A successful service project is never as simple – it takes a partnership of nonprofit staff, volunteers and business. Here’s the perfect example.
By Jane Hess Collins
Some nonprofit projects are more complicated than others, yet even the simplest among them require the cooperation and teamwork of dozens of people. Take, for example, backpack assembly, a project of the Lorton Community Action Center (LCAC) and several other area nonprofits. It sounds pretty easy:
1. Get backpacks
2. Get school supplies
3. Get people to pack #2 into #1
4. Give to kids
Actually, getting to step 4 requires months of collaboration among businesses, schools and nonprofits. Here are the major steps (multiply by 12 or so to get down to the details):
The schools identify which kids, by school and grade, need supplies and what which supplies they need.
The nonprofit finds businesses to donate the supplies or sell them at a reduced cost. This is where ingenuity, borne from years of creating something from nothing, kicks in. LCAC, for example, partnered with the nonprofit Kids R First, which allowed them to buy school supplies at nearly 75% less than retail.
Next the nonprofit must find a facility-for free-large enough to hold thousands of school supplies, with enough tables to organize the assembly.
It sounds easy. It rarely is.
Next is the call for volunteers for assembly day. That requires a massive communication blast from the nonprofit to current volunteers, board members, companies looking for a volunteer day project and just about anyone else to help out. The best problem a nonprofit can have for a special event is too many volunteers.
Then the fun began. When I arrived at the Lorton Moose Lodge a few weeks ago, LCAC’s location for backpack assembly, the place was swimming with volunteers from Woods of Fairfax, Burke Community Church and others who committed to four or so hours of service.
Kathy Noone, the LCAC director of human resources, told me that this year saw a big surge in need. LCAC has provided backpacks filled with school supplies for about 300 families in the last few years. Now nearly 400 families had asked for help.
Several hundred backpacks piled on top of each other lay on two round tables. The other tables were covered in note paper, pens, pencils, hand sanitizer and tissues.
Kathy had talked with the supplier days ago and asked that everything be delivered the night before so we could start packing at 8 a.m. It was Friday. The kids were coming Saturday morning. School started Monday. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room.
Only half of the supplies had been delivered. We were still waiting for hundreds of packs of colored paper and pencils, markers, highlighters, calculators and erasers.
We waited. Kathy was on the phone continually, calling the company, or anyone who could tell her when the truck would show up. She had done her part. Kids R First had done their part. No one answered the phone. The dozens of volunteers fidgeted, sat, texted and ate snacks.
Finally, we had an answer. The truck would arrive by 2 p.m. It was 10 a.m. now.
There was nothing to do for the next four hours. Kathy sent us home and pleaded with us to come back at two.
Welcome to the nonprofit world.
Kathy and the rest of the LCAC staff would see to that each of the backpacks were filled and organized by school and grade by Saturday morning. It didn’t matter if no one showed up again at 2 p.m. LCAC would get it done, because that’s what nonprofits do. It might take all night, but the kids would never know.
I couldn’t return at 2 p.m., but I sent out a “please forward” tweet and Facebook post, asking anyone and everyone to show up at the Lodge at 2 p.m.
Saturday morning came and went. How long had the LCAC crew stayed up to serve their kids?
Kathy sent me this email a few days later: “Truck was there by about 1:30. Had a full crew of volunteers and we got all the backpacks made. I think we were out of there by about 5:30. We have FANTASTIC volunteers. Distribution was Saturday morning and successful.”
Love a happy ending.
Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow her other Get Out and Give Back volunteer stories on Facebook, Twitter and her website. If you’d like her to volunteer with your organization, contact her here.