Tag Archives: volunteering

Families modeling service, seeking justice

I have kids celebrating birthdays today, which means it’s a very family-focused day around here.

So I thought that I’d take this opportunity to share some inspiring stories of families showing their children why serving others matters, and, more importantly, how to do it. I’m always looking for examples, and for ideas of how we can volunteer together as a family.

We raise money for projects quite often–Sam had a lemonade stand to support agricultural assistance to farmers in Africa last year–and we give ‘alternative’ gifts for every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and for Christmas and other occasions, too. We have packed food at our local food bank, and we have done voter registration and community awareness activities, too.

For me, as a parent, the messaging matters.

Volunteering isn’t something we go to do for other people, because we pity them or because we have something they lack, even.

It’s something we do because we’re part of a connected world, and because it’s how we live consistently with our values and give ourselves the opportunity to connect meaningfully with the larger society.

The cliche, of course, is that volunteers ‘get as much as they give’, but, for me, it’s not about how good I feel when we help, it’s about what I’m doing to cultivate the kind of kids I want to raise.

Those who serve because they crave justice, I hope.

Because it’s my kids’ birthday, if anyone wants to gift us some great ideas of how children can volunteer–organizations renowned for working collaboratively with our youngest servant advocates, or inspiring models–we would be grateful.

And, on this special day at my house, a toast to family–that which lives within our walls, and that which surrounds us, in all humanity.

An easy ask: Including advocacy in volunteer orientations

Boys Telling Secrets
Just ask–and pass it on!

As part of my consulting work, helping nonprofit social service organizations integrate advocacy into their operations, I am working with some agencies in 2013 that have HUGE volunteer operations.

As in ‘the equivalent of an 86-person full-time workforce, year-round’ volunteer operations.

It’s an awesome thing.

Kids are having their birthday parties packing food for pantries and shelters. Older adults are spending their time reading in classrooms to children in poverty. Families have a tradition of hosting birthday parties for children in foster care.

These organizations have figured out that, while working with volunteers is never easy, it brings huge dividends, not just in terms of any actual labor completed, but also in creating ambassadors, of sorts, for the organizations and their causes. When people come and have a meaningful and invigorating experience at the organization, they are much more likely to donate their money, encourage others to help, and champion the organization.

Which is exactly why we’re totally missing a golden opportunity when we don’t invite our volunteers to advocate alongside us.

I had the benefit of having volunteered in some of these organizations before starting the advocacy technical assistance process, so I knew that, at least in my case, I was never provided with information about the organizations’ advocacy priorities, the targets who needed to hear from us, or how writing a letter or making a phone call could be just as valuable–if not more so–than sorting through school supplies to fill a backpack.

My early assessment and planning work with the organizations confirmed this. For the most part, nonprofit social services don’t do a great job of asking one of their most dedicated constituencies–their regular volunteers–to join them in advocacy.

So that is one of the first pieces I’m working on with these organizations. We’re doing things like:

  • Including a write-up of the advocacy agenda in all volunteer orientations
  • Integrating root cause discussions, even briefly, in volunteer training and debriefing sessions (this can be as simple as, “Why do you think people are hungry in the United States? What kinds of policies would need to change to make it better?” as a starting point)
  • Weaving advocacy asks into the “How You Can Help” sections on organizations’ websites, where they offer volunteer opportunities
  • Providing letter-writing materials to groups of volunteers, as a continuation of their service
  • Signing volunteers up for agency newsletters, and including advocacy information and calls to action
  • Crafting job descriptions for more extensive advocacy roles (everything from 3 hours/month to 20 hours/week–students need internships!)

This isn’t just about roping another group of stakeholders into advocacy (although, of course, I’ve got nothing against that). It’s also about showing volunteers that we value them, completely, which is the same reason why we need to be inviting our donors to advocate, too. It’s about helping people to make sense of the need with which they are confronted, and providing them with the tools they will need to keep from feeling accusatory or hopeless or myopic.

