Continuing 20 Years of Service

As our Finale ceremony sneaks up on me, I am panicking slightly about wrapping everything up in time, but at the same time relishing the excitement of the successful completion of our 25th Class of Volunteer Maryland.  I am gladdened to think this that class will join the proud ranks of alumni of both AmeriCorps and Volunteer Maryland.  And guess what?  Both Volunteer Maryland and AmeriCorps are celebrating their 20th anniversaries!

This September will mark 20 years since President Clinton signed into law the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, which created the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps.  The following year, the first class of AmeriCorps members took their oath at the White House.  Volunteer Maryland celebrated its own 20th anniversary of creation and the first class serving this year.

As our members transistion into alumni, they will be continuing two decades of tradition.  It is powerful to think of how much has been achieved in that time by the numbers of those who have served through AmeriCorps.  Not only is much achieved in the year of service, but it also inspires me to see what alumni go on to accomplish following their service.  I hope to stay in touch with every member of this class so that I can see what they will tackle with their energy, passion, and experience next.

AmeriCorps_20YearsVM 20th logo


Small Gifts Have Big Effects

Between the work that I do and the work that my Volunteer Maryland Coordinators do, I get to see the power of in-kind donations.  In-kind donations come from any person or business, discounting or donating any good or service.  For instance, a donation of lunches from local restaurants to volunteers made the build days that much more rewarding at Habitat for Humanity Choptank. The value of service is the service itself – but it never hurts to feel appreciated. In-kind donations go a long way to make the volunteers feel special.

It can also come in the form of service done for free – two professors from Anne Arundel Community College led a workshop on resume-writing for formerly homeless people now graduating from the Light House’s BEST Academy.  That small effort provided skills and confidence for the students that they could carry with them as they begin their job search.

Volunteer Maryland recently received a donation from Papa John’s Pizza that not only fed hungry Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, but made them feel honored with special treatment of getting all the works.  It is often the little things, more than the grand gestures, that have the greatest effect.

I wanted to highlight a few of the in-kind donations received this year to highlight the impact that they have on our work.  In-kind donations are one of the behind the scenes things that really help the nonprofit world to turn. It makes volunteers feel special, serves clients with the help they need, helps nonprofits keep their costs down, and gives businesses the chance to get involved in their communities.  So a big thanks to all those who help make the work that nonprofits do possible!

Relaxing in the Heat

With a lot to fit in just a few short weeks before our service year ends, it seems like summer is rushing by!  I always want to remind our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators to take time during this busy season and treat themselves well.  And what says summer relaxation better than grilling?  As a part of our AmeriRecipes collection (low-cost, easy to prepare, and delicious!), I present Grilling with Veggies!

grilled veggiesBeyond just a veggie-filled skewer, grilling vegetables can add a whole new dimension.  A little bit of olive oil, the sweetness of caramelization, and the smokey flavor all combine to bring intense flavor and fragrance.  For a whole list of creative veggie dishes for the grill, check out this blog.

Don’t have a grill?  Here are some options: 1) Ask your friends.  Most grill owners don’t use them as often as they would like to and would love an excuse to fire up their grill.  2) Go to a local park.  Some parks have grills and picnic tables for the public to use.  Just make sure to bring a grill brush to clean it before and after use.  3) Buy a mini-grill!  While this is not an investment piece, it will work for making some tasty summer meals.

Getting the best out of the AmeriCorps experience

For many AmeriCorps programs July is a time of transition.  AmeriCorps members might be coming up on the end of their time of service, or they have already graduated and are moving into the next stage, whatever that may be for them.  Here at Volunteer Maryland, as Kerry said, we have just about five more weeks left in our service year.  Many of our class are on the job hunt, looking for the best place to use their skills.  Alumni of AmeriCorps bring special skills and experience with them, and Volunteer Maryland Coordinators especially.  If you happen to be hiring, here are some of the benefits of hiring a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, as originally printed by former VMer, Megan Stransky:

1)      Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are well trained!  Volunteer Maryland provides around 100 hours of training to our AmeriCorps members on topics ranging from the basics of volunteer management, to conflict resolution, to storytelling for nonprofits, to time management, and the list goes on.  Not only that, they also have a toolbook that contains all the secrets to volunteer management that they get to take with them after the service year ends.  That thing is a brick and contains a ton of information that they can share with you and your staff to help the whole organization better understand volunteer management.

