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Karen Eber Davis

About Karen

Become a Volunteer Magnet to Reduce Your Expenses

“Beating the mouse” is the goal of volunteer experiences at the Houston Food Bank according to Brian Greene, President and CEO. “The mouse” is a day at a Disney theme park. Almost all nonprofits offer volunteer experiences. Few design operations, buildings, and processes with the goal of offering better-than-vacation-day ones.

The value of creating extraordinary volunteer experiences includes tremendous community branding, and something critical to the food bank: reduced labor costs. Envision organizing seventy million pounds of food a year. You must sort the contents of thousands of collection barrels, sacks of rice big enough for three adults to stand inside, fresh produce in danger of spoiling, and a mishmash of donated goods from grocery stores. Last year over 23,500 individuals volunteered at the Houston Food Bank. They contributed two hundred thousand hours. “What we have done,” explains Greene, “can be used elsewhere. It’s scalable.”

How It Works

How does the Houston Food Bank obtain volunteer help? Staff designs its operations and infrastructure to support volunteers and introduce people to the Food Bank. To accommodate volunteers, it is open twenty-two hours a day. It offers a state-of-the-art sorting center. Here a mechanical contraption brings volunteers baskets of food to sort —baskets are used because they are more engaging than conveyor belts. Not only is the work engaging, it’s also valuable. Each hour of volunteering is valued at seventy-five dollars because of the food that it provides.

Moreover, the complex is designed to make sure thousands of new people know about the food bank each year. Its footprint includes a conference center similar to those at college campuses that can support one thousand participants. The food bank provides it to businesses and community groups at cost. Conference attendees see the food bank at work. When a conference involves teamwork, they can go down to the sorting floor while other participants watch them implement new skills from an overhead viewing area.

The food bank’s design also includes skilled labor. A job-training program offers people recently released from prison on parole or probation work in the warehouse. With the help of several government agencies, trainees learn job skills and how to use state-of-the-art-warehouse equipment. Here again the work preformed reduces the food bank’s labor costs.

The Essentials of the Approach

The Houston Food Bank designed its infrastructure and programs to reduce the road block that kept them from doing more mission. The strategy bypasses the need for cash and directly obtains needed labor by creating engaging opportunities. The approach is renewable. Volunteers who love the experience return. The infrastructure also educates over twenty thousand people a year about hunger. It creates donors, often for life.

Six Steps Nonprofits Can Take to Explore This Approach

  • Answer the following: “Big picture, what stops you from doing more mission?” If you reply, “money,” then answer this question: “If you had money what would you buy?” If you reply staff, answer this: “What exactly would they do?”
  • Gather ideas about how you might obtain the resource. The food bank became a volunteer magnet and it developed a warehouse job-training program. To start, collect at least a dozen ideas. Expand your list as you work.
  • Organize your ideas into areas, such as skilled and unskilled labor. Within these categories gather the easy-to-implement ideas, such as starting a family night; and first-step ideas, such as collecting emails. Pull out the ideas that need to be added to strategic-plans, such as adding a conference center for long-term actions.
  • Select one area on which to focus. The Food Bank of Houston needed all kinds of help. At first, it didn’t build a conference center or add a job-training program. It improved volunteer opportunities one experience at a time. From this base, it created a system that generates two hundred thousand hours of help yearly.
  • In your focus area, combine an easy-to-implement idea with a first-step one. Start. For instance, you start a quarterly family event where everyone who can read sorts food. Non-readers make cards to include in food baskets. During the event you incorporate a first-step idea, collecting emails. After the event, you use them to send thank you notes, add them to your newsletter, and send early invitations to the next event.
  • Keep up the momentum. Gather more ideas. Study the work of others. Improve your opportunities one increment at a time. Beat the mouse.

This month’s strategy explores an ingenious approach to obtaining volunteer resources to allow you to do more mission. Next month in my column "Your Ingenious Nonprofit," you will learn about obtaining corporate dollars by creating scholarship-like opportunities.


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