By Rabbi Joanna Samuels
and Deb Scher
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, our nation’s only federally designated Day of Service, is today, and many synagogues, federations, and schools are participating in volunteer projects across our nation. This annual civic ritual ought to inspire us to address societal challenges, and yet, the volunteer opportunities organized for this important day of service often have limited impact on the actual problems in our communities.
We want to help change that.
At Manny Cantor Center, we launched a new volunteer program that has a thoughtful approach to how we work with all who are looking to volunteer. With the partnership of UJA-Federation, our program, called More Hands More Hearts, recruits and places volunteers in strategic, mission-aligned volunteer work. Since beginning this program in Spring 2015, we have had 100+ volunteers in our center who have performed 10,000+ hours of service alongside our paid staff. We are sharing our experience in the hopes that we can help volunteers and our nonprofit colleagues to create authentic and impactful volunteer experiences, that advance the difference that we all want to make.
1. We changed our perspective
We used to think about volunteers as people who come from the outside to “help.” Our wish to accommodate their goodwill led to haphazard efforts on our part to find ways for volunteers to have meaningful experiences. This left our staff frazzled and had little or no impact on what they sought to accomplish. At the same time, our programs were growing steadily, and we literally needed more hands to be able to manage this growth.
Now, we begin from the belief that volunteers are our partners, who work in solidarity with us to enable us to reach our organizational goals. This reframe helps us to be clear on what our needs are, and it helps potential volunteers to understand if Manny Cantor Center is the right place for them. We believe that service work is a critical component of social justice — but only when the work advances the goals of the organization it serves.
2. We changed our processes.
We used to ask staff to accommodate the needs of volunteers, or to create experiences to help volunteers feel useful. Now we ask staff to identify work where volunteer help would actually be useful. Our staff has responded strategically and enthusiastically, with tasks as varied as organizing our digital photo archive, tutoring our teens in math, and staffing the welcome desk in our senior program. Our staff gets real assistance, and our volunteers know that they are spending their time working with us to achieve real progress.
3. We think that volunteer work is meaningful to everyone.
The More Hands More Hearts volunteers are a diverse group. Many are from programs within Manny Cantor Center, others are from our surrounding neighborhood and beyond. We encourage the older adults in our senior center to serve lunch, work in the office, and prep meals in our kitchen, thereby transforming the senior center from a place where people receive services, to a place where they co-create their experience. Immigrant parents whose children are in our Head Start program volunteer a few hours a week chopping vegetables in our kitchen, while volunteers come to help them learn English. Our gym members give back by volunteering in their professional areas of expertise: a nurse checks blood pressure in our senior center; two marketing professionals are working with our communications team on outreach in our neighborhood.
4. We think that everyone has a skill or something to give
Having our own program participants serve in volunteer roles is empowering, community-building, and enables our diverse population to meet each other as equals – each one serving, each one with a skill, each one with what to give. We serve a large and multi-faceted population, and we do so with the knowledge that each person has the ability to contribute in the building of a stronger, more connected community. When volunteers come from outside of our center to serve, they do so within an ecosystem of dignity and abundance.
5. We sometimes say no to potential volunteers
It is also true that we have said no – or “not at the moment” – to some volunteer offers. One group wanted to organize a canned food drive on our behalf. We explained that we purchase food for our kitchen in bulk at a great discount, and so individual cans are not helpful – but donations that enable us to purchase food go a very long way. One of our neighbors wanted to mentor young people – but was only available on weekends, when our teens are with their families. We asked him to please keep us in mind if he became available during our existing teen center hours.
6. We explain ourselves – often
In the “yeses” and the “no’s,” we take time to explain to potential volunteers what the real needs are of a thriving community center that serves more than 1500 people each day. Being transparent leads to good will and has a positive impact. Those who choose to volunteer feel satisfied and know that their work is useful. Those who are not able – yet – to find a role within our volunteer “jobs” understand better that our goal is to serve the needs in our community.
Today, on MLK Day many people will have their first taste of being a volunteer by participating in a large group activity, that likely has been specially tailored for them. That’s OK for today. But for tomorrow, let’s really get to work – volunteers and organizations alike. Volunteers: offer us your skills, your time, and your steady commitment to helping us do the work that we actually need to get done. Nonprofit colleagues: figure out how best to use the skills, time, and steady commitment of these precious people authentically and in support of your work. This way we are true partners, helping to alleviate suffering, build community, and advance the work of justice that is the true legacy of Dr. King.
Rabbi Joanna Samuels is the Executive Director of the Manny Cantor Center of Educational Alliance, where Deb Scher is the Manager of Volunteer and Community Engagement.