Social Connectedness / 2013

Engaging the Reluctant Volunteer

Engaging the Reluctant Volunteer

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Big Sunday

Actually, our title is a misnomer. We don't see people as volunteers. That suggests "haves and have-nots." At Big Sunday, we think EVERYONE has some way they can help, and that the world is full of "haves and have-mores." That's why our target audience is... everyone. And they're not volunteers, they're participants. Helpers. From homeless people to CEOs, all treated and valued the same. Sometimes the line between who is giving or receiving help is blurred, and we think that's great. And our speciality, it seems, is the reluctant person - the one who thinks they don't have the time, or the talent, or the money, or perhaps even the inclination to help.

We do this by providing all kinds of ways to help. By making it as easy or difficult as someone wants. To make everything inclusive. To focus on what unites us, not what divides us. To bring people together. And to make it fun.

Thus, our idea is to create a clearinghouse of giving and helping.

We are already on the road to doing that. Big Sunday sponsors and promotes all kinds of traditional volunteering experiences, from beach clean-ups to feeding the hungry. We also offer many giving opportunities, whether it's school supplies in August, toys at Christmas or ongoing needs like food or clothing. Some people seek a one-time helping experience while others are looking for something long-term. While many people have skills to offer - be it plumbing, legal expertise, hairdressing or medicine - for many, their gift is their friendly demeanor, or ability to make anyone feel wanted and needed. As such, we host all kinds of community dinners, parties, field-trips and outings for people to get to meet and known one another.

We want to start by doing it right here in L.A.. And, while we like to think as big as anyone, and have benefitted first-hand from the power of social media, we treasure the interaction between people - something which hopefully be as cherished in 2050 as it is today - so we will at first focus on the greater L.A. area.

The truth is, people in L.A. are very engaged. For instance, during the 8 week period we are now in, here are just some of the events taking place in the area: the L.A. Marathon, The L.A. Times Book Fair, CivLAVia, Coachella, the Israel Festival, Earth Day, Fiesta Broadway, ShareFest, the Annual FoLAR River Clean-Up, City Lights, and Big Sunday Weekend, plus all kinds of walks and runs and fairs and festivals for all kinds of good causes. Between the events listed above, more than 1,000,000 people will be engaged. That's a lot of people. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. For sure, anyone who has ever driven in L.A. has, at some point, been blocked by the masses of people enjoying one of these events. People want to be involved. They just need to know where they're wanted and needed.

What can get more problemmatic is when many worthy groups are vying for people, dollars, and attention.

We'd start by reaching out to the many nonprofit & service organizations, plus festivals and events in town and create a common calendar so that both the public and all agencies would know what the other is doing and thus maximizing everyone's effectiveness and output (while minimizing time wasted as different organizations work hard to do the same thing). We'd build a common website (with links to each group's individual website), as well an annual printed brochure (e.g., like that of the Hollywood Bowl, so that people could see all their options at once).

If a nonprofit needs something - be it new crayons for their students, new furniture for residents, warehouse space, a new executive director, or cash for any of the above, they can go to one site to see what it needed. Last year, Big Sunday started an initiative like this called theBIGlist. Since then we have made matches for everything from Subzero refrigerators to trees to a basset hound.

We'd continue & grow our Monthly on Melrose program of concerts, movie screeings, singalongs and parties, designed not just to help people, but to bring them together. These events usually include a meal, where people come knowing the mission is to not just join friends & family, but to mix it up - these events usually include not just regular volunteers, but invited guests such from group homes, shelters, or senior or vets' organizations.

We want to help get rid of the idea of "the other." If someone is an "other" it can create fear, anxiety, resentment, or misunderstanding. "The other" is often an idea. It's a person, or a type of person that we've heard about or read about, maybe even seen, but never looked in the eye and had a conversation. The "other" is often someone we thing we're working at cross-purposes with, but have never tried to, or had to, engage in something together - even if that something is as simple as counting cans in a food drive painting a classroom, enjoying a game of bingo, or sharing a laugh.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

We got Max Geller to volunteer. Max is a nice guy who never volunteers for anything. No reason why. On the 10th anniversary of September 11, Big Sunday hosted a food drive and community breakfast. It started at 6:00 a.m., to coincide with the time of the attacks. We collected thousands of pounds of food for pantries, which was nice, but what was great was that the more than 500 helpers included corporate groups; school groups; groups from churches, temples, and a mosque; fraternities and clubs; vets; residents from group homes, including people in recovery and homeless people; and individuals and families. Everyone helped sort and pack the food, and then we all broke bread together. We had a great, donated buffet, and lots of tables set up, with loads of people inside and out, enjoying one another’s company on that sad and somber day. And Max turned up. He jumped right in and was great company for everyone he talked. He had a wonderful time, too. Getting Max, the world’s most reluctant volunteer to participate, was an excellent achievement. (Next time, we’ll get him to bring some food, too.)