2)      They are committed.  There is no better way to judge a person’s commitment than to offer them a difficult, full-time, 11 month job, for an AmeriCorps living stipend of $13,000 (after taxes, it’s more like $10,000).  When you work that down to the hourly rate, it’s really not much money and for the challenges some of our members face, it shows how dedicated to the cause they are that they are willing to do the work for so little (after all, the goal of AmeriCorps is not to get rich, but to serve others).

3)      They are creative problem solvers.  VMCs either work with existing volunteer programs to make them more successful or work on creating brand new volunteer programs for organizations that have never worked with volunteers before.  Either way, they generally face challenges in doing this and need to rely on their own creativity to solve the problem at hand.

4)      They are fun to work with.  When you work in a nonprofit, you deal with some pretty serious issues, but knowing how to have fun at work can make facing those issues a whole lot easier.  Well, VMCs are a fun group of people—they like karaoke, gardening, going to the beach, bowling, etc.—and they could definitely help lighten the atmosphere at your organization.

5)      They are part of a great network of AmeriCorps alumni that your organization can tap into.  Since 1992, Volunteer Maryland has had over 500 AmeriCorps members serve at nonprofits across the state.  Not only that, but thousands of people have served in AmeriCorps since its inception, every single one of them knows how much passion and determination it takes to serve in AmeriCorps, many still work in the nonprofit sector, and they are willing to help their fellow alumni succeed in life after AmeriCorps.  So, if you need some connections in the nonprofit world, hiring an AmeriCorps alumnus (specifically, a VM alumnus) can really help you tap into that network.

A Flourishing Garden

I feel that nice summer days are great for a little gardening.  This Thursday, we had the perfect gardening day at the Greenwell Foundation.  Our fabulous Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, Kaitlyn, planned a service project for us to add a little distinction and pizzazz to the park entryway.  Every day during the summer, scores of children come through this entryway to take part in Camp Greenwell, as well as families coming to enjoy swimming and fishing on the river.

With eleven volunteers, we were able to make quick work of laying out a design for the flower beds, planting, watering, and mulching in the morning.  After lunch, we took time to explore the park, walk along the riverfront, and say hi to some of the horses.  As the end of our service year advances (where does the time go?!), this is a chance to step back and see how we have grown in experience.

It’s inspiring to see how much changes in a year – to see all the accomplishments and experiences of the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.  They’ve really taken ownership of their jobs, and take great pride in the service they’re doing.  And they’re excited to share their passion too – this group is now so chatty and gregarious that we almost had trouble staying on task.

But I have to remember, amidst all this celebration and finality, that our work isn’t done.  This year was exciting, and is coming to a close, but it’s not the end of our  time helping people.  On Thursday, all we needed to do is the simple, joyful task of gardening.  It is quiet, meditative even.  It won’t change the world.  But it is a small change for the future, and a project we will always be able to work on.  Big changes can come from small things, and our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are doing their part.

National Conference Journal, Day 2

Two days into the National Conference on Service and Volunteerism, and I’ll start by bragging: we got to hear John Legend sing live to us today.  Yeah, that was a big highlight in my day.

The top themes when addressing education inequalities being discussed as John Legend came on stage.

Even cooler was hearing him and others talk at the “Sunday Supper” about what action people are taking to create equality in education.  A Sunday Supper started as a way to bring neighbors together, come to understand each others’ views, and take action.  Hosting one at the conference was amongst the many venues that were offered to start conversations.

The next biggest highlight of this day was the number of conversations taking place amongst AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Alums.  Today was full of opportunities to discuss the impact of AmeriCorps and how the alumni of the program (coming in just under a million, if you could those currently serving this year!) might continue to serve the community as we approach our 20th anniversary.  However we do go on to serve, I believe that Ben Duda is exactly right when he said that those coming through the AmeriCorps system have exactly the skills that the nonprofit world in the 21st century need.

AmeriCorps Alums in a lively townhall discussion

I’m looking forward to more great conversations on the final day of the conference!

National Donut Day

National Donut Day is today and along with dreams of deep-fried dough, it has me thinking of creative service to others.  What got me from donuts to service?  The story behind National Donut Day is that the Salvation Army started this day as a fundraiser during the Great Depression.  They had become known for donuts during World War I when volunteers would provide comfort and care to soldiers at donut and coffee stations.  The National Donut Day tradition has continued ever since, honoring both military veterans and the volunteers who cared for them.

This creative holiday is so popular because it gives people a way to do some good within the everyday routine of their day (or reward themselves with a special treat, as their taste in sweets may be).  One of the best ways to gain support and get people involved is to be creative.  Like at the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation, one of our partners sites, where Jacqueline, the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator, had volunteers pick up trash on a walk from the town center to a nearby restaurant.  Through their efforts, those volunteers picked up enough litter to fill two full pick-up truck, AND they got the reward of fun and food at the end of it!