It’s about creating a stronger, more accurate, more whole volunteer experience…while changing the conversation around the issues, too, by including these voices policymakers wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear from.

What experiences do others have in crafting advocacy ‘asks’ for volunteers? What works, and what doesn’t? Does anyone have any stories to share?

Building our own auxiliaries

I had the opportunity, recently, to see some ‘free agents’ in action, and it is pretty awesome.

One of the organizations for which I’ve been doing advocacy technical assistance has this auxiliary, they call it: a group of (mostly) women, all connected to the organization in some way (but not current employees) who get together every month to socialize and support each other…and plan ways to live the mission of the organization.

See? Awesome.

Some of them are former employees, which makes them a great example of why we need to do a better job retaining the passion and enthusiasm and expertise of these would-be advocates when they move to another career opportunity. Some of them are family members of employees, which sort of blew me away, and has sparked so much thinking about what our employees can do through their own social networks, to excite people about the missions to which they dedicate their working hours. Some are family members of clients and former clients, a tremendously valuable extension of the organization’s self and peer-advocacy work with consumers. And some are, really, community members, connected through friendship ties to others in the group, and deriving meaning and companionship from the gatherings.

As one long-time auxiliary member told me (some have been participating for more than 10 years), “Some people go to book clubs. We support this organization.”

Um, wow.

Since spending the evening with this group, and seeing them in action (when I presented about the organization’s advocacy initiative, the members went to work quickly, making a list of policymakers with whom they had some connection, signing up to be part of a speakers’ bureau, offering stories for the storybank, and suggesting that they could hand out information about the organization’s advocacy agenda at their next fundraiser–a bakesale), I have peppered the chairwoman and the organization’s CEO with questions about the group, its origins, and how it sustains itself.

From these conversations, I have some thoughts about how organizations can best cultivate this kind of free agency (hopefully, I’ve already convinced you on the ‘why’):

  • Free agents flourish in a culture of empowerment: This auxiliary group was started by the CEO’s administrative assistant, who told me that she just wanted to find some way to do more to feed the mission. Are all of our employees vested with the confidence that this kind of free agent action is welcomed?
  • Small investments can yield big dividends: The organization makes a point to have staff members (oftentimes, the leadership) attend the auxiliary fairly regularly, not to do the work of the group, or to make it their own, but to help the auxiliary members feel connected to the organization, to answer questions, and to thank them. The organization also provides food for each of their meetings, a fairly small cost but one that contributes to the social gathering-ness of the group’s meetings. Auxiliary members told me that they “own” this group and its efforts, but they feel very much a part of the larger organization, and it’s clear that they act on its behalf, not just in support of the diffuse cause.
  • Social rewards matter: These people are friends. This is not like a committee meeting where people might chat a bit informally before they start. This is a group of folks who come together because they care about this organization’s work and because they really, really like to be with each other. They are friends first, and it shows. Are we paying attention to the fun in our work? Is our advocacy something to which people would like to invite their friends?
  • Official recognition, and structure, make a difference: This group is “the auxiliary”, not just some agency volunteers. They identify that way, and the members could all tell me the number of years they have been “with the auxiliary”, even, sometimes, as a subset of the years that they have volunteered with the organization. This, despite the fact that there’s no membership application, no nomination process, and no entrance criteria. People need to belong and to feel valued (we know that, even without Maslow). How are we building such affiliations into our work? How can we become places of identity for the people we want to attract?
  • Ownership has to be authentic: When the administrative assistant, who is an auxiliary member, first mentioned the group to me as a potential connection for the advocacy work, she was clear in her phrasing that we could “take the idea” to the auxiliary. This is not a force to be deployed at the organization’s will. It does not do their bidding. It complements their work and supports their mission. That makes them free agents, even if they giggled a bit when I framed it as such. If we can’t be comfortable with sharing ownership, we’re missing out on so much potential.

