Groups look to boost volunteerism


Sue Yaffee checked on-line to learn about volunteer opportunities in the St. Louis Jewish community when she moved here less than a year ago. The retired teacher considers volunteerism her “lifeline.”

“It is a way for me to meet and connect with people,” Yaffee said.

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Are there more or less volunteers in the St. Louis Jewish community? That depends on who you are talking to and what kind of volunteering you are talking about, but organizations are working to find diverse ways to enlarge their volunteer base.

The National Council of Jewish Women’s 2007 Back-To-School! Store had 550 volunteers, said their executive director and longtime community volunteer Ellen Alper. Executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Services Lou Albert said JF &CS is also seeing more volunteers. The Jewish Community Center’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival and Tour de Fun are two community events which regularly attract volunteers.

“Though many people today cannot give daily or even weekly time commitments,” Alper said. “We have learned to take the bigger jobs and break them into smaller, manageable pieces and find it much easier to find volunteers.”

Despite these examples, many organizations do find it harder to fill board and committee positions. Time is at a premium and people have to make hard choices of how to fit in volunteering with all their other responsibilities. Who is available to volunteer and how they want to volunteer has changed over the years as well.

Historically women often held the hands-on volunteer positions in a community and men’s organizations raised funds. The men worked full-time and were used to writing checks and hiring staff to get things done. The women, who often did not work outside the home, were counted on to be the room moms in their child’s school, stuff envelopes, cook for the bake sales and run programs. Today women’s roles have grown and many more work part-time or full-time outside the home.

“I remember when I was bringing up my children, I was a stay-at-home mom and volunteered non-stop,” said Yaffee, who now volunteers at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. “As my children got older, I realized I needed to use those volunteer hours to earn money to be able to send them to college. I saw the same thing happen among my contemporaries.”

Adapting to the changing needs of volunteers has been an important part of the NCJW, Alper said. The organization looks at: time, energy, family commitments, money — anything that could be a barrier to volunteering. Groups who are more successful in recruiting volunteers are flexible about providing opportunities and entry points for people who want to get involved.

The NCJW adapted their committee and board meetings to attract younger, working women. They provide babysitters at their board and executive meetings and the meetings are held at 5:30 p.m. so working women can attend on their way home from the job. Most importantly, the meetings are interactive and meaningful with only action items on their agenda, Alper said.

Another important part of getting volunteers is how you ask them. It is not unusual for people to be called upon to sit on a board or committee and be promised it won’t take up much of their time. Though people do feel crunched for time, using this approach often doesn’t work well, said active community volunteer Phyllis Traub.

“Play up the position, let people know it is a commitment, that it will take time, that the job is important and their participation is valued,” Traub said. “Equally important to people who get volunteers, are people who know how to thank them. If you don’t feel appreciated you are not going to come back.”

Time consuming board and committee meetings are a common complaint among volunteers. They say the tendency is for those meetings to be primarily people reading staff-written reports that everyone already has in front of them. The need to clearly define and balance the roles of staff and volunteers is an important issue, especially for larger organizations. Volunteers should be partners with the staff.

“There is a greater investment of time but in the long run there is a greater pay-off,” long time professional in the St. Louis Jewish community Marci Mayer Eisen said. “We need to respect the group process. It is incumbent on staff to find ways to engage people and still get the job done. This is the essence of community building.”

Groups count on their volunteers because they help with programs and services, reduce costs and bring their knowledge of the organization to the larger community. There are many types of volunteers. Some people volunteer by contributing large amounts of money while others volunteer by allowing groups to use their name as a member of board or committee to attract other people. Then there are people who give of their time: daily, weekly or monthly and periodic volunteers who help out at specific programs or events.

Understanding why people volunteer is an important part of getting volunteers. Volunteers come to you for a reason in the first place, said Alper and it is important to understand their motivation.

“You don’t want to call the wrong person for the wrong job,” Alper said.

Darien Arnstein who recently volunteered at the Couturier Sale at the NCJW Shop developed an interest in that organization because of its advocacy work and currently sits on its board. Through her volunteer work she has learned about legislative advocacy and how to make her political voice heard.

“I am involved with NCJW because of their great community service and galvanized by their advocacy issues,” Arnstein said. “They also know how to attract volunteers.”

The April 2007 Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) report on volunteering in America revealed 30.9% of St. Louisians volunteered 48 hours per year between 2004 and 2006 which equates to approximately 696,000 people volunteering 84.7 million hours. The study also showed a little over one-third of those volunteers were in a religious setting. According to the report Baby Boomers have the “highest volunteer rate of any age group” but close to one-third of them do not volunteer from one year to the next.

Albert points out volunteers can leave anytime and it is essential to let them know the job they are doing is important and valued. CNCS studies showed volunteers will stop coming if they are not “effectively managed.” Organizations need to create a structure to identify and engage volunteers and then see it through. Some people talked about participating in leadership or volunteer training opportunities for various agencies and then were never contacted.

The importance of nurturing volunteers led the JF &CS to create a new half-time position hiring Kelly Mueller as their new coordinator of volunteers. They have seen a growth in the number of people coming through the agency as regular volunteers. There are 46 paid staff positions and more than 70 regular volunteers. That does not include the number of periodic volunteers like Brownie and Girl Scout troops, religious school students, youth groups and employees of firms who come just for a specific program or event during the year.

“We have reached the stage where we need to spend more time on the care and feeding of our volunteers,” Albert said. “Kelly will take care of the administrative pieces such as recruitment, training, recognition and evaluation — all the same sorts of things that happen with paid staff. We want to do it right.”