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Yes, there’s long-term value in a short-term volunteer project

Yes, there's long term value in a short term volunteer project.
Julie Zeglen, Generocity

The concept of Volunteering Untapped PHL is simple:
  • Invite a bunch of young people to meet up on the second Saturday of every month.
  • Introduce them to a local nonprofit to complete some volunteer task, like beautification or gardening.
  • Take them all out for a drink afterward to celebrate their hard work and newfound camaraderie.

VUPHL is the third chapter of Volunteering Untapped after Baltimore and Chicago. PHL Executive Director Joe Buckshon, 27, said this local chapter was born last winter of “post-election malaise” when his group of friends were looking for a way to give back to those in need. By February, a board was formed and a beta event was held in May. Since then, six nonprofits have hosted 172 volunteers working for a total of 516 hours.

Buckshon thinks volunteering is more attractive to young people than regular philanthropy, thanks to the prevalence of high student debt and low wage growth: “What’s really exciting for me is it’s an opportunity [for] people to give their time, not money, which for some organizations is even more valuable,” he said.

What happens next, though? Once volunteers spend a day with a nonprofit, do they return? Are any significant relationships formed, or have they simply parachuted in and out, their impact kept to that one day?

Buckshon said the first goal of the group is to be an entrypoint for young people looking to give back to their city, but that VUPHL is thinking about how to connect them more deeply in the future, such as through skilled volunteering opportunities. (If you’re, say, a content strategist like him, you could be connected to a nonprofit looking for help with email marketing.)

For now, the existing model is working for at least two of the nonprofits with which VUPHL has volunteered.

North Philly improvement nonprofit North Broad Renaissance (NBR) hosted the group for a day of landscaping and maintenance work.

“With limited resources and human capital, we lean on volunteers to help accomplish many of our goals, one of which is maintaining 61 planters along North Broad,” wrote Executive Director Shalimar Thomas in an email. VUPHL volunteers cleaned and replanted eight of those, saving NBR $4,000 off its bottom line. Plus, the team made it easy for her by planning the whole event themselves.

“Having a new audience helped us create new awareness for the organization,” she said. “There were many who helped who [weren’t] familiar with North Broad, and we had a chance to share with them the work we are doing.”

Bartram’s Garden’s, where Tyler Holmberg works as farm co-director, hosts short-term volunteer groups often, and about 1,500 individual volunteers annually. Regardless of what community people are coming from, he said, “one of the things that really stretches over is at the heart of what our mission is: to provide space for people to build relationships with the land.”

And all relationships need to start somewhere, even a morning of garden maintenance.

“We really feel like there is value — and a lot of value — to having a one-off group of folks come and work with each other and build community and get introduced to their land,” Holmberg said.

Bartram’s tries to instill in its volunteers this feeling of connection (which, yes, could lead some of them to come back) by not just pointing them to a task and walking away, but by teaching them about the history of the space and its uses throughout their visit — after all, “your physical DNA,” like sweat, “is going to be in the land for years to come, whether that’s helping to grow food, etc.”

uckshon said that despite these early successes, it’s been an unexpected challenge to connect to some larger organizations because they already have a steady flow of volunteers — from the corporate world.

In VU’s other cities, “getting the group in front of the nonprofit seems to be enough of a value proposition,” he said. However, “what we are finding more and more is that Philly seems to have a strong, consistent volunteer base.” Just one example: Vanguard providing paid time off to volunteer. In Philly, Buckshon said, “there seems to be less of a gap in ‘work’ getting done.”

The city’s chief service officer, Stephanie Monahon, said she isn’t surprised that’s been VUPHL’s experience and agrees that Philly has a strong culture of corporate volunteerism compared to other cities.

In the two years she’s been working in the Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service (OCEVS), she’s seen a marked increase in companies calling to ask about how to set up their own days of service. From August 2016 through June 2017, it supported 53 such days, mainly for corporate groups. But in the past four months alone, it’s already supported 26.

“I see our role [at OCEVS] as connectors, as being able to break through some of the red tape we all know exists in government and connect them to the people they’re trying to serve,” she said.

Monahon attributes some of this enthusiasm to the United Way-housed Greater Philadelphia Corporate Volunteer Council, which is leading the city’s implementation of the United Nations’ Impact 2030 sustainable development goalsPhilanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia and the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Strategic Partnerships, too, help foster a culture of volunteerism.

“I think the fact that you’ve got the Corporate Volunteer Council, the City of Philadelphia and all of these groups connected and talking,” she said, “it just feeds that fire of the interest that’s already there right now.”

Nonprofits, want to invite VUPHL to a volunteer day? Email .

Young folks, want to get involved? VUPHL’s next event is this Saturday, with Delaware River City Corporation in the Northeast for Love Your Park Week.

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