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.

Did AmeriCorps Win the Superbowl?

It probably goes without saying that here in Baltimore, the last few days have been remarkable.  The vibe is pure joy.  There is no hubris, and no one is feeling smug.   Rather, there is the palpable delight of an underdog that fought hard and  proved the pundits (even Nate Silver!) wrong.

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If a Superbowl victory were not sweet enough, those of us in the AmeriCorps world have another reason to celebrate:  Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee made the game more interesting by wagering AmeriCorps service projects.

According to The NonProfit Times, the mayors agreed that the mayor  of the losing team’s city would come to the winning team’s city to do a major service project with the aid of AmeriCorps members.  This truly win-win arrangement was preceded by a day of service in New Orleans called the Super Saturday of Service, during which local volunteers revitalized 5 playgrounds.

Stay tuned for news of Mayor Lee’s Charm City service project…

Hello! My Name Is…

This week, about half of the class of VM25 will meet for a regional meeting hosted by VMC Casey Lowe at the beautiful Accokeek Foundation.  Between a potluck lunch and an exploration of the beautiful Piscataway Park, we will discuss an issue that comes up time and again for VMCs:  establishing new relationships with other organizations.

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One of the many lovely vistas we are sure to enjoy at the Accokeek Foundation tomorrow.

One of the earliest stages of volunteer program implementation is identifying good sources of potential volunteers.  These could be local colleges, houses of worship, nonprofits, or for-profit businesses.   For some VMCs, reaching out to these organizations easy.  Their service sites have long standing relationships with them, and reaching out is like getting back in touch with an old friend.

In other cases, however, VMCs are making cold calls.   While the VMC might have good reason to believe this new partnership could solve everybody’s problems and create wonderful opportunities all around, the organization she is about to contact has never even heard of her service site.  What should she do?

There is no one answer to this question, but here are a few pieces of advice, courtesy of the wise and wonderful Volunteer Maryland Staff:

Know exactly what you want before you approach another organization — Make a very direct ask.  Write a script if you need to!

Do your homework.  Make sure you are clear on the history, mission, culture and capacity of the organization before you come calling.  Do they have any history of helping organizations such as yours?  Is there any overlap in your networks?

Determine what is in it for them.  Why should this organization encourage its members to volunteer for your service site?  Will doing so contribute to service learning requirements?

Streamline the process.  If you have all your ducks in a row before you contact, say, a school counselor, you can pitch a very simple process that you have already developed for her to direct students to your organization.  Busy people love it when most of the work has already been done for them!

Ask a staff member from your service site to come along.  Creating lasting, sustainable partnerships with organizations whose members will reliably volunteer at your site is a long, labor-intensive process. Don’t be afraid to ask a staff member to join you in this venture.  Staff involvement in the partnerships you develop greatly increases the likelihood that those partnerships will flourish long after you have completed your service year. 

Finally, don’t be afraid!  Once you’ve done the legwork and your homework — pick up the phone — great things await.

Talk To Me

Communication reveals and often challenges our most cherished values.  Some of us value, above all things, the absence of discord among friends and coworkers.  For others, the most important value is fairness, and those who are passionate about fairness might be willing to risk a difficult conversation to achieve it.

We all bring our own set of values to the workplace, which, in turn, has its own culture and values.  As such, most of us have a daily opportunity to communicate positively and constructively with those who may not see the world or a given situation precisely as we do.

Some of these conversations, such as those that include constructive feedback, can feel daunting.  The great news is that these conversations do not need to be unfriendly or confrontational.

Last Wednesday at Volunteer Maryland In-Service Training, we learned about several models for providing constructive feedback.  One is the Feedback Sandwich,  and another is the DESC (Describe, Express, Specify, Consequence) model.  The feedback sandwich can be described as gentle coaching sandwiched between a compliment and a few encouraging words.  It’s designed to incorporate what could be interpreted as harsh criticism into a bigger chunk of feedback, most of which is sincerely positive and all of which is sincerely constructive.

Similarly, the DESC model, with its neutral language that focuses on detailed information about an action and its consequences, provides the opportunity to solve a problem rather than place blame.

As I have supported the Volunteer Maryland Class 25 members through the first few months of their service year, I have witnessed many of them honing this all important professional and life skill:  Solving problems without placing blame.  Whether it is spotlighting volunteers in an internal newsletter to inspire staff to implement volunteer programs in their departments, or improving the experiences of volunteers to make sure they keep coming back, VMCs have done an amazing job of communicating in a way that solves problems and strengthens their programs.

In the wise words of Patricia Barger, Community Services Manager and Site Supervisor to Connie Pulliam at The Family Tree, “We don’t need to have a problem; we just need to have a conversation.”

Vote Every Day

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.
—Marjorie Moore

The recent election has been the focus of the nation for a while now, and now that it is done people are refocusing their energy back to the everyday.  But your chance to vote isn’t over.  Think about what issues that got you fired up.  Why not take that passion and apply it every day of the year?

