Jewish groups must bring young volunteers on board

By Jon Rosenberg and Lee Sherman

Nonprofits in the United States don’t just benefit from government contracts and charitable donations. Some 62.8 million volunteers in the United States provided more than 8 billion hours of their time to nonprofits in 2010 at an estimated value of $160 billion.

Like other nonprofits, our own organizations in the Jewish world continue to struggle as competition for funding dollars climbs, government support declines and staffs are stretched thin. It is time for us to rethink the role of volunteers and how we are working with them — especially the next generation of young adult volunteers.

Engaging young adults as volunteers with Jewish nonprofits has proven tricky, especially when it comes to connecting them with meaningful opportunities that have potential to have a real impact on clients or communities.

The problem has not been a lack of willingness to volunteer among young Jews. According to Repair the World’s 2011 Volunteering + Values report, 78 percent of young Jewish women and 63 percent of young Jewish men said they had volunteered during the 12 months prior to the survey. But their volunteerism in general now consists primarily on sporadic, one-shot engagements, and most of it occurs outside the Jewish community.

That means there is great social spirit in the community, but not a lot of value added through volunteerism. There’s even less through volunteering with Jewish organizations.

Even as organizations struggle to sustain funding, we must do much more to engage the important human capital provided by volunteers. But the volunteers must also know about the opportunities in order to engage with our collective work.

That’s the impetus behind a new partnership between Repair the World, the service arm of the American Jewish community, and the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, the membership association for North America’s 125 Jewish family service agencies.

Repair the World and AJFCA’s new Volunteer Initiative Program will focus on increasing volunteer opportunities for young people at Jewish Family Services organizations and on creating meaningful, effective service that better enables JF&CS agencies to deliver on their mission. It will help us serve those in need.

Of course, while reports can help us identify concerns, we won’t really know what will work until we get on the ground. So starting in April, some 22 JF&CS organizations will work to create better volunteer programs. They will come up with theories, put those theories into practice and help us see what works so we can spread best practices to the rest of the JFS network — and then beyond to the broader Jewish nonprofit world.

In this process, we will not only be informed by good work happening already in the JF&CS network, but also by emerging efforts in the secular service world such as the Reimagining Service and the Cities of Service initiatives.

We have a century-long American Jewish history of helping the other, be it the settlement houses of the turn of lthe 20th century, the vast network of Jewish hospitals that now exist primarily for a general population, or the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society with immigrants that includes not only those pouring in from ravaged Jewish communities of Eastern Europe but also refugees from all around the world.

Whether or not our young people are aware, like many of our stalwarts in the Jewish world today, JF&CS agencies began by assisting Jewish refugees and immigrants, orphans, and the poor and needy. These agencies are continuing to provide critical services to people of all ages of all religious and cultural backgrounds; with special needs and physical needs; and through economic challenges and life-cycle changes.

It’s time that we introduce this crucial work and these impressive organizations to the next generation of volunteers, supporters and advocates. It’s time we foster pride in our contributions to our communities at large and enable young people to embrace their work as an entry point back into the Jewish community.

(Jon Rosenberg is CEO of Repair the World. Lee Sherman is president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies.)