At COA, volunteerism is the thread that binds us together and allows us to carry out our mission. Whether volunteers are helping our accredited organizations or running our site visits, COA would not function without them.
This is why we like to pause every April to celebrate National Volunteer Month. Established in 1974 by Presidential Proclamation, National Volunteer Month aims to both celebrate volunteers and unite the nation in increased volunteerism throughout the month. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 62 million Americans volunteer at least one hour each year, with the average amount of time equaling to approximately 50 hours per person (that comes out to about 3.1 billion hours of donated time!). Previously we have acknowledged Volunteer Month by writing about starting a workplace volunteer initiative and had a guest post from one of our many wonderful volunteers. This year, we decided we wanted to get a bit more personal. How does COA staff connect with our own volunteer initiatives? What impact does it have on the communities we serve as well as our own? What can others learn from our story?
In 2012, COA staffers spent a day on Staten Island, cleaning out a home affected by Hurricane Sandy. The devastation was sobering. It helped us to realize that we were eager to give back outside of our day-to-day work. This led to the formation of an interdepartmental group to spearhead employee volunteer opportunities, now known as the COA Volunteer Committee. Since its creation, the committee has coordinated drives, off-site activities, and in-house events.
How we’ve volunteered
The committee kicked off its efforts in 2013 by participating in “Repack in Hunts Point” with Food Bank for New York City during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. We traveled to the Food Bank’s Food Distribution Warehouse in the Bronx and were tasked with sorting, weighing, and packing corn to be distributed to food pantries and community kitchens throughout the five boroughs.
Another one of our favorite activities was volunteering with the Pajama Program in 2015. The program provides new pajamas and books to children in need nationwide, many of whom live in group homes, shelters and temporary housing facilities. Volunteers had the opportunity to read to children from Pre-K and second grade classes, share snacks, and hand out pajamas and a book for each child.
We loved working with kids so much that later that year we volunteered with Association to Benefit Children (ABC). We took a field trip to Battery Urban Farm and volunteers worked with two classrooms of three- and four-year-olds. We ate pizza. We rode the subway. We gardened… After we were done, we all needed a nap!
In 2017, we volunteered with Coalition for the Homeless, helping wrap presents for children living in their network of shelters. The gifts were distributed to 140 kids at their annual Kids Holiday Party and to other children experiencing homelessness throughout the city. This one definitely put us in the holiday spirit!
We did a second event in Spring 2017 working with God’s Love We Deliver, helping to prepare meals for individuals and families living with serious illnesses. We learned about their mission, put our hair nets on, and packed soup to be distributed across their network. This partnership has continued with a few additional volunteer opportunities in 2018, as well as planned events for this year.
Another organization we’ve worked repeatedly with is The Friends of Governors Island. We’ve enjoyed helping them weed, rake, and maintain landscapes for this beautiful island we are lucky enough to work near. This work allowed us to give back in a way that is outside the scope of our day to day responsibilities and is vital to sustaining the public green space.
In addition to off-site opportunities, the COA Volunteer Committee has also organized in different types of drives to support the work of various human service organizations. These have included:
- Collecting coats from staff and others in our building to support one of the largest coat drives in the New York City area, hosted by New York Cares
- Collecting essential winter items (such as scarves, gloves, and hats) for youth in the Safe Haven for Children program as part of Lutheran Social Services of New York, Inc.
- Collecting toys for children at the Dr. Katharine Dodge Brownell School (operated by Rising Ground, Inc.)
- Participating in a canned food drive for City Harvest
- Participating in a gift card drive hosted by Sanctuary for Families, a community-based organization for survivors of intimate partner violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence
- Participating in Project Back to School with the Coalition for the Homeless, collecting grade-specific backpacks and school supplies for youth.
In addition, we have an evergreen drive: With so many COA staff traveling across the nation representing COA at various conferences and events, we’ve made an ongoing effort to collect hotel-size toiletries to drop off at a shelter for survivors of intimate partner violence.
Since 2013, COA staff have volunteered over 400 hours through the COA Volunteer Committee alone! We’ve seen the impact both internally and in our community.
Volunteering as an organization can give staff a forum to team build and bond, engage with the community, and increase morale.
When we polled staff about what they like best about COA volunteer opportunities, promoting team-building and building camaraderie came out on top. Staff also appreciate that the activities connect back to our mission and provide a space for us to get to know one another outside of the office. Another thing that we enjoy about our volunteer efforts? They give us the warm fuzzies!
At COA, volunteering has offered everyone a chance to give back, reconnect with our mission, and to “step away from our screens for a day to do good and spend time together while doing so.”
What we’ve learned
What are the barriers to getting a volunteer effort off the ground? Our staff report conflicting appointments and time away from the office as the biggest hurdles. Finding the time to volunteer can be a challenge when you have a full plate. The activities themselves, the environment, or the level of physical activity required can be other factors that change the response from “Count me in!” to “Maybe next time…”.
In the effort to keep our mission as a committee going and overcome these barriers, we’ve picked up a few tips and tricks to make our events more successful and have the greatest impact.
