Disaster Squared

Volunteers looking to help out in an emergency are a disaster.  That’s what she said.  Actually, what she said is that they are disaster within a disaster.  Great.  Here I am, being trained to setup a Volunteer Reception Center, or VRC, and the first thing I learn is that spontaneous and unaffiliated volunteers during a disaster can be a total pain.  You know these people – they are the ones that run toward the storms, standing out in a field when it’s lightening out or something.  People much less risk-averse than me.

Our recent past has been a little too full of disasters.  This year alone we had the Haiti earthquake and Gulf Coast Oil Spill. So, how were volunteers handled?  Well, a quick search of recent news items reveals headlines like “Volunteers ready but left out of spill cleanup” and “Gung-ho but untrained, volunteers hit a wall in helping mitigate gulf oil spill“.

I haven't made it to the Gulf for the latest disaster, but I was sure there after Katrina.

So, what can you do now to make sure you aren’t one of those untrained, spontaneous volunteers if there’s a disaster in your ‘hood?

– Get in touch with your local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) or Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) to find out about trainings offered by organizations in your area.  Visit HERE to find an affiliate in your state.

– Make sure you and your business or organization have an emergency plan.  FEMA offers a guide for business and industry, and Ready.gov is a great resource for individuals.

– Sign up for a virtual VRC.  In Maine, when you create an account with VolunteerMaine.org, you’re asked, “Would you consider volunteering in the event of an emergency or disaster?”.  Say YES!  You’ll be asked to provide contact information and an overview of your skills so that managers know if you’d be a good fit to volunteer during a particular disaster.

– Contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross – they have a full curriculum of training for disaster preparedness.  Become a Master of Disaster and you could be deployed to disasters throughout the country.

One thing I do know how to do is muck out. Yucky.

– Additional trainings can be found through your local churches (many offer sessions to learn how to “muck out”, work a chainsaw, be an early responder, etc).  There are also opportunities online for training – one upcoming session will be held on July 28, 2010.  Register at http://www.humanservicesepr.org/index.html.

Knowing your limits as a volunteer is one of the best ways to help out during an emergency.  Yes, it is hard to hear when you aren’t needed, but be honest about your skills and abilities.  Get trained for jobs you’d be interested in before a disaster hits (or at least before you try to get involved).  And, don’t forget that most disasters take a LONG time to clean up – there is generally an immediate outpouring of people willing to donate their time and money, so your help may be needed most weeks, months, or even years after the initial disaster.


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When I Hip, You Hip, We Hip

Recently, I received an email from a good friend in reference to the Maine Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (MCLU). Here’s the gist of it:

The MCLU has a solid group of traditional, white-collar members over 30 who are active in the organization.  They want to attract a younger crowd, blue collar workers, and people within the arts community.   What are some ideas for outreach events that’ll help make some inroads into those communities, or at least educate those communities about the basics of civil liberties, why they’re important, why they’re taken for granted, why they’re violated more than people think, how the MCLU is working to protect them, etc?

I don’t think the MCLU’s situation is unique – they have their core group, but want to increase their breadth.

Here are the things I suggested.  I hope they’ll be relevant beyond this particular case, so feel free to post your own ideas.

– Start by thinking about why your organization wants to engage a different demographic.  Without a clear goal, it is difficult to be effective.  Most organizations struggle with engaging the under 30 crowd, partially because young people aren’t really at a place in their lives where they can be committed to an organization.  At the same time, there are many young people who are super-committed to service and engagement and would love to be involved – they just need to be asked/informed.

– Look at your current outreach.  The MCLU happened to have no current events and no volunteer opportunities listed on their website (it’s in the works).  You can’t expect people to read your mind, so tell them how they can be involved. Same thing with social networking sites – keep them relevant and up to date.

– Start with the easy things.  Here in Maine, there are many outreach fairs offered by local businesses and events.  A lot of non-profits and advocacy organizations have tables at the farmer’s market on a weekly basis to promote their cause.  If you have an outreach table, make sure you give people the opportunity to take action right there – at minimum this would be signing up for an email list, but you could have a petition or postcards to send friends about a particular relevant issue or event.