What these have in common is the organizations being able to identify an important need, and address it in a creative way. It can be a lot of fun coming up with new and creative ways to involve and encourage volunteers. You may even find that your event is so popular in the community that it becomes an annual fundraiser event for your organization! So now as you celebrate the 76th anniversary of this happy holiday with a donut, celebrate service too.

Building Strength

The other evening, I had the privilege of attending the kickoff event for the newly launched Baltimore chapter of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN).  I wasn’t surprised to see familiar faces from other AmeriCorps programs there, looking to continue a career in nonprofits.  I did, however, also enjoy hearing a number of new voices contributing to the discussion, in careers ranging from the police department to a for-profit bank.

YNPN serves as a resource for a new generation entering the nonprofit realm, giving people the opportunity to share ideas, find mentors, and become leaders.  Interestingly, in the panel discussion that took place, the two themes that emerged for me was the dynamic change that will come as a new generation moves into this field, and how to find guidance and mentorship from older, more established people in the nonprofit field.  The idea is that one does not conflict with the other, and that the best growth comes from these working together.  Those were two themes that I have heard before, but never thought of in conjunction before.

It is always valuable to get a new perspective, to hear new voices, on the issues we face.  The evening’s discussions inspired me to examine my actions- to make sure I was doing the best I could to, and not just sticking to comfortable habits during my year of service. We should never be afraid to critically reexamine things, when it comes to how we serve and how we give ourselves room to grow as leaders.  I am already looking forward to what more events the Baltimore chapter of YNPN will host, and what new ideas will come!

Getting Together for Memorial Day

I am excited for Memorial Day weekend.  Over this long weekend, I can’t wait to see friends and enjoy some cookouts (potentially rainy ones, alas).  It will be nice to have a long weekend for fun, but I also am looking forward to service.  I will be spending a couple hours today at Project PLASE, one of our service sites, helping prepare for a Memorial Day Service.  This is a way for community members of Project PLASE to remember and celebrate in a meaningful way the lives of loved ones who passed away.

Memorial Day is a more than a time to have fun, though I plan to have that as well.  It is a time for me, but for our community as a whole.  A national holiday gives us a chance to all have some time off, and use that time to come together.  How you use that time, if to have fun going to see friends or to pay respects to fallen soldiers, you are using your time for something special to you.

A Culture of Volunteerism

What does a culture of volunteerism mean to you?  It looks a little intimidating on first sight, not a phrase that I would use in the course of an average day.  So why am I writing about it?  At this month’s training, our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators and their Site Supervisors took part in roundtable discussions, with one of the topics being “Developing an Organizational Culture of Volunteerism”.

Joining on that conversation was a great opportunity to learn what that phrase meant in practice, and to hear how important it is to an organization successfully making volunteers a part of the team.  We’ve seen that a nonprofit can flourish when it utilizes volunteers as a full part of an organization’s work.  So what impediments prevent that seemly natural partnership from taking root?

Some of the things that came up in discussion were: getting the needed infrastructure in place, and resistance to change.

Recruiting and training volunteers is a scary idea for any time-strapped staff member.  One suggestion is to reframe the use of volunteers: show the value of that investment.  Would you turn down the offer of a grant?  No, you would find a way to make it happen.  Volunteers are worth that consideration too!

One of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinator described her strategy of sitting down with each staff member to assess what their volunteer needs are.  She then builds orientations and training specialized for each volunteer need.  But sometimes, if may be even better for the staff members to create those volunteer positions themselves.  They know what they need better than anyone else, and by creating a volunteer position now can get a volunteer with exactly the skills they need.

Another Volunteer Maryland Coordinator said that her service site’s staff meeting, she would use her time to speak to highlight one exceptional volunteer that month, but  also a staff member who had a done a great job of embodying the welcoming spirit and volunteer-employee partnership.  This also allowed her to reward the staff member for their great work, while also encourage a change in thinking.

I’m glad that I joined this discussion of volunteerism – it reinforced that nonprofit organizations can gain from a volunteer-friendly environment.  Training staff (and maybe even yourself!) to treat volunteers as a part of the organization, and not just ancillary elements, is key to successfully integrating volunteers and creating a new culture.  All of the pieces need to be working together to achieve the best results.  What techniques have you been using to create a culture of volunteerism?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A new wave of volunteer talent is building. Some nonprofit leaders will take advantage of this opportunity and exponentially grow their impact; the rest will be left behind trying to make do the old way.