New organizations are looking to change the way we donate our time, making the experience more accessible, more inclusive, more fun and, they hope, more popular.
The concept for Columbus Gives Back began with a 2009 Craigslist ad. Juliana Hardymon placed the ad to find some folks to volunteer with her—she didn’t think service should be a solitary activity. Ten people responded, and after they were done with their work at an area nonprofit, the gang went out to a bar to reflect on what they had accomplished.
“That sort of birthed the concept of what we call a social twist—doing something after to get to know people and to have a social aspect,” says Caleb Miller, current president of Columbus Gives Back, the organization Hardymon launched in the wake of that first group experience.
The combination of philanthropy and camaraderie has proven to be a winning one, especially among young, often single, professionals. Ten years after that Craigslist ad, Columbus Gives Back has a roster of about 1,000 regular volunteers.
It’s just one of a growing number of organizations that have recently emerged in Columbus to increase volunteering by improving the experience. While the number of hours Americans spent in volunteer service hit a record high last year, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, a study from the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute shows that the number of people volunteering has been declining for more than a decade. And despite our Midwestern do-good image, Columbus comes in 28th out of 51 metropolitan areas in volunteer participation, the CNCS study reveals. Less than a third of Columbus residents do any volunteer work at all.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
This lack of participation has broad implications. Not only do local charities depend on volunteers, people who volunteer are more engaged in the community generally. They are twice as likely to give to charity as non-volunteers, and are more likely to talk to neighbors, participate in civic organizations and vote in local elections. By seeking out innovative ways to connect millennials, teens, baby boomers and even families to community work that needs doing, groups like Columbus Gives Back could help reknit our fraying community fabric.
Each week, the leaders of Columbus Gives Back make contact with the organization’s nonprofit partners to determine what their needs are and how many volunteers they could use. Events are posted on the group’s website; anyone—including newbies to Columbus Gives Back—is invited to sign up and show up.
“From the start, a great culture has been created—something that’s very welcoming, something that fosters friendship and community, and really a culture of philanthropy,” Miller says. Although the organization has focused on increasing volunteerism among millennials, it is open to anyone over 21. “We see the broad spectrum of people coming through,” he continues.
Volunteer Jordann Dillard participates in the post-event activities. “It’s a great way to meet people that you otherwise wouldn’t,” she says.
Dillard volunteers for one of CGB’s partner organizations, Student Success Stores, school-based shops where students in need of school supplies, hygiene products, clothes and other items can acquire them free of charge.
“A lot of the students that we were seeing who were walking through the doors are students who have literally been running their whole lives,” says Sarai Veronique Exil of Student Success Stores. “They need basic, basic things.”
One store is affiliated with Columbus Global Academy. Volunteers from Columbus Gives Back “have literally kept that store alive,” Exil says. “They’re the ones who are counting the donations. They’re making sure they’re on shelves.”
The arrangement works, Exil says, because Columbus Gives Back is such a consistent partner. “We don’t see the same people every time, but it’s a strong group of people who get to learn more about us, who bring donations sometimes when they can,” she says.
Dillard agrees, describing what she learned while helping out at SSS. “[Students] get to come in and shop around and pick out new clothes for the school year,” she says. “It was just cool to see that all these donations come in and you were there to sort them, and it was so eye-opening—all this stuff that’s happening around Columbus that you might not even know about.” Find out more at columbusgivesback.org.
Clintonville resident Brandy Jemczura’s idea for a new volunteer organization sprang from her own frustration. Three years ago, with two children and a third on the way, the Clintonville resident looked for ways to help her kids develop the habit of giving back, just as she had. But she discovered that most nonprofits excluded children or offered activities to which they were not well suited.
“I just really reflected on all of the hopes and dreams I had for my kids,” Jemczura says. “I wanted them to grow up to be kind, caring individuals, willing to work for a better tomorrow, willing to work for a better community.”
Jemczura wasn’t interested in simply having her kids tag along while she did all of the volunteering. “I could probably go and manage volunteering with a couple kids in tow and have them put a couple pieces of food up on the shelf,” she says. “But it wasn’t going to be as meaningful for them.”