– Look at what chapters are doing in other states.  The Colorado Chapter of the ACLU provided a great model as they have a number of upcoming events that could easily be replicated by the chapter in Maine – things like a 5k run with a festival are easy to do because you can start small and grow every year.  Colorado’s festival includes a GraFREEti wall, which is a great way to incorporate art into the event.

– Partner with existing organizations, but *use caution*.  Partnering with other organizations for an event can be difficult – you don’t want to spend too much time collaborating only to present a diluted message of what your organization does.  Try to find a partner that compliments rather than competes with your mission.  If you bring in partners that aren’t directly related to your organization’s activities, you should have a good reason for the partnership other than sharing the costs of an event.

– Bring someone from your targeted audience into your core by making them a board or committee member.  Obviously, you want them to have other credentials, but be willing to work with them even if they don’t have the traditional skills of your typical core member.

Sometimes organizations spend too much time thinking about how to attract the “hip” crowd.  My most important suggestion is this: if you’ve got a good thing, don’t mess with it. If you bend over backwards to involve a more diverse group of supporters, you’re probably sacrificing something. Focus on your strengths – if you do them well (and put some effort into promotion), you’ll be attractive without a whole bunch of fanfare.

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Walk Like an Egyptian

On a recent conference call for AmeriCorps Alums, I was introduced to a new idea that’s been helpful for me to think about building our local chapter.  W., who was running the call, mentioned the concept of a “Pyramid of Involvement”.  You can probably infer what it means from the name, but the basic idea is that in every organization, there is going to be a small, committed group of people that form the core of the organization.  This core is the group that comes to most events, helps with planning, probably is willing to donate money, and feels a strong connection to the organization.

There are a few different models for this pyramid – some focus on organizational structure while others focus on level of engagement. Wiser Earth, and Groundwire’s concepts (here) are two of my favorites.  Groundwire offers the model that I find most useful, as it breaks each level down to talk about goals and metrics with examples of what a participant in your organization might be willing to do, depending on how engaged they are.

So, how can you use the engagement pyramid to build your organization? First of all, accept that there will only be a small group at the top – make sure you’re finding ways to reward them and acknowledge their contributions.  This group should also rotate  – whether it is a formal board or a leadership group, the same person should not always be in charge.  Give others a chance to be leaders.  The lower levels of engagement provide a range of ways to activate someone’s interest in your organization.  Some people will never go beyond simple things like “liking” your facebook page.  Others want to have a dialogue, and the value of “touch points” or human interaction is invaluable for keeping them involved.

Now, the pyramid looks great – it’s a neat and tidy way to think about interactions, but is it really useful?  Guess I’ll have to try it out and let you know for sure, but my first thoughts are that it is a great way to start conceptualizing and brainstorming (or revamping) your outreach strategies in conjunction with development strategies and volunteer recruitment/retention.  If you can get someone to volunteer and then be a donor, you know they are moving up the ladder.  But, do you then push them to be a board member? How do you know what their upper level of involvement is? I’m guessing there are times where you’d also see slippage on the ladder – a burned out board president who only reads your e-newsletter….are there ways to change that?  The other point I see is that the ladder may help you focus your energy by putting energy into those groups that will give you the best response.  Because sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get everyone in your organization to walk like an Egyptian (or think like one).  At least we still have the Bangles.

[Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh]

Pyramid of Involvement

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Sometimes You Just Have to Say “No”

I’m starting to notice some patterns in my posts – mainly that I’m a little critical of other people’s volunteer management skills.  Well, I wish I could say this is different, but I can’t.