Consider the nature of the event, time of year and weather in you planning – i.e. don’t plan an outdoor event if it’s commonly snowy that time of year. Keep in mind whether staff are typically on vacation or stacked with meetings on certain days. By making these considerations early, you’ll be able to maximize the number of staff that are able to volunteer for your event.
Find the right fit
When choosing a volunteer event for your organization it’s important to assess if there is an activity or event that is a particularly good fit for your organization. For example, our toiletry drive fit well with our frequent staff travels. You may also want to consider current events and needs in your area, like we did in our response to Hurricane Sandy.
A key component of planning a successful volunteer event is getting buy-in from leadership to get the necessary permissions and gain their support and involvement. Engaging leadership at COA has enabled to us receive donations on behalf of the organization. Depending on the event and how your organization wants to contribute (time, items, $$$, etc.), there are a few approaches you can use to utilize that donation to its fullest. For our last backpack and school supplies drive, we recognized that backpacks were the most expensive item we were asking staff to donate, so we used COA’s donation to purchase backpacks.
If you’re planning a volunteer event that will require staff to make donations, it’s important to make it as convenient as possible for them. If the expectation is that staff will bring things in from home, highlight the convenience of being able to clean out and drop off at their workplace. If staff will most likely need to purchase items for donation, we highly recommended setting up a registry. It provides specific guidance and easy purchasing options for staff and allows the organizer the ability to manage the items donated.
Though the joy of donating and contributing to a cause is often enough to get people involved, incentives can be a great way to engage folks and reward their participation. When soliciting staff to participate in an off-site volunteer event we highlight the opportunity for out-of-office time, an option to dress down, and even snacks or lunch. We’ve also conducted raffles alongside events, entering all participants in a chance to win a gift card. Be creative and know what will incentivize your audience.
Send out reminders
People forget. Particularly if it’s 7AM and you’re trying to get to work. Make sure to send frequent reminders!
BONUS Tip: Even with reminders, we highly recommend allowing for some buffer time for sign up and donation deadlines (i.e. tell people the deadline is a few days before you absolutely need the commitment or donation).
If your organization doesn’t have the capacity to plan a specific event, create an avenue for staff to learn about volunteer opportunities. We place information on a white board in our communal kitchen and have a Slack channel solely dedicated to volunteer information. This way staff can get the information and choose to participate on their own time if they wish.
Whether you’re planning an event for your organization or doing something on your own, we hope you will get out there and volunteer this National Volunteer Month!
The social and human services field might conjure images of social workers seeing clients all day in their offices or case managers out on home visits, and although these are aspects of many jobs in this field, the day-to-day reality is often a bit more varied. Social service organizations include a wide array of roles such as human resource directors, finance managers, quality improvement specialists to name a few. And even for clinicians or those in direct practice a good amount of time is spent completing paperwork and other administrative tasks. While these are critical functions of our organizations, those tasks might not be what first attracted us to the social services field. Often, the pull to work in this field comes out of a desire to “give back” or “do good”. And while all tasks in our organizations help to advance the important missions that we signed on for, some of us may still be looking for more or different ways to give back. Many of us might already volunteer for nonprofit boards, give to charity, or volunteer our skills more directly on our own time. Creating or participating in a volunteer initiative in the workplace might assist with scratching an altruistic itch and benefit our organizations at the same time.
You may have heard of the terms corporate social responsibility or corporate philanthropy and thought they weren’t relevant to your organization. The first instinct might be “Our whole function is to create social impact driven by our mission. We don’t need to/have time for/have the energy for additional volunteer work”. You might be surprised to discover that there are still opportunities and interest at your organization to incorporate the essence of these ideas. Specifically, one way is to create a space for employees to give back through volunteer initiatives. After reading on, I hope you’ll find that there are various ways in which doing so can positively reverberate through your work environment, from boosting morale to encouraging closer work with the community you serve.
What are the benefits?
I think it’s hard to overstate the benefits of creating a space for employee volunteerism. For fun, let’s frame it in the context of some COA standards. After all the standards outline best practice!
Human Resources (HR) and Personnel Development and Training (TS)
Staff satisfaction and retention is an area that challenges many organizations in our field. Creating workplace initiatives that keep staff connected to each other and the organization’s mission is one way to help address this. Employee volunteerism initiatives can be a great benefit or perk to highlight for recruiting purposes and to raise morale for current staff. It might be challenging to increase pay or vacation time, but maybe your organization can consider allowing employees time for volunteer activities.
The opportunity to volunteer as a team, department or organization also serves as an opportunity for team building, or dare I say “bonding”. Getting outside the walls of your office and the routine of your day-to-day can allow you to get to know your co-workers in a new light and increase cross-departmental collaboration and relationships.
It also provides an opportunity to develop and demonstrate skills that you might not otherwise have occasion to use while at work. Participating in something different than typical day to day activities can allow opportunities for a newer or more junior staff member to shine in their leadership skills if given the opportunity. Staff might also have an opportunity to develop skills while volunteering. Maybe you can even consider sponsoring an external volunteer organization to come in to train your staff. Some organizations here in New York City require a one-day training in order to volunteer with them. If staff are able to get that training together and through work, it opens up the opportunity for them to volunteer together or on their own.
