Leveraging the community to meet its needs

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Jun 11, 2016

City staff has proposed adding a volunteer coordinator position to the upcoming city budget at a cost of $68,000, including benefits. City councilors have pushed back on the necessity for the position, noting that the city already has many committed and active volunteers and that a new position creates an additional cost in the budget, reminding us that the tax levy is still a concern even in years of relatively small increases to the overall mill rate.

Councilor Geiger proposed a vision for what the position could accomplish: targeting specific needs in our community that are currently unmet or understaffed as well as providing a social benefit to the community by bringing people together.

Nonprofits routinely tap volunteer labor in a way that small town governments typically don’t; the major exceptions are committees, the library, and parks, each of which utilizes the bulk of any city’s volunteers and provides tangible value to the community. But this community value tends to focus on cultural programs more than meeting everyday needs.

A 2000 study by Duke University concluded counties that centralize volunteer programs see “nearly three times the dollar value of service from volunteers.” While they noted some of this increase might merely be a result of better record-keeping, they also offered specific best practices that volunteer coordinators can capitalize on to ensure that their position is more than record-keeping — that it actually meets real and vital needs in the community.

We see this happen in many large cities — for example, San Antonio; Ashville, North Carolina; Alexandria, Virginia; Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona; and many others — which have robust volunteer programs, with a strong central organizer. These cities routinely train and task volunteers with important tasks: crisis intervention teams, leading early childhood or after-school programs, veteran outreach, Master food volunteers (a program that’s similar to Master Gardeners but targeted to nutrition and healthy eating), and so forth.

Cities that have models more like our current decentralized one regularly report struggles to identify potential volunteers, to inform them about specific projects, to establish codes of conduct for volunteers, as well as with clustering most of their volunteers in the library or other cultural activities rather than meeting a diversity of community needs.

Rockland has a number of unmet community needs. We have an active — and creative — set of nonprofits, but they routinely cannot keep up with demand and some programs simply do not even exist. A volunteer coordinator position in the city could leverage these existing resources and strategically target unmet but important community needs, making specific needs more visible and enabling community members to meet them together.

While Rockland should “experiment” with a volunteer coordinator position, it probably should not be a full-time position in the first year. Instead, a carefully designed test should be launched — hire a part-time (or full-time for 4 to 6 months) volunteer coordinator to accomplish a set of specific goals: to create a certain number of new projects in the community (ranging from short- to long-term) and to coordinate with existing nonprofits to centralize and publicize local volunteer needs. If the model is successful, then consider making it a full-time position in Fiscal Year 2018 or identify ways to capitalize on the start-up.

What should such a trial program accomplish? Two or three community projects that target specific underserved areas in our community: weatherization and home repair for seniors, a youth volunteer corps and mentoring program, and an infrastructure program to beautify or enhance a park (providing more diverse recreation options such as a skate park or outdoor basketball courts).

Our current model for volunteers is that they report to a specific department. Projects such as the examples above show the benefit of a coordinator who is not in a particular department — these projects would use resources the city does not currently have and the coordinator most likely would make connections with local nonprofits, the schools, and city departments. This means that projects have a wider scale of impact and can tackle needs that cross many departmental or organizational boundaries.

A city-based volunteer coordinator can also use city resources to connect nonprofits and other organizations throughout the city in a way that is difficult for a single organization to accomplish. The city (or library) website would be an ideal place to include information about local nonprofits’ specific volunteer (and resource) needs. Currently such systems require constant maintenance, but technology allows us to automate many of these processes — a simple form-based system would allow individual nonprofits to input their needs, job descriptions and time-lines so that people could evaluate whether the organization is a good fit.

The question of whether we should have a volunteer coordinator is really a question of how we want city government and citizens to engage with each other. While the current discussion about a possible volunteer coordinator has been very cost-conscious, this is one area in the budget in which value has to be calculated beyond just numbers, beyond essential services and “luxuries.”

A volunteer coordinator would bridge this gap — helping to leverage the community to identify and serve the community’s needs in ways that the tax levy cannot afford to do. Government is ultimately an extension of the community and a volunteer coordinator creates a hub for social change.

Chelsea Maude Avirett is a freelance writer and teacher.


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