So here we are, a group of friends trying to plan a summer weekend that involves some fun and some service.  K. #2 finds a cool opportunity and decides that an overnight camping trip with an early morning to race registration for Tour de Cure is the perfect fit.  We thought more people would be into it, but only three of us committed.  At the volunteer “orientation” (I think I wrote about that horrid experience in May), we met a woman who offered her backyard for our camping adventure – that made things a little easier since our other option wasn’t exactly legal. I’ll spare you the details of how difficult it was to figure out what we were scheduled to do in the morning (and at some points we were scheduled for Saturday or Sunday afternoon, times we didn’t actually offer to work).  What you do need to know is that we were told we’d be on food – making lunch.  That was sort of clear (or so we thought).  When we arrived at the high school gym at 6:30am (!) there was nothing to do.  I ate some pancakes and stared at a wall for a few minutes.  Then S. and I (there are four of us now) found some other volunteers making a balloon arch.  What fun!  Our boredom and clear skills in volunteer management soon led to everyone listening to us like we were in charge – and we made the coolest balloon arch EVER.

At least I learned how to make a balloon arch. Valuable skills, I swear.

That took about an hour.  We milled around a bit more and realized that there were some signs that needed to be hung outside.  S., who probably saw the movie Up! a few too many times, suggested that we float the signs with balloons.  Brilliant!  We harangued a good number of people into helping out with the endeavor and spent another hour insisting that the signs would float with “just a few more” balloons.  Eventually, we got it to work, though we were slightly disappointed that the wind made them fall right back to the ground.  Oh, well.  Our next adventure involved cooking pizzas on a grill – we made one test pizza and then were informed that four more volunteers were there to relieve us.  So, we went home.

Now, I totally understand scheduling more volunteers than you need – you never know who is going to get sick or just not show up at the last minute.  But, learn to say “NO”, people!  We drove 45 minutes to get up at 6am and have something to do.  Anything, in fact, would have been nice.  And, if you realize that there isn’t anything for us to do – tell us to go home! It’s ok.  I promise.  I can find other things to do with my Sunday morning.


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What Rhymes with Volunteer? Beer.

Every once in a while I decide to volunteer for something for selfish reasons – usually it ends up alright, but not this time.  Since I work my friend K. into every blog post like she’s “Where’s Waldo?”, I’ll go ahead and mention that I signed up for this event (called Taste of the Nation) because of her.  She didn’t actually do anything, but K. likes food and so I thought we could volunteer together at this foodie event and she could teach me a thing or two.  Turns out she had other plans, which is probably where things started to go wrong.  Well, I can’t blame it all on her…I did have a handful of other friends there with me.

So, let me explain – this event we’re at is all about food and cocktails, wine and beer, and looking fancy (at least if you paid the $95 to get in).  If you’re a volunteer, it’s about a 6 hour shift with one (yes, ONE) greasy piece of pizza.  I should rephrase – if you’re a good volunteer.  Despite my pro-service intentions, sometimes a just suck as a volunteer.  I started out alright – we were supposed to be clearing out dirty glasses and plates, but I soon felt like I was competing with other volunteers for who could take the trash out fastest.  Not my favorite game.  Instead, I found my old buddy B. who happens to own a brewery…that brewery just happened to be serving beer at the event.  So, B. stratigically placed glasses of beer for us volunteers to “clear out”.  I tried to control myself, I really did….but then I made friends with a bartender who insisted that I take a shot of bourbon…and then my friend A. took over the tap for another beer company.  So, my day went: run, eat a granola bar, walk to volunteer event, eat a piece of pizza, clear trash for 5 hours while drinking,…. you can see where I’m going.  Not enough food and too much free booze was not a good thing.

Now, other than coloring myself as a lush, what can you take away from this?  First of all, let me point out that I wasn’t even the worst volunteer there.  A handful of people clearly knew the scheme and strategically chose not to put on their volunteer t-shirts.  They turned their volunteer nametag around and soon they looked exactly like all the VIP members who paid over $100 to get in.  I pointed this  out to one of the volunteer managers (he insisted they were VIPs) and then watched them eat and drink to their heart’s content.  So – maybe you should insist on the dress code, or at least change the color of the nametags.  I also noticed some crazy bartering system between the volunteer wine pourers and the chefs making food…but I think they were on to something.  Second, give me more than one damn piece of pizza!  There could be volunteer food tickets good for a couple food/drink items, then maybe I wouldn’t have been going on an empty stomach.  Oh, and I want a break, too.  Most waitresses would have made $300 that night…I on the other hand have a scraped knee from tripping over my own sorry ass.

