As I write the first draft of this post, it is the Sunday after Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the metro New York – New Jersey area, and particularly hitting some coastal areas within 5-10 miles of our home. I am working hard to keep my personal frustration out of this piece, but can’t really help it. I had the day free and wanted to make a difference. Seeing dozens of postings on social media about how volunteers were needed all over the metro area, it should have been easy to find a way to help. It turned out to be anything but easy.
On Saturday, I realized that Sunday was an open day. Feeling blessed at having not sustained serious damage or loss, and having had my power restored within two days of losing it, it was time to express gratitude for my good fortune by helping others. Early Saturday evening, I found a number of friends who were posting volunteer opportunities all over Facebook and Twitter. Given the gas shortage and the fact that the hurricane did serious damage quite close to home, I decided not to travel to Brooklyn or Manhattan, but to try to make a difference on Long Island. I immediately posted that I was seeking volunteer opportunities on Long Island and soon began to get responses.
Lead # 1: A relatively new, well respected and innovative national organization posted that people were needed in Long Beach, one of the hardest hit areas. My response to the post was immediate, “Pick me, pick me”. When that didn’t get a response, I posted again and send a direct message to the organization’s Facebook page. This time a response was received: Contact Chaya [not real name]. I contacted Chaya. After a while, the response from Chaya was: Contact Rabbi Mazeltov [also not real name]. I reached out to him, via the Facebook account that Chaya had directed me towards. I heard back from him abourt 4 days later, telling me to get in touch with yet another person.
Lead #2: Island Harvest needs volunteers. My email to them got a relatively quick response, stating that they had all the volunteers they needed for Sunday, and directing me to how to sign up to volunteer at other times. A quick and smart response. However, the fact remained that I had Sunday free, there were hundreds of thousands of people without power or heat, and I wanted to do something.
Lead #3: NY Blood Bank needs blood donations. Great advice. I’m already a donor, though, and not eligible for weeks.
Lead #4: An organization that generally recruits volunteers of college age and 20-somethings is going to mobilize to respond. Great! But when I went to its website, it wanted a completed application form along with two or three personal references. Sorry, I don’t have time to get them.
Lead #5: I found another organization (I believe an ad hoc one) that was going to organize a caravan to head out to the Rockaways. It was suggested that I meet up with its volunteers in the Rockways. Finally, I thought. Off I headed through streets and boulevards, many strewn with debris, and many partially blocked. I joined the masses of emergency vehicles and utility trucks crowding into the Rockaway area of NYC. And I parked. And waited. And waited. I was told there was a “delay”. I waited more. And more. After over an hour and a quarter of standing amidst emergency workers and a devastated neighborhood, expecting to be able to do some mitzva work, I gave up and went home.
I can’t really blame the Blood Bank or Island Harvest situations. They both didn’t work out, but for reasons that totally made sense. The others however, reinforced a growing belief that many nonprofit organizations as well as grassroots groups, are woefully unprepared to deal with volunteers.
These experiences from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy were on the back of a few experiences that I had when I tried to volunteer at a number of organizations in recent months:
- A local hospital posted an ad for a volunteer Jewish chaplain to supplement their on-staff Jewish chaplain. Following its direction, I applied online and had three colleagues send letters of reference. Never heard back. I contacted the rabbi on staff. He said he knew nothing about the posting or about my application and asked whether it had gone through the HR department. I sent him the ad. He assured me he would look into it and get back to me. That was over a month ago. No response.
- Organization ABC, which I had a relationship with, suggested that I volunteer with agency DEF. Organization ABC even made a referral to the volunteer coordinator at DEF. I reached out to the volunteer coordinator. Once, Twice. No response. I went back to ABC, who said: try again, and contacted DEF directly on my behalf. No response. I contacted DEF a third time. This time, I received a response: a different person is in charge when a referral for a volunteer comes from ABC. No offer to pass along the information to the “right” person. Just a dropped pass, to use a football phrase.
- As stated earlier, I’m a regular blood donor. At most blood drives, there is a volunteer (or more) who greets people when they arrive and steers them towards the stations they must pass through before donating. There are also volunteers (sometimes the same ones) who make sure donors sit and get themselves hydrated before they venture out. And there is a follow-up online questionnaire, asking donors to evaluate their experience and specifically asking whether donors were made to feel valued. So I wrote, in my evaluation, that at one drive, there were no volunteers to greet or direct or thank donors. This should have generated a note saying “Sorry, we will try to do better”, right? Nope. Or at least to make sure that the next blood drive in the same site did better? Also, nope. I returned, and found the same situation. Again, I made note of this in the evaluation. Still no response of any sort.
For 30+ years, I’ve worked to help agencies to use volunteers and volunteer leadership effectively. Now, being on the other side of the desk, the shortcomings of many (if not most) nonprofits in managing volunteers comes through more clearly than ever. A few suggestions for my friends in nonprofit agencies:
- Count the number of people that a volunteer needs to speak with before s/he can actually do the volunteer work. As you’re counting, include not only the calls to your organization, but those to other agencies that they may have called first and who may have referred the volunteer to you, such as United Way or a Federation. Be sure to include the receptionist or machine that answered the call, and, as in my case with DEF, unanswered emails or calls and calls routed to the “wrong” person. Now take that number, and imagine that it’s you calling to report your cable or internet out. Would you be happy speaking to that number of people? If your answer is no, fix your system.
- If your agency uses volunteers, train all staff to recognize that everyone in the agency is the right person for a volunteer to speak with. All staff should also recognize that work is not done simply because a staff member passed on a message to another staff. The work of connecting a volunteer is done when the volunteer is successfully connected with a meaningful volunteer opportunity.
- Don’t dive into situations that you’re not able to handle. It is quite possible that some of the well-intentioned folks at the time of Hurricane Sandy had no idea of how to navigate a very complex, volatile, and rapidly changing situation. It’s OK for organizations (and certainly for individual do-gooders) to say: We just aren’t up for this one. It’s not OK to leave a volunteer on a street corner in the middle of a national disaster area.
- Communicate. Agencies can only successfully manage volunteers if there is good communication within the agency, and good communication with potential and actual volunteers. Using my earlier examples, Island Harvest and the blood center had clear communications. The others, well, not so much.