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Season of Giving: Find your passion and volunteer

Late last year Michael Willey had a casual conversation with someone he had just met about charitable organizations. The United Way came up.

“Where I’m from in Los Angeles, United Way has blackout days” that bar other agencies from fundraising, he said. “They had a fairly high cost with overhead. Not only that, you had to get your fundraising campaigns approved if you were a United Way-funded organization. That was my biggest issue.”

Willey shared those misgivings with a woman he was speaking with. She turned out to be Jessica Chipriano, the United Way’s operations coordinator.

“Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?” Willey said to himself. But he rolled with it and agreed to Chipriano’s invitation to come see the United Way operation here. Months later, Willey was doing three different volunteer jobs for the United Way. “I was glad” to be proven wrong. “It was perfect,” he said. “It was time for us.”

Michael and his wife, Christa, were starting to turn from rearing twin daughters to young adults — they’re on the way to college on rowing scholarships in the Northeast — and looking to engage in community work.

“Once the objections for me were overcome, I understood more clearly,” Willey said. “The overhead is extremely low at our United Way. The Medical Loan closet, which is a great organization, probably wouldn’t exist without the United Way.”

Denise Cumbee Long, the United Way’s executive director, calls Willey a converted non-believer. She nominated Michael and Christa to be among the Lightning’s Season of Giving profiles in volunteering. They’re “a wonderful example of a United Way husband and wife volunteer team,” she said.

The Willeys also model what nonprofit leaders describe as two most critical factors when choosing a nonprofit to invest time and energy in: Find a cause you’re passionate about, investigate the organization and make good on your commitment of time.

‘Have a heart for the mission’

The Lightning surveyed 15 nonprofit leaders across Henderson County to find out what makes a good volunteer, what makes a good board member and what are examples of services nonprofits provide that save taxpayers’ money. (Hint: It amounts to millions of dollars’ worth.)

When it came to volunteer service — on the front lines or the boardroom — the word passion came up over and over.

A good volunteer “is truly devoted to the cause and believes in it, not just involved for the sake of being involved,” said Marybeth Burns, vice president of Blue Ridge Honor Flight.

“First and foremost,” said Pardee Foundation’s Kim Hinkelman, “a volunteer needs to have a heart for the mission of the organization. This is something that is coming from a passion and willingness to make a place, an organization, or a community better.”

“Enthusiasm,” said Karla Reese, manager of Pardee’s volunteer services, makes for an effective volunteer experience. “When a person is enthusiastic, you can see it right away — it’s contagious.”

The “small group of volunteers” that founded Four Seasons hospice 40 years ago would agree that “a great volunteer is made up of many amazing qualities,” said Callie Davis, Four Seasons’ marketing director. “They are enthusiastic about the work that they are doing and take great pride in the outcomes. They have passion and it shows in every interaction they have. A great volunteer is selfless, compassionate, and reliable.”

Besides passion and enthusiasm, nonprofit leaders also emphasized the need for volunteers to be flexible.

“A good volunteer is someone who has a heart for service and passion for the work that your charity does,” said Elizabeth Willson Moss, executive director of Interfaith Assistance Ministry. “In IAM’s case, our volunteers serve because they want to help their neighbors — children, women and men — who are in financial crisis and need a compassionate hand-up during their difficult times. They are team players, kind-hearted, reliable, committed, engaged and flexible enough to roll with the punches when additional needs arise.”

Added McCray Benson, the president of the Community Foundation: “They have no reservations when it comes to lending a hand, even with mundane ‘chores,’ and are willing to support and/or assist in fundraising efforts.”

‘Interview key leaders’

Henderson County has more than 300 nonprofit organizations, most of which are hungry for volunteers. So a volunteer ought to be able find a job that suits his or her talents.

“Ask questions about the mission and purpose, so you know it fits with who you are and what you hope to offer,” Hinkelman said.

Making an appointment for an on-site visit is a good start.

“Get to know people who are already established volunteers at the organization and ask questions,” said Julia Hockenberry, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. “Visiting and observing volunteer activities before making a commitment also ensures a good fit.”

Other tips:

  • “Tour the agencies you are considering and really understand if your passions line up with their mission,” said Kristen Martin, the executive director of Thrive, a mental health agency for adults. “If you believe in the cause, it is easy to support them in time.”
  • “Once you’ve made the commitment, please show up unless you are sick or have a personal crisis,” Moss said. “Be a team player. If you don’t like the organization you’re volunteering for, leave and try another one.”
  • “Interview and visit with key leaders of the organization,” Benson said. “Be willing to review the attributes of what a good volunteer is for that organization and reflect on whether it’s a good fit for you both.”