Ok, I can’t blame the organizers completely.  But I’m curious – how do you motivate volunteers at an event like this to do their job and not just sneak off to party?  Are there ways to let them partake in special treats while still getting the job done? Or, is this how it is all supposed to go – some volunteers sort of suck and the others pick up the slack?  Maybe I’ll investigate this situation next year (but I’m totally signing up as a wine pourer).


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A short list

So, I’ve been slacking a bit lately, but check out my guest blog on VolunteerMaine.org: http://www.volunteermaine.org/blog/nonprofit-buzz-–-a-collection-of-trends-related-to-the-third-sector

More soon, I promise!

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Holy Cow

My good friend K. has got my back – she volunteers with me, comments on my blog, and best of all – gives me content.  So, I was especially thankful for her find of Blue Avocado’s post by Rick Cohen on AmeriCorps and the Serve America Act.  While Kate Goyette provides one rebuttal on the AmeriCorps Alums blog, I’d like to offer another response.  In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I served two terms of AmeriCorps and am currently involved in the Alums network as a Chapter Leader.  I also want to reiterate that this particular debate has to do with public policy and volunteerism…so keep that in mind.

Cohen argues that public policy and the allocation of funds for volunteer programs is limited by a lack of support for capacity building programs and a failure to acknowledge that nonprofit work requires a unique and valuable set of skills.  He advocates for equal treatment (in terms of pay and benefits) for nonprofit employees compared with the public and private sectors, a more strategic use of stipended volunteers (like AmeriCorps members), and a little critical thinking.  My take? Hard to argue with…

But, people love to argue.  Many comments on the post and other rebuttals focus on Cohen’s supposed criticism of AmeriCorps programs (he really just says that members should be supplemental to staff but are often used as substitutes). Why the backlash? In my opinion, readers are threatened by the idea of cuts in volunteer programs (AmeriCorps in particular) because of the volatility of the nonprofit sector, making them afraid to criticize public policy that supports their cause (hence the sacred cow thing).

You can go read Blue Avocado yourself, so I won’t spend any more time agreeing with Rick, but I do want to make a few points of my own.  First of all, the way AmeriCorps programs are set up blows my mind – there are so many different formats that I can barely explain how it works.  While flexibility is good, I think the result of programs (particularly State/National) is a lot of “patting each other on the back” by State Commissions for Community Service, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and local AmeriCorps programs.  What good would it do them to admit that their Corps members aren’t being trained well or are underutilized or overworked by host sites? Apparently not much.  I think true corps-based programs like NCCC or the other conservation corps with more staff oversight and structure are better formats, as is VISTA’s strategy where all members undergo the same training before beginning work at their site.  There also need to be some checks and balances in the system – who is really scrutinizing the programs and ensuring that corps members, the host sites, and the grant-making parties are all getting the biggest bang for their buck?

My second point is that a shift toward higher salaries in the nonprofit sector will take more than public policy, though that may be a start.  Many large funders rely on databases like Guidestar.com and Charity Navigator to see where organizations spend their money.  Any organization with high administrative costs automatically gets a lower rating on these sites, discouraging the idea that paying for staff benefits, salaries, and training can actually increase the effectiveness of an organization.  The difficulty in rating nonprofits is their distinctive mission-based approach – they can’t be analyzed solely on income like companies in the private sector.  So, how can we address this issue? Is there another way to rate nonprofits other than just looking at the breakdown of their budget?  I think we need a cultural shift in values and perceptions where employee benefits are seen as an essential part of nonprofit operating expenses.  There are too many employers that create low-paying (often part-time) positions and avoid offering health insurance, training, 401(k), etc to limit expenses and please their donor base.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that Cohen’s solution to mandating pay levels for government contracts given to nonprofit organizations is more complicated than it might sound (though there is precedence for such policy as set by the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires certain wages for government contracts in construction projects).  Historically, government offered contracts to nonprofits to provide services that could not be provided by the public sector.  In the recent past, many government entities have offered contracts to private companies as well as nonprofit organizations, which has forced nonprofits to be competitive in the private market.  This has created a great strain for many nonprofits, as they are more restricted than private companies in their ability to generate capital since they can’t issue stock.  By mandating higher wages without offering support for nonprofits to access capital, policy could make it even more difficult for organizations to compete for government contracts.