Her solution was Seeds of Caring, an organization that connects families with volunteer experiences for children aged 2 to 12. Youngsters attend the events in the company of a parent or other adult guardian; event leaders oversee all of the particulars.
Through activities targeted to specific age groups, Seeds of Caring seeks to reach kids in terms they can comprehend. For example, participants under 5 might pack snacks to send to a shelter. “The youngest children … love anything that involves packing or going down an assembly line,” Jemczura says. “It keeps their little bodies engaged.”
Their minds are engaged, too, through lessons learned during the day. “We’ll read a simple story about a girl who notices her friend at school is hungry and how she tries to help her friend,” Jemczura says. “For the youngest kids, that really resonates with them.”
Complexity of tasks increases for older children—as does complexity of the topics tackled. “We can talk more about problem-solving, about critical thinking and social justice efforts,” Jemczura says. “We can talk to them at a different level about some of these community topics.”
Brittney Stroman, whose daughter, Poppy, 7, and son, Cooper, 5, both participate in Seeds of Caring, praises the hands-on nature of the activities. “A lot of philanthropy is done through online monetary contributions, and it’s not very meaningful to kids,” says Stroman, whereas with Seeds of Caring’s projects, “they’re actually doing it.” Stroman’s family has packaged lunches for a shelter and supplies for individuals transitioning from homelessness into a new home.
The organizations served by Seeds of Caring reap rewards, too. Many adults with developmental disabilities served at Goodwill Columbus—a Seeds of Caring partner—have few opportunities to interact with children, according to Goodwill health and wellness activities coordinator Elizabeth Krucky.
Krucky describes a regular joint event, “Seeing Life Differently,” which allows children to learn about visual impairments through a series of activities. Afterwards, they have a conversation with a blind person.
“The first time we did it, the parents at the event … said, ‘This was such a wonderful event. Not only did my children learn, but I also learned as well,’” Krucky says.
It’s Jemczura’s hope that service experiences will increase empathy—and she sees the evidence in her own children. “There was an instance of someone demonstrating a bit of road rage towards us one day,” Jemczura says. “My son was in the backseat and he goes, ‘Oh, wow. That person clearly did not go to Seeds of Caring when they were young.’ ” Learn more at seedsofcaring.org.
For Matthew Goldstein, a passion for philanthropy began on the phone. While working as a market researcher at the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, Goldstein spent weekend mornings volunteering at a suicide hotline. “Those hours on the hotline were some of my most fulfilling,” Goldstein says, describing a deep sense of connection to callers, even though he knew they would never meet. “Together, we’re able to connect on a very deep and personal level.”
Hoping others could find that same sense of connection, Goldstein became a kind of crusader for volunteerism. First, he encouraged co-workers to find ways to give back. Then, in 2010, he decided to do more. Quitting his job at Abercrombie, he began charting plans for a new kind of volunteer organization, Besa.
Launched two years later, Besa aims to connect concerned citizens with groups in need of assistance—from Faith Mission to the Franklin County Dog Shelter and Adoption Center—by simplifying the process. Rather than reaching out to charities to learn how they can help, interested volunteers can learn about specific events on Besa’s website. Each listing includes the details about the project, including overviews of an organization’s purpose and instructions about what is expected at the event itself.
“You just go to their website,” says volunteer Nicole Phalen. “You click a button, and you’re signed up.”
Jessica Schueren praises the way potential participants can pick and choose their level of involvement. “As a working professional, I was also looking for flexibility, so I appreciated that I could volunteer once a quarter, once a month or once a week,” Schueren says.
Ease of signing up is the hook Besa uses to draw in volunteers, but their continued participation is likely due to the organization’s emphasis on curating unique service experiences. “Stuffing envelopes is probably not something you’re going to see us do,” Goldstein says. “We’re looking for high-impact opportunities where you’re either working directly with a client or you’re doing something that directly benefits them.”
Besa also develops projects, dreaming up creative ways to serve its nonprofit partners, like a Halloween Day event staffed by costumed Besa volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House. The children trick-or-treat along a hallway, with the volunteers positioned to answer and offer treats when they knock on doors.