Also: Since 1999, we’ve engaged and empowered more than 250,000 people of all ages and backgrounds in thousands of community services projects throughout California. For many, helping at Big Sunday is the beginning of a longterm commitment to a nonprofit, whether it’s Big Sunday or another group. We have worked with hundreds of nonprofits, both local and national. We have made major capital improvements at all kinds of nonprofit sites, including Phoenix House, The Venice Family Clinic, North Valley Rescue Mission, Operation Ready Families and many more. We have collected and donated tens of thousands of books; tens of thousands of pounds of food; truckloads of clothing; roomsful of furniture. We started as a single day or service and now have a year-round community calendar listing more than 1000 ways to help each year; Monthly on Melrose, which is a different special event for a different nonprofit, every month; our annual holiday giving list, with more than 150 ways to help at the holidays; Youth In Action, a special toolkit for civic-minded kids; The End of the Month Club, our monthly food drive to fight hunger; theBIGlist, our cool online wish list for nonprofits and donors; theARTlist, our upcoming list for all kinds of artists of all ages to publicize their work; and our ability to fill emergency needs by reaching out to the Big Sunday community.

We have won all kinds of awards, and been cited and recognized by all kinds of nice and impressive groups.

Truly, though, our most important achievement lies not in how much we’ve done, but the spirit in which we’ve done it. We are proud that we’ve brought many people to a new part of town, be it South Central or Beverly Hills, for the first time. We’re proud of our ability to cross racial, religious, age, and socio-economic lines to bring nice people together to enjoy one another in all kinds of ways.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

At Big Sunday our target audience is everyone. Kind of broad, we know. Then again, we already work with hundreds of partners all over Los Angeles – schools (all ages, public and private, religious and secular), faith groups, businesses, elected officials, neighborhood councils, civic groups, clubs, alumni groups, teams, nonprofits, and more. Big Sunday has no religious or political agenda and reaches out to and embraces the participation of all groups, provided it’s done in a spirit of generosity, understanding, open-mindedness and tolerance.

We’ve built and fostered strategic alliances of all sorts to reach out to engage people in many communities, from the mayor’s office to the archdiocese to the Girl Scouts. We’ll continue to do so.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

Big Sunday already has a number of these programs going. This grant would allow us to not just expand those programs, but add new ones, too.

We would evaluate the project in numerous ways:

1) Re-creating Big Sunday’s Community Calendar to be a area-wide listing of events. Success would be measured by: a) creation of online calendar, b) creation of printed calendar, c) creation of common website, d) how many events are listed e) if the listings increased attendance or success for the listee, f) amount of traffic, g) if this led to any kind of ongoing relationship between the helper and the nonprofit, h) becoming self-sustaining through sponsorships and/or advertising, i) whether it led to cooperation between nonprofit groups, j) if it becomes a model for other cities or regions

2) Counting all participants; indetifying repeat and 1st-time participants.

3) Identifying continued civic participation and interaction with people and/or organizations through a connection first made at a Big Sunday event.

4) theBIGlist – a) how many items are listed to be given away, b) how many matches are actually made, c) amount of traffic, d) becoming self-sustaining through sponsorships and/or advertising

5) theARTlist – a) how many events are listed , b) how listing affects attendance at events and, if applicable, sales, c) amount of traffic, d) growth, e) becoming self-sustaining through sponsorships and/or advertising

5) Monthly on Melrose – a) continued success of the program as measured against mission of each event, b) attendance, c) repeat attendance, d) if attendees develop an ongoing relationship with others they’ve meet, e) if attendees maintain a relationship with the nonprofit they’ve helped, f) testimonials of participants, g) growth of the initiative, either through increasing the scope or frequency of the project

6) Continued support and growth of existing programs such as The Big Sunday Holiday List (ways to help at the holidays); The End of the Month Club (our monthly food drive); Everyone Eats, Everyone Wins (community meals at ethnic restaurants throughout town); The Big Sunday Chill Out Express (a party bus that everyone is welcome on and the price of admission is something from the Big Sunday Wish List to help another nonprofit); See Your City Tours (field trips to all different parts of town, and including tours by foot, bike, boat, bus and on horseback)

7) Ability to introduce new initiatives, such asThe Big Sunday Emergency Fund (to meet emergency needs) and W.H.O. (Who Helps Out), an online biography of inspiring unsung people in the community.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Our project will benefit L.A. by making helping easy, accessible and inclusive. More than that, by bringing people of different worlds together in the name of helping, and focusing on what we have it common, it will be clear what we can accomplish when we work together. Finally, by working to make events impactful, rewarding and fun, we will help build a culture of helping and civic engagement.

