Linking Unrelated Events Boosts Volunteer Activities

July 1, 2001       Tom Pope      

Volunteer groups fill the landscape more than the average person is aware. The New York City committee fostering the International Year of the Volunteer (IYV) linked with several groups to boost special events this spring, especially for the month-long dedication of April as the month of the volunteer.

The committee gave groups around the city tools to show the value of volunteerism to more effectively promote their needs and get funding. The tools include large New York City Street Banners and copies of the New York Times Supplement that came out on April 17 that mentioned the campaign.

These actions linking the media with grassroots organizations influence the public, explained Rustie Brooke from the IYV Committee. “Giving people the banners to fly shows the directors and funders of these agencies that they are important,” she said. “Recognition is vital that they are making a difference in the quality of life in the city.”

Among the numerous happenings, the committee worked with volunteers running a talent show, one of the largest bike events and found support from a conference on volunteer practices.

The IYV committee worked with the All Stars Talent Show, a local volunteer organization that seeks to encourage youth to use entertainment skills. The linkage with the IYV helps the public become aware of the scope of volunteers, explained Gail Elberg, director of volunteer programs for the All Stars Talent Show.

“The IYV publicity has helped connect our group with the effort to show that volunteers exist everywhere,” she said. “At every show we mention that IYV is going on and that April is Volunteer month.”

Nickelle Brown could just fit into the new image of the volunteer during the IYV. Brown is in her 20s and won this year’s Mayor’s Award for Voluntary Service to New York. She speaks eloquently about being a young mother on welfare who formerly went through bouts of depression, at one point she became the first woman rapper for the talent show.

Brown became involved as a volunteer 10 years ago when she saw a flyer in her neighborhood about how the group encouraged youth in entertainment. Today’s version of the All Stars Talent Show ran an audition at the Taft High School in the Bronx where 400 young people attended.

Approximately 50 volunteers produce the event, running sound and lighting equipment along with walking the neighborhood streets to let people know about the performance. They seek musical, dance and poetry entertainers who meet over a two-week span with a workshop. The process leads up to a show for parents and friends.

After the show, the performers are encouraged to volunteer by traveling to other boroughs with similar shows. The group conducts five such talent shows a year.

“If it wasn’t for the volunteers, Brown wouldn’t have made it,” Elberg said. “She’s now a successful secretary for a corporate firm in Manhattan.”

The public sees the show as a connection point for what volunteers can accomplish. “Young performers respect the volunteers,” she said. “The young adult volunteers are role models and 10 years ago they were on the stage performing.”

Several young adults with the program have won various awards for giving back to the community. The message from the event reaches out to the entire neighborhood. “We’re not looking for the next person to go to Broadway,” Elberg said. “Every young person who auditions gets into the show and that means so much to young people to learn skills and take a pride in the performance.

Even though the group hasn’t received help from public funds, the street corner approach builds a core of supportive donors who discover the message from the IYV campaign.

Peddle power

One of the largest non-competitive bicycle events in the country enters its 24th year using the IYV logo as part of its publicity. The Great Five Borough Bike Tour features 30,000 people riding throughout the city. This year’s event is dedicated to the 1,500 volunteer who manage the event’s rest areas over 42 miles. Volunteers called marshals direct traffic to make sure riders cross the right bridges. They also help in the office to mail material.

“We couldn’t exist without volunteers,” said Pam Tice, executive director for Bike New York (BNY), the organizing committee. “We depend on people to help the riders receive food, make bike repairs and assist the riders to meet up with friends.”

The bike tour prominently displays the IYV logo on posters with the Statue of Liberty riding a bike. The logo also is on volunteer vests while New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani mentioned the importance of the IYV in two paragraphs on BNY program publicity.

All brochures continue the message that the IYV is important, including the notice that, if participants had fun volunteering they should check the Web site of the IYV to see other things.

“The IYV can gain more awareness, but it doesn’t happen through one action,” Tice said. “The impact is in many forms, like from the New York Times and the bike tour is an event that reaches thousands of people.”

The BNY doesn’t get much television because it is not a competitive event. However a few corporate relationships emerged, including one with Con Edison.

“The connection with IYV is a good match because we look for ways to be helpful to other organizations,” Tice said. “We’re happy to have the tour used in that way.”

One connection brought volunteerism experts together at the offices of Big Brothers Big Sisters. The tribute to the IYV was called a half-day conference on Celebrating and promoting Volunteerism.

A panel on volunteer programs included conversations on why volunteer programs work and what are the best practices. “This is meant for learning ways that people can improve their own programs,” said Danielle Brown Fuller, training and technical assistance specialist of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The organization was founded in 1904 and is one of the oldest mentoring programs, explained Fuller. The group brings adults together with youths aged seven to 17 in mentoring programs such as SAT preparation, computer skills and homework. The group is sponsored by the local Department of Youth and Community Development.

Forming the links helps spread the word about the importance of treating volunteers the right way, explained Fuller. “We need to recognize that people are giving up their time. We need to help others to realize their effort,” she said.

Most organizations have a major problem of recognizing volunteers and fail to do enough to hold recognition ceremonies for volunteers. “Little things of recognition each day and improved supervision are a key in keeping volunteers in your organization,” she said. “When they are happy your program is happy.”

The frequency of the message is crucial to its impact, explained Brooke. ‘These agencies deserve to be recognized,” Brooke said. “Our campaign offers tools for the recognition of volunteers so the groups can go back and show funders about their needs.”

 

Tom Pope is a New York City-based journalist who writes about management issues.