“As the nonprofit builds its relationship with Besa, and starts to really trust us as a partner,” Goldstein says, “Then we’re able to think in a creative way in terms of how else can we serve the nonprofit.”
Besa’s work is supported by traditional giving, donations and grants. Additional revenue is generated through the organization’s partnership with companies that turn to Besa to help enable and encourage their workers to get involved; many companies lack employees to coordinate such activities. Besa sets up a web portal that allows a client’s employees to register for service projects. “We manage it all,” Goldstein says. “We help them have the greatest impact with the resources at their disposal.”
Vicki Christian of Goodwill Columbus, which works with adults with disabilities, describes a day when 130 Besa volunteers from the logistics department at L Brands took part in a project to beautify the organization’s building. “We had painting and cleaning and all sorts of different things going on here,” Christian says. The volunteers finished the day by helping the Goodwill clients stage a good, old-fashioned derby car race.
In the end, Goldstein hopes that Besa’s volunteers will form powerful memories that spur additional acts of giving. “If we’re going to solve these problems, like hunger or homelessness, we need to get more people civically engaged,” Goldstein says. “As soon as you can figure that out, then you start hooking people.” Find Besa at givebesa.org.
As a teenager, Madison Mikhail Bush spent almost 2,000 hours volunteering for various causes. Her experience helped her earn a scholarship to Capital University, but during and after her time there, she struggled to locate volunteer opportunities. “If I was having problems trying to volunteer,” she says, “I can’t imagine how hard it was for people who did not have as much experience.”
Mikhail Bush wondered if the same ease of use that powers apps like UberEats and Lyft could be applied to philanthropy. She set about creating an app that would help volunteers find the local charities that need them.
But Mikhail Bush, a biology major, had little knowledge about coding or computer engineering. “I was on the wrong side of the nerd kingdom,” she says. She started an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to hire technical assistance, but that first effort went poorly. This prompted her to tweet out a plea asking if anyone knew where to find $5,000.
A chief engineering manager at Twitter responded with some advice. After that, Mikhail Bush recruited a friend who was then working at Google. Together, they launched another fundraising campaign and hired local freelance developers to work on the app. Eventually, the engineering manager from Twitter came on board to help with software, and they launched in April of 2018.
One barrier to volunteering that Point seeks to address is individuals’ lack of familiarity with local charities. “So many people want to help but they don’t even know the name of a charity to Google,” says Mikhail Bush. On Point, users can tap or click on a cause that interests them to see a registry of related charities, both local and national, with volunteer opportunities.
High schools, filled with native app users, are a natural partner for Point, which is currently working with four local high schools. Stephanie McGeorge, assistant principal at Westerville North, who monitors and tracks all of the students’ community service, saw Point as a great opportunity for her students. “It meets kids where they are at,” McGeorge says. “They [the students] really like being able to tailor the experience to their interests.”
Point also eliminates a lot of bothersome paperwork, McGeorge adds, and allows students to find opportunities on their own. Before Point, students found service jobs either from advisors or through the Rotary Club, which limited their options. The app increased the scope of their choices—and gave students autonomy in selecting them.
One of the early adopters of Point is the Alzheimer’s Association. “I love the interface, it is so easy to use. It is easy to sign up, it is easy to get in touch with people, and it is easy to see what is out there,” says Jason Abady, the organization’s community engagement specialist. Abady recently used the app to find volunteers for the group’s Alzheimer’s Walk. The Alzheimer’s Association plans to add more events which will draw volunteers from the app in the future.
Right now, everyone using Point does so for free. Mikhail Bush’s goal is to keep it free for charities and volunteers. Schools and businesses will pay nominal fees to use the app, gaining access to features that larger organizations will find useful such as data management and event creation.
The beta version of the app garnered 1,000 users. Following Point’s official release this summer, the app now has close to 6,000 users. Mikhail Bush is looking forward to adding more functionality and expanding her base. Plans are afoot to expand to Cleveland and Cincinnati by the end of 2019. Mikhail Bush likes to envision a time when Point is as common as all the other apps on our phones. “Our goal is a deep cultural shift in the communities we are in,” she says. You can download Point from Apple’s App Store and Google Play or at pointapp.org.