens is to help connect good people with the good causes that need them. Sounds simple enough, right?

In order to create the best connections between volunteers and nonprofits, we have all sorts of fancy, auto-magical tools and technology on VolunteerMatch.org, including search filters, Volunteer Profiles, and skills-based Listing Wizards. And we’re often reminded that our work is never done.

For example, we recently, and very proudly, released the 2013 Annual VolunteerMatch Impact Report, showcasing a whole year of connecting and volunteering across the VolunteerMatch network. In the report there are two sections I want to focus on today: “Top Opportunities,” and “Most Popular Interests.”

Cause areas with the highest number of active volunteer opportunities in the VolunteerMatch network.

Top Opportunities

This section displays the cause areas that have the highest number of volunteer listings on VolunteerMatch.org. What’s interesting about this top ten list is that the top five haven’t changed in years (just check out our reports from previous years.) The next five spots, however, are in constant flux. This year, Women and Homeless & Housing were replaced by International and Disabled. This reflects the constantly shifting nature of the nonprofit sector and its needs.

Most popular cause interests of volunteers in the VolunteerMatch network.

Most Popular Interests

Here’s where we show the cause areas that are most popular among our volunteer members – meaning they produce the most connections. What I like about this section is seeing the great diversity of interests and passions that make up the VolunteerMatch network. There’s truly something for everyone who wants to make a difference, and boy, do they show up!

Putting Them Together…

When we view these two sections together, however, a small but nagging inconsistency emerges. They don’t match up completely. You’ll notice some of the popular interests of our volunteers (Animals, Advocacy & Human Rights, Homeless & Housing…) don’t show up on the list of causes with the most opportunities. And vice versa.

This is a problem because it means that nonprofits are not necessarily getting all of the help they need, and volunteers are not always finding enough opportunities to help in the areas they care about. So what do we do about this?

For volunteers, we recommend taking a look at where the greatest needs are – consider a volunteer opportunity in one of the top 10 causes as a way to help the most.

For nonprofits, however, we all need to take a good hard look at these most popular interests, and tailor our volunteer listings to them. Perhaps we can create volunteer opportunities that attract folks who are passionate about human rights, or women? Be creative and strategic, and you’ll engage more volunteers and better volunteers.

In order for EVERYONE to have the chance to make a difference, we need to start listening and noticing what each of us truly needs – both nonprofits and volunteers. And then, the connections made on networks like VolunteerMatch will be strong, long-lasting, and will really change the world.

What do you think? How can we make sure the needs of nonprofits and the interests of volunteers are aligned? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Webinar Sneak Peek: Communicating and Innovating

Check out upcoming from webinars this month from the VolunteerMatch Learning Center.Have you checked out the VolunteerMatch Learning Center lately? We’ve got a line-up of valuable and practical webinars about volunteer engagement happening every week – all for free.

This month we’re focusing on two extremely important themes: communicating about your volunteer program (both internally at your organization and externally), and thinking about new models of volunteer engagement in order to plan for the future and constantly be improving.

Check out some of the highlights below, and then head to the Learning Center to register. Don’t miss this chance to get free professional training!

Communicating

Build Staff Buy-In for Volunteer Engagement

In this webinar we’ll discuss strategies for working with paid staff to engage volunteers. We’ll cover what you can do to alleviate some of those fears, strategies for working within a Union environment, and how you can train and support your coworkers as they become responsible for managing volunteers.

Telling the Story of Volunteer Impact

This webinar will help you move past number of volunteers and number of hours and start telling the real story. You’ll learn about information gathering and the key components to good storytelling, how to evaluate your current measurements and how to build support for a more thorough measurement and evaluation program, and how to engage other staff – paid and volunteer – in this work.

Innovating

Engaging the Volunteer of the Future

The age of one-size fits all volunteer engagement is coming to an end. This webinar will start with a review of some of the things that we know about what volunteers are looking for in an opportunity. It will then help you use this information to start designing volunteer opportunities and determining who is the “right” volunteer for your program. You’ll also learn how “word of mouth” plays such a large role in attracting volunteers to your organization and how social media makes this even more important.

Developing a Strategic Plan for Volunteer Engagement

Do you know what your volunteer program should look like in 3 or 5 years? Join us as we talk about the fundamentals for creating a strategic plan for volunteer engagement for your organizations. This webinar will include components that should be included as well as ideas for working with organization leaders to include strategic goals for volunteer engagement in your organization’s overall strategic plan.

Challenging the Status Quo: Rethinking the Value of Volunteers

What if the way nonprofits and companies are currently engaging volunteers is all wrong? How can we make sure we’re strategically involving the core value of volunteers to provide maximum impact? Join VolunteerMatch and special guests from Gap Inc., Points of Light and California Volunteers for a lively conversation about strategic volunteer engagement. Whether you’re a nonprofit professional, a company program coordinator or a dedicated volunteer yourself, you’ll learn more about the research, the implications and the opportunities of strategic volunteer engagement for maximizing impact.