So, go out! Be critical! Do a little research on how nonprofits treat their employees before you donate.  Demand a reasonable wage and benefits when you apply for jobs in the nonprofit sector.  If you’re an AmeriCorps member, stand up for yourself if you aren’t being supported or you’re being asked to do duties beyond your job description.  And, don’t be afraid to question federal policies – even when they are helping you make a living.  Future generations of nonprofit workers will thank you…I promise.


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The volunteer orientation was doomed from the start.  I’ll admit that it was partially my mistake – somehow I decided that it started at 6:30 (rather than 6pm).  I had enough warning from K. to know I was late, but it was still a shock to show up and find all the ground level doors to the building locked.  I sneaked into the side door behind a maintenance guy and hopped into the elevator, pushing the 7th Floor button.  Actually, I pushed 8 on accident and then started hitting all the buttons, so by the time I got to the 11th floor I was shouting that the damn thing hadn’t stopped anywhere.  A woman got on and kindly told me that I needed a key to get to the correct place – something she didn’t have.  Somehow I found someone who could get to the 8th floor, so I got off and promptly locked myself in the stairwell.  Thank god for cellphones.

Anyway, that was just the beginning.  More than half an hour late at this point, I was surprised to find my friends asking questions of other volunteers like “What is this race, again?”.  Pretty sure the format of the race should have been one of the first things we learned.  The Tour de Cure is a bike ride that benefits the American Diabetes Association – about 1000 riders troll around Kennebunkport, Maine in support of research, prevention, and some other part of their mission that has already slipped my mind.  We were planning to volunteer at registration early on race day (coming in June) after a night of camping.  Despite the numerous emails and time spent on the phone with ADA staff confirming our assignment (thanks to K.#2), it turns out that we are going to be helping out with lunch…we think.

This volunteer “orientation” consisted of other new volunteers trying to figure out what the hell is going on.  We spent about 45 minutes discussing who was leading the meeting and what we all were there for.  At first, I honestly thought about bolting, but with such a small group of us, it didn’t seem too appropriate.  But, as the meeting progressed, it got better and better.  Here we were, a group of volunteer managers drilled in the ways of best practices, listening to people who truly had no clue what a volunteer orientation should look like.  That being said, the volunteer leaders were passionate, detail-oriented, and incredibly nice (they even offered their yard for our camping adventure).  I figure that there is something to be said for enthusiasm in volunteer activities – maybe even more than professionalism.  I was about ready to sign up for the 2am pizza cooking shift just to help out (who needs sleep, anyway).

The end of the meeting was even more absurd than the lack of leadership, planning, or direction of our orientation.  They were giving out stuffed teddy bears for us to answer simple questions about the ADA.  But it happened twice.  No, seriously.  They had us in one room and asked us what the acronym SAG stands for.  Then, they took us into another room and asked the same question for the same cheesy stuffed animal prize.  And, no, I don’t remember what SAG is.

Lessons learned? Train your staff. Don’t call  a planning meeting an “orientation”.  Have project planners communicate before sitting down with other volunteers.  Tell people that the doors lock at six and which elevators to use.  Don’t waste my time with lame trivia questions.  Oh, and I’m a sucker for nice people…so I’ll forgive you for everything else if you keep them around.  And, I might be a little jealous that you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, especially since I can already tell that the race is going to be a blast.