Voting is all about using your voice and your power to make a difference in the world around you.  You vote in order to support people who will make the world a better place.  But you don’t need to vote to do that.  Many organizations exist with the mission of bettering their community.  The people who volunteer through these organizations see something that could be and work towards making that vision reality.  They know that volunteers can create the changes they want to see at the lowest levels, at the foundations of society.

This Saturday, I will be joining a volunteer group with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake as a part of the efforts to rebuild homes along McCabe Avenue in Baltimore City.  Though there will only be ten of us doing a day’s work, I know that I will be a part of bringing a once strong neighborhood back to life. This is the strongest way for my voice to be heard, even when it’s not election season. Don’t let your voice only be heard once a year – make every day a chance to let your neighbors and your community know that they can work to improve the world around them.

Think about how much power that gives you, that every day can be a vote.  This is the time to get passionate and build up the excitement about how you can create the community you want to live in.  Why volunteer your time?  For the same reason that you vote; because you care and you want to make your voice heard.

Lady-like Elegance Has Made a Comeback

On Wednesday, I tuned in, like many people, to listen to the Their Eyes Were Watching God radio play, hosted by The Greene Space in New York.  Prior to Wednesday, I had not heard of a radio play and was intrigued to listen to the dramatic reading of this well known novel by Zora Neale Hurston (best writer ever).  As I was listening, I recognized a familiar voice as the narrator, Phylicia Rashad.  What a treat!  Phylicia Rashad is a favorite in my personal actress category, so I turned up the volume and enjoyed the regal sound of her voice.  One word that has described Ms. Rashad since her portrayal of Claire Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” is classy.  I have never heard her articulate her classiness, and yet if I were to look up “classy” in the dictionary, her name would be there (not literally).  She is an example of how actions speak louder than words because she exudes lady-like elegance on and off the big screen.  Even during the radio play, her pronunciation of every passage had “classy” written all over it.  To paraphrase my mother, “if you have to tell people you are lady, you aren’t.  Someone should know you are without you flapping your gums.”  The same is true for nonprofits.

The “lady-like elegance” of a nonprofit should be that of it having a positive impact on the community it is serving.  In other words, having a good reputation.  How effective would it be for Volunteer Maryland to have the mission of “building stronger and healthier communities by empowering Marylanders to take action…,”  if there was not evidence of us fulfilling that mission?  Fortunately, Volunteer Maryland has more than enough highlights from last year’s VM23 class, to showcase how Maryland communities are being enhanced by AmeriCorps members.  As Barb mentioned earlier this week,  the VM23 class recruited and managed 8,800 volunteers, who served 65,000 community members!  I have faith in this year’s VM24 class to top the service stats of last year.

Now I pose a few questions to you, does your organization have lady-like elegance?  Do people know what to expect when they see the name of your nonprofit attached to a specific cause, event, or partnership?  It is no longer enough to say that we, as part of the nonprofit sector, are making a difference across the state of Maryland.  Our “elegance” should be known without us saying…like Phylicia Rashad.

Service Salsa

Unlike our amazing Volunteer Maryland Coordinators, I am not developing a volunteer program for the Chesapeake Volunteer Center (CVC), however I am still working on a project to revamp their website and online database.  You may be wondering, “How did that come about?”  One of the great things about Volunteer Maryland is that we partner with organizations across the state for various reasons.  In addition to the service sites, at which our  Volunteer Maryland Coordinators are currently serving, Volunteer Maryland has partnered with the CVC  and Partners in Care this year to provide the Peer Leaders with a secondary, yet convenient office space, in exchange for  us dedicating our time to their projects.  It is truly a give-give relationship.

My work with the CVC is not solo.  I am partnering with Chesapeake Helps and  an AmeriCorps*VISTA member, who is with the MD-DC Campus Compact program!  It is always exciting and motivating to work with fellow AmeriCorps members, especially if we are affiliated with separate programs.  This is another reason why Volunteer Maryland partners with so many institutions.   Each of us brings something unique and valuable to the table; a special salsa if you will.  Some organizations are tomatoes of environmental stewardship. Others are bell peppers for quality education, jalapenos for economic opportunity, cilantro for disaster services, or onions for healthy futures.  Blended together, we produce a “service salsa” that  our communities can dip into.   I personally love salsa and practically eat it every other day…but I digress.

The specific mission statements for Volunteer Maryland, Maryland nonprofits, government agencies, and schools differ from one another, but our ultimate goal of bettering our communities is the same.   We’re always looking for new “ingredients” to add so visit our website to learn more about  how you can become involved.  I don’t want to force you to join our salsa mix, but man, you’re missing out.  For those of you already in the mix ¡Disfruta de su salsa (enjoy your salsa)!