The word philanthropy has got some negative connotations as well as positive ones.
While the original meaning of philanthropy comes from the Greek philanthrōpos, meaning love and humanity or love for human kind(1), today philanthropy is often seen as something else. Instead of altruistic act or gesture done in the name of love for humanity, the word philanthropy invokes the perspective of a separation of the giver and the receiver. In this perspective, the “philanthropist” donates his/her time or money to a cause or an issue that does not directly relate to or affect them. Instead, those who can afford the “luxury of giving”, give as a way to assuage feelings of guilt, without really caring about root causes or related problems. “Philanthropy” from this paradigm, recalls issues of race,class, and privilege. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said,
Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.
Philanthropy as solidarity can mean giving of your time and money to help create a counter-force to existing systems of injustice. This means showing solidarity in the public sphere as well as actively giving and participating to build the kind of systems we do want in our communities; consistently asking ourselves: “What kind of society do we want to build? and What is our role in that vision?”
This season, how can you use your philanthropy to show solidarity?
The first board position I ever held was , naturally, on the board of the nonprofit I helped create, Gardening the Community(GtC). This however was not the first board I had worked with. When the project was still under a larger organization (NOFA/Mass) we answered to their board. It was the first time I really had experience in seeing how a board functioned. In grad school I learned more about board governance and stewardship, which came in extra handy as GtC began to put together its first advisory board.
I learned that boards were essentially the guardians of the organization and had a responsibility to the health and care of the org and its stakeholders.
Putting together an organization’s first board is no small feat. (Establishing a solid structure to the board eventually required outside intervention from a skilled consultant.) When putting together GtC’s board, we chose people in our community who had contributed in some way to the organization and had a sense of who we were and where we were trying to go. Some had served on boards before and some like me, were first-timers.
While it seems more people are choosing to serve on boards these days, many people still shy away from joining a board, believing that they take up too much time, are a waste of time, disorganized, require expertise, or are an unnecessary liability. I’m not going to lie, some of this can be true of some organizations (I’ll talk more about the liability stuff later), but it’s all about finding the right fit, after-all board service is just another form of volunteer/community service.
Why Join Serve? Board members not only watch over the organization, they increase the capacity of the organization. As we’ve mentioned, many, many, many times before, CBOs are often under-staffed and under-resourced. A good board can help raise or contribute funds to the organization, contribute or source in-kind donations/services, or recruit other volunteers. If you’re passionate about a cause serving on the board of a CBO addressing that issue can be a great way to make an impact, since you are enabling the organization to be more effective in their work.
Be Willing to Work / Be Willing to Commit Don’t just join a board for the status. Be there to contribute your time and your talent. Find out what the requirements are up front. How often is the board required to meet? What roles and responsibilities do board members hold? Remember, you don’t need to be the expert but you should be willing to show up, participate, and follow-through.
Board Culture is REAL! Every board has a different “flavor”. Some boards can be super conservative in their functioning and others more laid back. At GtC, food is ESSENTIAL to any board meeting. Since, as an organization, we believe in the value of good food and its role in our lives, there’s always an emphasis on providing and sharing food at meetings. (No cheese and crackers for us!) Because we also value youth leadership, at least 3 members of our board are youth. Since you’ll be spending a substantial amount of time with people on the board, find out if it’s the right kind of crowd for you.
Committee Yourself First Find out if you can join a board committee first. Board committees handle board tasks that are too big or complicated to be handled by the entire board and require a smaller more agile team to work on them. Committees meet separately from the board and work on small projects and submit suggestions to the board for approval. Committees are often made up of a few board members and non-board volunteers. Committee work can be a great way to get a sense of how the board operates and the challenges facing the organization.
What to Watch Out For (This is that pesky liability part). Some boards carry not only an ethical responsibility but a legal responsibility to the organization. This has largely to do with the fact that board members are stewards of a public resource. A public resource with a federal status designation. It is not their money they are managing. Therefore boards can be held legally accountable for mismanagement and maleficence. You should 1) Find out if the board carries Board of Director’s insurance. 2) Find out if there is a fiscal sponsor that holds this liability. 3) Find out how the funds of the organization are managed and how often the status of those funds are reviewed by the board, before agreeing to serve.