I’m a bit obsessed, now, with finding other examples of groups that function like this one, in other nonprofit social service organizations. Do you have experience with auxiliaries of your own? Or ideas of how you might build one? Or stumbling blocks in your pursuit?

Election Year Resolutions

I’m a resolution-maker.

My husband, quite emphatically, is not. He claims that, if there’s something he wants to change about himself, he just does, and he doesn’t need to wait for a new year to do it.

The crazy-making thing is, he really does.

For me, though, there’s something powerful about the symbolism of committing oneself to a new goal, and of starting fresh towards a new end. And I love, love, love crossing things off lists. I’m eternally grateful for a husband who lets me even cross things off his list, since he just doesn’t get the same satisfaction out of it that I do.

I have some rules about my resolutions, primarily that they have to be things entirely within my own control (so I can’t make resolutions about things that I want done around the house, since it’s seldom I who do them, or about the state of the world, since, regrettably, I’m not in charge there, either), and they have to be concrete (so no, “exercise more” or other vague statements; those are too easy for me to forget about, or to fudge).

This year, I’m setting a special set of resolutions for a special “year”, the countdown to the very important 2012 elections. It’s just about one year until our nation will not only elect a President but also send a strong statement about the direction of the country, and, here in Kansas, of our state Senate, in particular. And there are some things that I simply must do, if I’m going to be able to look myself in the mirror, in November 2012, and feel that I’ve done my best this year. So these are my Election Year Resolutions.

As always, I’m most interested to hear yours. What are you planning to do to make your mark on the electoral process, and how do those goals fit into your overall advocacy vision between now and next November? Or, if you’re not a resolution person, what are you doing today to shape the course of the next election?

  • Donate at least $100 towards citizenship application fees for a new applicant: It costs more than $600 to become a U.S. citizen, even if you don’t have to pay an attorney. In today’s economy, and given the labor market facing many immigrants, that’s a pretty steep entrance fee to our democratic process. I know many people who really want to become citizens, and whose voices are desperately needed, for whom the fees are a real barrier. We need to provide some financial assistance in order to broaden the scope of political participation; it just might mean public policies that reduce the demand for ameliorative services on the back end, too.
  • Organize another citizenship workday: One of the most fun and rewarding activities in doing immigrant rights work is helping people become citizens, and, when you can work with dedicated immigration attorneys who donate their time, it’s a true joy. We processed 85 new citizens at a workday last July, and those folks should be eligible to vote in 2012. Individuals applying for citizenship now may not complete the process in time, but it’s about building momentum for the future, and about redeeming the vision of an American Dream.
  • Register at least 50 new voters: So registering voters can be a drag. I know that all too well. I’ve been cursed at while conducting nonpartisan voter registration drives in 100+ degree heat, and that’s no one’s idea of a great time. But I’ve also received phone calls of gratitude from new voters who relished their first ballot, and those make it worth it. I’ll volunteer my time to work on voter drives, either in conjunction with nonprofit organizations, organized voter efforts, or through my own connections to grassroots groups.
  • Door-knock at least 5 days for candidates I support: Going door-to-door is abundantly more fun now that I can take a kid with me; people just don’t yell at people with kids as much. We’ll probably do some primary work in June (hopefully before it gets too hot) and again during the general election. My sons like to race each other to see who can get up to the door first for literature drops, too which saves me a few steps!
  • Make at least 5 campaign contributions, most likely at the state level: We have four kids, so money doesn’t exactly flow abundantly around here, but money is a critically important part of the political process, and there is a real satisfaction in supporting candidates whose vision I believe in. I started to receive solicitations a few months ago, so the hardest part will be winnowing those requests down and being strategic about my contributions, but they’re in the budget, so we can make them happen.
  • Provide at least 25 hours of pro bono consulting assistance to nonprofit organizations looking to integrate GOTV strategies into their work: I don’t have a lot of time, either, but I know a fair amount about how nonprofit social service agencies can be effective in their voter engagement work, and I know that I can make a contribution in that arena. I’ve started to talk with some organizations that are interested, and we’re working up some strategies that will, we hope, have both a 2012 impact and lay a foundation for years to come.