Along the way, we will fill food pantries, stock classrooms, tend gardens, fix buildings, raise money for worthy causes, and engage, empower, validate and bring together people of all ages, backgrounds and means throughout LA.</p>

We are reluctant to give numbers because then the tail can start wagging the dog. Of course, we understand that goals are important: so we can promise to next year give away 20,000 books or 25,000 pounds of food or 5000 bags of clothing; provide 2500 Christmas toys, or raise thousands of dollars to send kids to camp, fight cancer, or respond to a natural disaster. Host a community dinner for 200 every month, create an annual art show and pet adoption and concert. Hold beautification days at 50 different schools. Make large scale capital improvements at shelters, afterschool facilities, or homes for vets or seniors. Engage 50,000 people a year. All are doable, and we've done them and more.

Here's the thing: Big Sunday is, perhaps, not the youngest or hippest organization out there. And, while we see how important it is to engage young people, we think people can still help after they're 34. Or 54. Or 94. Big Sunday is nothing if not inclusive, reaching out to and including people of all ages and backgrounds and at all socio-economic levels, letting them know that they're wanted and needed, getting them involved, and bringing them together with other good-hearted people.

Full disclosure: We'd considered coming up with some very specific project for this proposal. But having been around for a number of years, we believe that there is no silver bullet. Change comes about through an ongoing, concerted effort. We are proud of the work we do and have done, and an opportunity like this would allow us to continue and expand it. When we started years ago, we said we wanted to be a group that brings people together to make the world a better place, not in response to a catastrophe, or because of a single compelling incident, but because it's the right thing to do. We like to think that we, through the ongoing generosity, goodwill, hard work, humor, dirty hands and big hearts of many, have accomplished that.

Then again, by creating an easily navigated system to both meet and fulfill needs, and by helping to bring together our terrific brethren in L.A.'s helping world, we can greatly expand this culture of caring, concern and compassion, and engage even more people in the process of making life better and easier for all Angelenos.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

There would be an actual space (picture, say, The Beverly Center) devoted to improving the world. It would include social service agencies; places for people of all ages, as well as groups to volunteer; a food pantry for those who need food and those who want to donate it; what is now Macy’s would be a department-store sized high-end thrift store of items of all kinds providing items for both those in need and those wanting a bargain, as well as revenue for a syndicate of nonprofits and jobs for those looking for work; non-profit stores (such as the craft store at the Downtown Women’s Center) and for-profit stores (such as Tom’s) with a social action mission; restaurants like The Homeboy Cafe, where people who need a second chance to have a good job; the space now housing The Grand Lux would be set up like a German beer hall, with family-style tables where locally grown and raised food would be served to people family style and where people could meet someone new; exhibit and performance spaces for nonprofits, schools and individuals to show their work; gathering spaces for people of all walks of life to congregate not just with their friends, but with different people of all ages and backgrounds for events like concerts or singalongs; a no-kill rescue for stray animals; a rooftop sustainable vegetable garden; classrooms and a lecture hall; and a full programming schedule with ways for people to help, both onsite and throughout the city. This would not be a place for rich people to help poor people. It would be a destination spot, welcoming to all, where people could go knowing they would be able to do their part, large or small, to make the world a better place.

There would be smaller branches around town, so different neighborhoods could host events. Because people would now be so used to interacting, no one would have to be afraid of going to a new neighborhood. Instead, people could enjoy meeting new people; discovering a neighborhood’s history; celebrate the talents of those in a new neighborhood; help maintain the neighborhood’s community garden or park; provide company to the area’s elderly or infirm.

Because people will have spent more time interacting, face to face, with people from worlds different than their own, there would be less fear or suspicion and more understanding. People would see firsthand the inequities that poor people face (lesser schools, fewer shopping options, dirtier streets) and be more inclined to do something about it. Because they’d have more interaction with the disenfranchised and lonely (seniors, the ailing, vets), more people would take the time to be sure that these people had more company, and more attention paid. Finally, people who have greater means, would have the opportunity to be seen not just as helpers or donors, but as people with their own hopes, fears and disappointments.

Success would be the elimination of the “other.” It would not be us vs. them; Los Angeles would just be a city of “us.”