Plan ahead for giving, volunteering

Our United Way is a hub of volunteerism and intentional giving for this entire community. We field calls nearly every day as part of the process to match those who wish to give with the agencies and programs where the most impact can be made. Whether the “give” is time or a tangible donation, we are often the conduit to ensure a positive experience for everyone. During the holiday season, the calls to our office increase sharply as so many people dial in to a sense of seasonal charity and the desire to give back in the community. For many families, groups of co-workers and friends, volunteering is a meaningful winter traditions. During the December holiday season, they want to serve meals or collect food and clothing. The impact of this generosity is significant. This support, as well as the knowledge that there are people who care about the well-being of others, makes life brighter and better for everyone in our community. After all, isn’t that something that we all desire? And we all seem to be a little more aware of that desire between Thanksgiving and Christmas!

Since there is such an uptick of service minded awareness in the holiday season, we often get calls from people who are having difficulty finding a place to give or serve. This is typically because it is a last minute thought (and we are all guilty of that since as humans we seem to be procrastinators by nature) and the caller is not sure of exactly what they want to do or where they want to do it, the just want to help! (and we NEED more of this in the world, don’t get me wrong). It presents a challenge however.

Here is a great example that we can hopefully all relate to … each year we get a flood of calls in the three days before Thanksgiving from people wanting to bring their families and help serve a community meal. In theory this is a GREAT offer — practically speaking it sometimes isn’t really helpful AND doesn’t offer a meaningful engaging experience to the eager volunteer. Community meals are planned weeks, even months in advance. The organizations hosting these meals have recruited volunteers (and trained them for the task) far in advance because they have to be certain that they have a workforce ready to go when the big day comes. Last minute volunteers create a dilemma for the organization. They never want to refuse help, but at this point all of the critical tasks have been assigned. Potential volunteers have a vision of arriving, warmly serving mashed potatoes and turkey, greeting those in need as they pass through the line … and when they arrive they are actually asked to maintain the trash, scrub industrial pans in the back, or stay after to break down tables. It doesn’t always create the warm fuzzy that the person was seeking and it doesn’t particularly create a lasting engagement. While the work provided by the volunteer was critical to make the meal happen, it might not have matched well to the grand vision they had coming in the doors.

Sometimes we get calls from a local business or civic group who have collected items they thought might be useful for community members in need. They have often held a robust and successful drive and then they reach out and want to know where the items can be dropped off … or even when the donations can be picked up. While local non-profits truly are always in need, sometimes part of what they are in need of is storage, workers to pick up donations, a truck to haul them in…and the list goes on. Again, well intentioned and kind hearted folks hit a wall of frustration because the presentation of the donations isn’t quite as warm and grand as they had envisioned.

So how do we make this a more positive experience for everyone? Honestly, we strive constantly to smooth those ridges and facilitate successful philanthropic efforts that afford everyone the warm fuzzy, meaningful and impactful experience the heart desires. Part of the solution, like any life dilemma, is simply planning and communication. Reach out in advance. Get involved early. Ask ahead of time what a program needs and how you can best help. Sometimes what they need is so behind the scenes that someone on the outside would never guess it. Consider a small grassroots agency that provides diapers to young mothers. It is easy to think that diapers are the go-to donation (and they will certainly be appreciated) but maybe the agency is in critical need of copy paper to make client forms, maybe they need plastic shopping bags to bundle the diapers for distribution, maybe they even need a volunteer for two hours to help sort, divide and package the diapers for distribution. Sometimes the obvious isn’t the greatest need. While you would assume that a food pantry always is in need of food, have you ever considered how critical the need is for someone to load/unload food deliveries? How about stocking the shelves or how about the ongoing need for shelving and bins and bags?

Don’t misunderstand. Donations at all levels are appreciated, but sometimes the most critical needs are the ones unseen. Giving from your heart should mean that you want your gift, whether financial, tangible goods or your precious time, to make the greatest splash! You want your investment to be a seed for the greatest possible growth and impact. How can you ensure that? Think ahead … ask what they need … be open to what they share. It is an opportunity to learn about the work being done in our community, but even more it is an opportunity to really understand the needs and make a difference! The volunteering experience, the heartfelt giving and the positive impact it has on the lives of others can, and should, be more than a once-a-year tradition. It should become a year-round habit that allows us to make a difference in the community while also providing personal meaning and satisfaction. The work of the nonprofits that support and shape our community is year-round, as is the chance to personally benefit from the joys of giving. We should all commit ourselves to giving intentionally and giving well! Our community and our own hearts will only be the richer for it!

Stacy DeCicco is executive director of the United Way Alliance of the Mid-Ohio Valley.