“Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins”: a Chat with Big Sunday’s David Levinson

David Levinson of Big SundayDavid Levinson didn’t mean to start a nonprofit, or a volunteering movement.Yet since the first Big Sunday in 1999 he has been the coordinator of what has become the largest regional community service event in the U.S., engaging tens of thousands of volunteers to help hundreds of projects each year in Southern Calif. They’ll be expanding to Northern Calif. in 2011.

David’s new book, “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins,” is the motto of the nonprofit and a perfect description for this excellent guide to how absolutely anyone can make a difference. We knew David had plenty of knowledge to share with nonprofits, too, so we interviewed him for Engaging Volunteers.

Q: Tell us about Big Sunday and how all that got started.

Big Sunday started in 1999 as a synagogue Mitzvah Day, which is how a lot of synagogues do it as a “day of good deeds.” I started it mainly because the Rabbi asked me to – I was just a dad with kids in preschool. We had a few hundred people, and it was a lot of fun. But I felt that it would be more fun to do it multi-cultural and multiethnic. So the next year we added some churches, and other synagogues and schools, and we were on our way.

The third year, one of the groups that helped was Covenant House which is a Catholic charity that helps kids who are on the street, and I had called them to say “How can we help you guys?” and they said “Our kids don’t need help, they want to give help.” At that moment we really wanted to make a community service day into a community building event, with the idea that everyone has some way that they can help somebody else.

This past spring on Big Sunday weekend (it’s a full weekend long now), we had more than 50,000 people of all ages and all backgrounds working together and more than five hundred different nonprofit sites throughout southern California. Everybody is there putting their best foot forward and helping in some way.

Q: Big Sunday is such a great grassroots organization. It shows how many people are willing to get involved if you just ask them, right?

They just want to know they’re wanted and needed and they just need to be pointed in the right direction. And that’s what we do. We’re proud of the fact that at Big Sunday our volunteers include normal people, and they include famous movie stars and CEOs, and everybody is treated the same and valued the same and we mix it all up. We have 2 year olds and we have 92 year olds, and there’s a place for everyone to help.

Q: So tell us about the book. What prompted you to write it?

Everyone Helps, Everyone WinsVolunteering is very much in the air, and that’s great, but in some ways I think there’s almost too much. A lot of people said to me that they were really overwhelmed – they wanted to help, they wanted to give back, but there was so much out there, they didn’t know where to begin. Sure, who doesn’t want to be like Mother Theresa, but let’s be real. I mean, we don’t all have a lifetime to spend feeding the hungry of Calcutta. Hopefully there’s something in between me lying on my sofa watching reruns, and being Mother Theresa. So I wanted to write a book for that crowd, who is good-hearted and wants to help, and just wants to know where to begin.

Q: Those are the people we’re trying to reach at VolunteerMatch, as well – the people that could make volunteering and service a part of their everyday lives if we just show them how. I found your book to be such a great resource for this.

I appreciate that. You know there’s volunteering and there’s giving, and sometimes people have time and not money, and some people have money and not time. We worked with a company whose employees really wanted to give back, and I was excited for them to be involved. Then they said, “Oh by the way, we want to do it without leaving our desks.” And I said, “Okay. We could work with that…” Because if you go onto some website, there’s not a homeless shelter in the world that doesn’t need new socks or underwear or toiletries for their people.

You can do it right from the comfort of your own computer where you are right now – go onto a website of a store we all know and order tube socks, or toothpaste, or whatever it might be, and find the local shelter in your neighborhood that can use it. And if you have trouble finding one, you can contact me at david(a)bigsunday.org wherever you live and I can point you to one that would love your help.

Q: What can nonprofits take from your book?

I think volunteers should have a good time. I want the people who volunteer for me to have fun, so that way they’ll want to volunteer for me again. Also, nonprofits should not be afraid of asking people what they want to do, and if you don’t really need them right now, don’t be afraid to tell them. Sometimes you have a good-hearted volunteer, someone with a lot of talent to add to your organization, but you might not have anything for them to do at that minute. So say, “Please check back with us in a week, or a month.” Because volunteers are smart, and if you’re making them do busy work, they’ll know it, and they’re not gonna like it. It’s very important for nonprofits to respect their volunteers’ time, which can even include saying, “just hold on for a little bit.”

The other thing I always say to nonprofits is that the first words out of your mouth should be “Thank you for coming.” There are also some resources for how to approach fundraising both from your volunteers as well as other groups, because everyone that runs a nonprofit, like myself, is under the gun. We’re all looking for that volunteer that’s gonna either save us a lot of money, give us a lot of money, or find us a lot of money. And you don’t have to be shy about that. But you want to be polite about it. I’ve seen it from both sides – I’ve been a volunteer, I’m now running a nonprofit, I do a lot of fundraising, and I’ve tried to include some suggestions for these issues in my book.

Q: For all the nonprofits in the LA area, how can they get involved with Big Sunday?

Just so you know, Big Sunday is not just LA, it’s throughout southern California – San Diego to Santa Barbara, and San Francisco and Sacramento next year, too.

We posted our holiday list at www.bigsunday.org, with all sorts of ways to help for the holidays. It’s continuing to grow, with things to do all over the state. People can feel more than free to contact me at david@bigsunday.org. We’re always looking for new ways to help people. We have monthly events, we have a year-round calendar, and Big Sunday weekend is May 14-15.

Click here to learn more about Big Sunday.

Click here to learn more about “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins.”