Community involvement (GOV / AFM)
Another great benefit of volunteering in your local community is the opportunity for community involvement and creating perhaps unexpected partnerships that raise awareness of your mission and presence in the community. You aren’t doing this for PR, but often increased community connections and awareness of your brand is an added benefit. If you have tee-shirts or hats with your branding, and it feels appropriate, you can ask staff to wear them while volunteering to build name recognition.
An event that takes place outside of normal work hours but can be a great opportunity for staff to come together is participating in a walk or fundraiser. Perhaps your organization sponsors a team for a charity walk and then gets outside together on a weekend to participate. Maybe your nonprofit can even offer to trade with another nonprofit and partner to volunteer for each other one day a year. You never know what unexpected relationships can be born out of volunteerism.
One other outside the box idea is if your organization sponsors conferences or events, can you incorporate an aspect of giving back? Maybe an optional day tagged onto the end of a conference for a volunteer activity?
Performance Quality Improvement (PQI)
Lastly, of course – this is COA – we have to tie it to PQI! One way you might consider looking at creating volunteer opportunities at your organization is to incorporate it into your PQI initiatives. If staff express interest, this absolutely works in relation to any of the areas listed above and tied into goals around staff retention, community awareness, or cross-departmental collaboration, for example.
Show me the data
Speaking of PQI, of course in this day and age, you want your decisions to be supported by stats and data. Well, lucky for you, we’ve got it:
- A 2017 Deloitte Volunteerism Survey of working Americans found that 88% of respondents believed that companies who sponsor volunteer activities offer a better overall working environment than those who do not.
- Research from the University of Georgia, supports the fact that employee volunteering is linked to greater workplace productivity.
- America’s Charities Snapshot 2017, is a great resource for data related to “What U.S. Employees Think About Workplace Giving, Volunteering, and CSR”. Their CEO Jim Star, states “Employers who build programs that connect workers to each other, expose them to corporate leaders, and give them meaningful ways to make a difference in their communities send a strong statement to those workers that they are valued. They also build stronger teams and deeper relationships.”
- COA’s nonscientific staff survey showed similar results: When asked to share what they liked best about COA volunteer opportunities, 88% indicated that it “promotes team-building and builds camaraderie.”
COA – Practice what you preach
Here in lower Manhattan at the COA offices, we think this is one area where we definitely walk the walk. After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and New York City hard in 2012, COA staffers spent a day on Staten Island cleaning out a home affected by the storm. Even for those of us in New York who lived through it, the impact of seeing the devastation to that part of the city was sobering. It also was a wakeup call that we as staff were eager to give back outside of our day to day work, and appreciated the opportunity to get out of the office, roll our sleeves up, and interact with our community. After that event, staff expressed (through our staff suggestion box!) that COA should formalize an employee volunteer initiative. The COA Volunteer Committee was born out of this experience.
To date, thanks to dedicated staff and support from COA leadership, the COA Volunteer Committee has been up and running for over five years. Highlights include reading stories to kids, chaperoning an urban garden project, cleaning up Governors Island, shucking corn for a food bank, lending our hands for a meal delivery organization, donating to coat and backpack drives, and more.
The internal response to these initiatives has been overwhelmingly positive. On staff surveys, we’ve heard feedback like “The volunteer activities promote team-building, a sense of community and positively contribute to staff morale”, “generates collaboration” and, our favorite – it gives “the warm fuzzies”.
To leave you with some tips from our experience:
- Get buy-in from the top: As with many things, buy-in is key. Leadership endorsing and participating is a key factor in your volunteer efforts success. Lead by example.
- Staff input: Before you make a decision about your volunteer activities, it helps to get a sense of what people are interested in. You might create a simple staff survey to get input and specific suggestions, and then figure out what is the best fit for your audience.
- Variety: If you work for an organization focusing on children, maybe one year you volunteer to plant trees or weed a community garden. If you work in adult substance use, maybe arrange to spend an afternoon reading to kids.
- Risk prevention: You’ll want to consider any risks that may be associated with the planned activity and take steps to mitigate those risks. Setting some simple but clear guidelines for participants is a good way to make sure everyone has clear, shared expectations. A few you might think to include are dress code expectations, time commitment, meeting spots, and communication protocols for off-site, to ensure everyone is on the same page from the start.
- Closing the loop!: A post-activity survey or debriefing to capture what people liked and didn’t like about the activity (or for those who didn’t, what hampered their participation), can give you great insight into what to look for next time.
In the end, only kindness matters
Clearly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to volunteer initiatives for social and human service organizations. What works at one organization, might not be a fit at another. However, based on the data, as well as our experience at COA, I encourage you to give some thought and get creative about how this might look for your organization. Maybe start small with just your team or department sponsoring a coat drive this year. Or, some of you may already have robust volunteer initiatives in full swing at your organizations. We’d love to hear about workplace volunteer efforts you may have participated in or put into place at your organization. Please share any questions, thoughts or success stories below!