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Just Beet It

Weeding. Don’t know what comes to mind when you hear that word, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t a good thing, so you might be surprised that out of all the activities I did during National AmeriCorps Week in Maine, weeding was my favorite. Ok, that isn’t totally true, but I struggle to call drinking beer at a SeaDogs baseball game a truly philanthropic act. “Why was weeding so great?”, you ask. Well, being out at Rippling Waters Farm in Steep Falls, Maine brought me right back to one of my earliest volunteer experiences.

You see, in high school, I was in one of those programs where I was (*gasp*) required to complete community service hours to graduate.  A more common requirement these days, mandatory volunteering was a pretty rare thing back in my time.  In order to knock off some of the 150 hours needed, my best friend and I chose to work at the local history museum as historic interpreters – this meant “living” in the late 1800’s on a farm in our hometown just outside of Denver, Colorado.  We were expected to cook meals, do chores, and even play games from that era.  I would walk around in the hottest dress ever and say “Good Day” to the visitors.  I absolutely loved the garden – we’d weed it all day just so the two of us could sit around and gossip.

Not much had changed when I was down in the dirt last week for our service project – I got to know H., P., and J. (all current AmeriCorps members) as we cleared a row for some beet seedlings and chatted about life.    And here, I found the true meaning of philanthropy (or philanthropia as wikipedia tells me): loving what it is to be human.  I won’t go into the whole philosophy of it all, but for those of you unfamiliar with Alexis de Tocqueville, it is worth a little research.  de Tocqueville argued that the voluntary spirit is part of what makes America great – that we can get things done without always relying on institutions like government or churches to do it.  And, through our volunteer efforts we create a democratic civil society.

I don’t know if I really buy the idea that volunteerism is a uniquely American value.  The Ayn Rand Society will tell you that the volunteer ethic is in direct conflict with the American ideal of individualism, as it promotes self-sacrifice.  What I do know is that a day away from the office with dirt under my fingernails, making new friends and soaking up Vitamin D is one of the best reminders of what is so great about being human.  

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I’m just going to say it – I thought we were special.  Somehow, I got blind-sided and actually believed that everyone knew.  Guess you’re just as likely to be one of those people…yeah, that’s right…one of those people that isn’t celebrating National AmeriCorps Week today.  Ok, so maybe you were a little busy.  I mean, it is Reading is Fun Week, National Tourism Week, National Nursing Home Week, Salvation Army Week, National Women’s Health Week, National Police Week, and of course (my personal favorite) – National Stuttering Awareness Week.  For the sake of some appropriateness, I’m just going to let that go.  Maybe there should also be “National Writing Blogs about Volunteerism Week”…what do you think about that Mrs. Senator? No. Obviously that deserves at least a month.

Well, that was a nice sidetrack.  What I really wanted to tell you about are all the events planned for this week that celebrate national service.  It is easy to find something in your area – just go to www.americorpsalumsevents.org and search for your city or state.  Here in Maine, I can’t even keep up with all the things going on.  Maine AmeriCorps Alums is going wild with an event practically every day.  And, the Maine Commission for Community Service has a number of projects posted as well.

My goal during AmeriCorps Week? I just want someone (well, everyone, actually) to hear “AmeriCorps” and have some idea of what I’m talking about.  Volunteering abroad is cool and all, but if I have to say the sentence “it’s like the domestic PeaceCorps” one more time, I might flip.  Why is our country so unaware of the fact that every year more than 70,000 Americans donate a year of their time to service outside the military? I have no idea. But, I’m going to outreach-fair my tail off to make sure our community supports and appreciates its full-time volunteers.  Don’t doubt me – I am an AmeriCorps alum, and I will get things done! (That’s the AmeriCorps slogan, obviously).  Want to help me? Vote for AmeriCorps Alums on Pepsi Refresh – it’s a simple way to raise awareness about the impact of national service! Probably even better than making every word start with “ameri”…though I’m still going to call this my ameri-post during ameri-week (and I’m wearing ameri-gear).


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