‘Doers who walk the talk’

Although board service may be less physically demanding than repairing roofs, loading canned goods or coaching 8-year-olds, commitment and enthusiasm are no less important, the nonprofit leaders told us.

“Great board members tend to be great listeners who are highly attuned to the needs of the organization as well as the needs in the community,” Hockenberry said. “Great board members also demonstrate courage and initiative as advocates. They are doers who know how to walk the talk.”

“Show up — mentally, emotionally, with curiosity and creative interest,” Benson said. “Drop in on the organization.  Be alert to what it is doing in the community and alternatively be alert to where in the community the organization could be to best serve its mission.”

What makes a good board member?

  • “A good board member prepares for and attends all of the board meetings and is involved in at least one committee, attends the nonprofit’s events and donates funds to the nonprofit,” Moss said. “A good board member is also an ambassador in the community for your nonprofit.”
  • “A great board member asks the tough questions and uses that knowledge to further the mission by volunteering and recruiting other volunteers and donations,” Martin said.
  • “Commitment of time, treasures and talent – it’s a ‘churchy’ phrase, but works well for any volunteer board situation,” Hinkelman said.

Patching the safety net

If it weren’t nonprofits, families in crisis would go without, creeks would be trashier, more dogs and cats would be put down, some children would go hungry and the frail and elderly would be cold in winter. But for the organizations that patch holes in the social safety net, taxpayers would pay more. Donations from individuals, corporations and foundations plus free labor by hundreds of volunteers enable nonprofits to step in where public aid stops.

The Community Foundation “distributed more than $3.5 million this last year to 297 nonprofit organizations,” Benson said. “Almost all of these organizations use volunteers and according to a recent report by the Federal Reserve volunteers stretch the value of the dollars contributed on average by 50 percent more than the amount contributed. … We’re invested in the Leader-in-Me program at our public schools, helping to fund those addressing addiction, building better health care for each generation, supporting access to the arts, strengthening civic engagement, helping care for animals, enhancing early childhood development and much more.”

For the absurdly low annual membership fee of $5, the Boys & Girls Club offers tutoring, enhanced arts, music and education, sports, science, field trips and more — and every single member graduates.

“Compared to the high school graduate — a dropout costs taxpayers an average of $292,000 over a lifetime,” Hockenberry said. “The Boys & Girls Club of Henderson County has maintained a 100 percent high school graduation rate since 2009.”

We tend to think government programs make sure people don’t go hungry, lose electricity in a cold snap or go to kindergarten with two left shoes. A nonprofit is often the court of last resort for the needy.

“Through October 2018, Interfaith Assistance Ministry has helped more than 10,000 children and adults through utility bill and heating assistance, rent assistance, a full week’s worth of three meals a day of nutritious food, clothing that fits, bus tickets, gasoline vouchers, prescription assistance, school supplies, blankets, linens, diapers, personal hygiene items, rides home from IAM, free budget and tobacco cessation classes, an action plan, scholarship funds and a Working Women’s Clothing Closet to help women who can’t afford interview clothing and special clothing for manufacturing, food service, nursing and other professions with the needed clothing and shoes to accept a better paying job,” Moss said. When a client has a need IAM can’t cover, the agency refers the person to a sister agency that specializes in that area, such as legal aid or medical care.

At Thrive, “our Day Program helps adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses stay healthy and stable and decrease hospitalizations that they can’t afford, thus saving the taxpayer dollars,” Martin said. “Our Representative Payee and Housing Program helps to ensure long-term housing stability through assisting in payment of basic needs such as prescriptions, rent, utilities, and food first.”

Through its Women Helping Women program, the Pardee Foundation provides free medical care to uninsured women. “For over 20 years women have gathered to raise dollars and awareness in our community — it started with providing free mammograms and has expanded to any health issue a woman faces.”

Rewarded with smiles

A can of beef stew, a new pair of sneakers for the first day of school, a wheelchair loaned for free, a home repair or a winter coat are tangible donations nonprofits make.

Ask a volunteer what they love about volunteering and one intangible invariably comes up: smiles.

“I think the best thing is just the interaction, particularly with children and families and seeing what joy a farm brings to them,” said Becky Varnadore, a veteran volunteer at Historic Johnson Farm.

“It’s a good feeling, especially around back-to-school time when kids come in and get their new backpacks their school supplies,” said IAM volunteer Bo Boteilho. “The joy on their faces is something to see.”

“It’s seeing those kids’ faces’ smile and light up you when they see you and you’re picking up where you left off and asking how they’re feeling,” said Carla Duncan, who volunteers in the art room at the Boys & Girls Club.

“The best thing I think is seeing the smiles on their face and their eyes light up when they are being thanked as a veteran and I think it helps them heal from some old wounds,” Blue Ridge Honor Flight volunteer Laura Cline said.