    So, again, what are YOUR election year resolutions? What will you do to influence the world we’ll wake up to on Wednesday, November 7, 2012?

  • Why I volunteer

    Gifts awaiting sorting and disbursement at the Johnson County Christmas Bureau

    From a distance, my life might look a little, well, unmanageable.

    I mostly take care of my kids all day, and then work in the evenings–communicating with students, planning lessons, reading about nonprofits and about social policy, working for some of my nonprofit clients, writing.

    And, whenever I can (which, in the past couple of months, hasn’t been as often as I would like), I volunteer.

    I was thinking about these volunteer roles recently when talking with some students, some of whom were sharing that their volunteer experiences were the only occasions on which they had really had a chance to feel a little bit like social workers, and some of whom were claiming that their lives didn’t leave them any time to volunteer, although they lamented that this left them feeling pretty disengaged, at this point in their careers, from social work organizations.

    Time constraints are valid. Social workers (and social work students) need to recharge and renew, if we are to effectively and sustainability serve those with whom we work.

    And I’d never argue that my schedule would make sense for everyone.

    So, this is not a “I should, and you should, too” post. Now, wouldn’t THAT be annoying?

    Instead, since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about why I volunteer, and what I look for when I do, and why, right now, I’m missing my volunteer engagements as a pretty essential part of my life. I’d love to hear from those of you who volunteer in some capacity, about why you do and where you do and how you make it work, and I’d be grateful if you’d share your own volunteering reflections and advice, as my students and I continue to think through how volunteer activities fit at this point in their careers.

  • Sometimes, I volunteer as a way to share my values and my vision of the world with my own family. I volunteer at our church because I want our kids to grow up in a faith community that approaches discipleship from the same perspective, and that requires that I work to help build that faith community. I volunteer places where I can take my oldest son, sometimes, so that he can find roles that are meaningful and allow him to make connections beyond his narrower world.
  • I volunteer to shape organizations that I care about–not just our church, but on Boards of Directors of organizations that work on issues like school finance that are very close to my heart (and my family), and I volunteer as a pro bono consultant for some organizations working on immigration policy and other critical justice issues.
  • I volunteer to stay connected to the realities of social policies on the ground. It’s one thing for me to believe very strongly that good social policy should be crafted by those who understand its implications; it’s another for me to make sure that I’m investing the time necessary to maintain those linkages, too. I don’t want to be someone who just talks about how wrong poverty is, although I believe that talking is, indeed, one of the ways that I contribute to the quest for justice. I need authenticity, and struggle, and pain as constant parts of my connection to the social problems that are inherently painful, and volunteering is a way for me to sit down face-to-face with what social policy looks like in real life.
  • I volunteer because it allows me to work on skills that no one should really pay me for. I’m certainly not the world’s greatest direct social work practitioner. And I’m way worse at construction and meal preparation and some of the other ways in which I like to be able to dive into tangible help–the kind where you can look at the end of the day and see some impact, rather than waiting for three legislative cycles. There’s a real satisfaction in that work, but the only way that I have any business engaging in those activities is as a volunteer with pretty limited authority and little organizational investment.
  • And that relates to my final reason for volunteering–sometimes it’s wonderful to be a part of supporting others’ efforts, rather than the one convening. It’s a beautiful thing to show up and follow orders and feel part of a larger effort pursuing social justice, without having to do all of the preparation or replay the whole event in your mind later. Volunteering usually doesn’t feel like something else added to my list of responsibilities; it’s a sort of different kind of play, and it really is renewing. For me.

    So, volunteers–what are your favorite experiences to share, and what motivates your volunteering? And, those who want to volunteer but aren’t, what stands in your way, and how might we organize voluntarism so that it would work for your life?