Head to the VolunteerMatch Learning Center now to find more great webinars on volunteer engagement – all for free.

Tell Us: How Has Technology Changed Volunteering?

We want to hear from you: How has technology changed volunteering?For many of us, technology has become such an integrated part of our daily lives, we barely even notice it. Can you remember life before cell phones? Before DVDs? And both of those things are already on their way out!

It’s hard to deny the impact technology has had on us, but what about on volunteering? How has it changed the way we volunteer, and the way we engage volunteers? Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? How can we, as modern-day, with-it nonprofit professionals make sure we’re leveraging technology in the right way to see the maximum benefit for our cause and community?

What, we have to give you ALL the answers?

We want to hear from YOU! Let us know what you think – you can add your thoughts here in the blog comments, or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. Then we’ll aggregate everything so we can all share the knowledge.

Below are some initial ideas to get the juices flowing:

  • The Internet – and especially social media – have made us all easily able to see what each of us are doing and share with others. What people like and share online becomes a part of their identities, and how they want others to view them. How does volunteering fit into this?
  • Are we busier now because of technology? How does this impact volunteering and volunteer engagement?
  • Technology has enabled the growth of virtual volunteering as a way to engage, and the rise of microvolunteering. Has this been a good thing overall, or a bad thing?
  • In today’s super-connected, globalized world, geographic boundaries don’t mean so much anymore. How does this apply to volunteering?
  • With new technology comes to new skills to use that technology, and new skills that can then be volunteered. What are the most valuable new technology-based skills that have arisen for your organization?
  • More of our technology is becoming small and…mobile. What does this mean for volunteer engagement?
  • How has technology impacted – for better or for worse – your ability to measure and track the impact of volunteering on your organization?
  • Finally, what does the future hold for volunteering, given all of this crazy technology that keeps popping up? What can we do now to make sure we’re prepared?

Answer one question or them all, but we want your two cents! Post them now in the comments below, or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. Can’t wait to see what you have to say!

How to Cultivate a Spirit of Service

Guest post by Scott Miller, Garden Spot Village

How to Cultivate A Spirit of ServiceGenerally speaking, retirement communities are desperate for volunteers. Overworked staff and lack of resources often leave administration with plenty of work to hand out to volunteers.

That’s not the case at Garden Spot Village, an active retirement community in the heart of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

“The acts of service that happen at Garden Spot Village are both large and small,” says Steve Lindsey, CEO. “The value of service manifests itself in countless ways, but it all starts with a value for people, for community and for relationships – and that,” he says, “is what makes our culture very special.”

An Intentional Change

While Garden Spot Village has managed to foster a spirit of service, it didn’t happen by accident. It started in 2001 when a major expansion to the community incurred unexpected costs. Determined to maintain transparency and address concerns, the staff looked for ways to increase accountability, and the idea of service came up in several meetings.

In 2002, the community refined its mission statement and values, and “service” was listed along with teamwork, excellence, stewardship and integrity as one of the core values that provide a framework for how the organization functions.

A Top-Down Movement

This addition was a primary step in creating a top-down movement to prioritize volunteering and service. Staff members set an example by volunteering around campus in activities beyond their scope of employment. It isn’t uncommon to see the CEO or board members step up and help out in different ways.

“Our goal is to create a sense of community where people can live lives that have meaning, purpose and value…, a community where we show love to one another in practical ways as an extension of who we are and what we believe,” says Lindsey.

The example of senior staff members didn’t take long to trickle down. Soon residents began using their gifts and talents to benefit others on campus in new and unique ways. Not to be limited to their own community, they began reaching out into the greater community, serving in the local schools, churches and other nonprofit organizations. Eventually this grew to the point that residents were making a difference in the lives of people they had never met, who lived in other parts of the country or around the world.

A Contagious Attitude

Almost fifteen years since the addition to the mission statement, the number of volunteer organizations within Garden Spot Village has skyrocketed. Anyone new to the Village can easily get involved in the community in one way or another.

Service cannot be coerced. Or at least, genuine, cheerful service cannot be forced. Residents and team members value meaningful relationships that are often formed through volunteering. As a result, service happens spontaneously.

“Service is just doing good things for other people,” Lindsey says. “It’s a value that can be easily learned, an attitude that can be adopted and a skill that can be honed by anyone.”

When an intentional effort to increase volunteering is supported by administration, it won’t be long before members of your organization embrace the movement and it becomes a natural part of your culture.

Scott Miller is the Chief Marketing Officer at Garden Spot Village, an active retirement community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Scott volunteers as part of the PA Dutch County Tourism Board, and in many other aspects of the campus and surrounding community.