Volunteers play a vital role in the Austin community, but most don’t realize that it takes work to make a great volunteer experience.
For volunteer project organizers, the work is in creating volunteer opportunities that fit the volunteers as well as the nonprofit they’re benefitting, but it’s also in making sure volunteers feel they’ve contributed something valuable to the cause.
Lisa Filemyr, a member of the Junior League of Austin, says her work as placement chair is to lead efforts in selecting and working with the 35 nonprofit partners to create more than 500 volunteer projects for its members each year.
“We train hundreds of women in the community through volunteering, so time of day, location and variety of tasks are important,” she said. Among other things, League members may volunteer to be ushers at Zach Scott Theatre or help children get clothing and other items they need at Partnerships for Children.
The balance between the volunteers’ needs and the nonprofit’s’ needs is hard to achieve, says Leigh Christie of Entrepreneurs Foundation, which organizes projects for local companies. In her work, she builds relationships with local nonprofits and employee-leaders to identify their needs, then creates and manages large-scale, multi-day and multi-site volunteering projects, like the recent project that took place at Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Community First! Village.
“The best volunteer experiences are those where the work performed was actually needed by the nonprofit rather than just created so the volunteers would have something to do,” Christie said.
Scheduling the volunteer projects on a calendar might be the easiest part of creating meaningful projects. “It’s probably the biggest misconception people have about us,” said Allison Johnson of the nonprofit volunteering agency Little Helping Hands. “That we’re just an online calendar service.” In reality, she said, it takes several project leaders to work with the nonprofits, create the 90 to 100 projects a month, make sure all the supplies and materials are ready then communicate logistics to the volunteers.
A good resource for learning how to lead volunteer projects is the quarterly class offered by Hands On Central Texas, a program at United Way for Greater Austin. The class suits those tasked with recruiting or leading volunteers, but it also offers a “volunteer 101” course for those who lead groups looking for volunteer projects. The class covers nuts-and-bolts resources like planning checklists and a list of resources for free supplies, “But we also talk to them about setting expectations for volunteers, how you turn them into champions for the cause and get them interested in coming back,” said Molly Hahn of United Way.
Ultimately, says Filemyr of the Junior League, her goal is to make sure volunteers feel like they contributed something meaningful and that they learned something new about the community or themselves. And Christie says giving volunteers a way to build a relationship with that nonprofit once the project is complete is important, too.
As for their work, Johnson says managing the volunteer projects helps nonprofits focus on their real mission. “To have us doing the planning, recruiting and managing volunteers and even bring the supplies, we’re providing nonprofits with a service that keeps their staff from having to do it themselves,” said Johnson.
PHOTO: Employees from Blackbaud volunteered at the Mobile Loaves & Fishes Community First! Village in May, part of the Entrepreneurs Foundation Spring Service Day involving 24 local tech companies, 14 nonprofits and 550 volunteers. Photo courtesy of Entrepreneurs Foundation.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on June 11, 2017.