A good board should provide proper orientation for new members or at the very least be willing to seek out or offer resources to to new members to help transition them into their new role.
Advocating for volunteerism and community service is a huge passion of mine. (If you haven’t noticed already.) The rewards are endless and its had a huge impact my life, both as a recipient and a giver. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be involved your community but didn’t know how. Perhaps you thought you needed some kind of previous experience or needed to belong to a group of some kind in order to participate in a community service activity. While this may be true of some opportunities, this isn’t always the case.
I write a lot about tips for community-based organizations. You’ll notice I’ll often point out the impact volunteers make on any CBO with limited resources. This post is dedicated to all you would-be volunteers out there, just itching to get out there and make a difference!
First, Why would you want to volunteer? (I thought you’d never ask…)
Volunteering can literally be one of the best ways to learn about and become part of a community. Not only can you learn about the work of the organization, you can also get a better idea of the issue(s) facing that community as well as those who benefit from the organization’s goods or services.
Volunteering can also be an excellent professional development tool; teaching soft skills like communication, self-confidence, acting as a team player and problem solving as well as hard skills like public speaking, software proficiency, or logistics planning.
Volunteering can help you become a better advocate for causes that you’re passionate about. Care about building healthy communities? Volunteer at a community garden. Concerned about urban poverty and social welfare? Volunteer at a soup kitchen or community resource center. Want to know more about public policy? Volunteer at a community action organization working on “getting out the vote” or grassroots organizing.
There are no shortage of opportunities available to get involved in your community.
Where to start? Think about what it is you have to offer. What skills do you already possess? Perhaps you’re in need of an opportunity that doesn’t require extensive experience, certifications, or skills (we all have to start somewhere). Next, think about the kind of organization you would like to volunteer with. Are you looking for something outdoors? Or would you prefer something at a desk? Do you need more or less structure? Is your specialty working with seniors or youth? (Keep in mind some positions will require a background check to work with certain demographics.) Lastly, think about how much time you are able to commit and be realistic. It’s better to under commit than over commit. There are volunteer opportunities that range from one-time or event-based needs to more on-going positions.
Organizations like Volunteermatch, Idealist, and Volunteen Nation maintain huge databases of opportunities with search tools that make it easy for you to find a great match. Even your local United Way may have a listing of community-based organizations in need of volunteers and suitable for your skills and time-frame.
Still the D.I.Y. approach can also work, as some organizations may not be listed on any database for various reasons. In this case you can simply find an organization you’d like to volunteer with and inquire as to whether they’re looking for volunteers. (You’ll rarely hear no.) Be clear about what it is you have to offer and the the time you have available. It may be helpful to have all of this information handy on a sheet of paper that you can leave with the organization, along with your contact information.
Remember… Be sure to listen carefully to what the organization’s needs are as well. Just because you’re offering “free labor” it doesn’t mean it’s the kind of help the organization may need at that time. There may be other indirect ways you can help. Be respectful and professional. Even though you aren’t being “paid” to do the job it doesn’t mean you should be any less respectful of the organization’s policies and environment.
Not all opportunities go smoothly the first (or second or third) time around. Your chosen organization may not have everything perfectly laid out for you or may take some time working you into the routine. (If they were perfect they probably wouldn’t need you.) Don’t get discouraged. While not every opportunity ends up being a good fit, you may find that others just need a bit more patience. Remember why you are there and be prepared to serve.
A few weeks ago I got a call to come down and check out a school garden at the Peck-Lawrence School in Holyoke, MA. Since my background in Urban Agriculture, it’s not uncommon to be contacted on topics related to urban gardens.
At first I thought it was a little odd to do a garden site visit in the middle of winter. Most school gardens in this area are pretty dormant during this time of year, but I went anyway. Boy, was I glad I did.
This is how I came to meet Gerardo Muñoz and his “El Yunque”.
El Yunque (named after an actual National Forest reserve in Puerto Rico) is the Tropical Garden project at Peck-Lawrence School run by, outreach worker, Gerardo Muñoz. Quite a few people pass through El Yunque, always commenting on the breathtaking view and the ambiance that Muñoz personally works to create. Upon entering the classroom space, the visitor is immediately transported into a tropical oasis filled with rare and distinct plants similar to that of the real El Yunque.
In addition to the trees and plants Muñoz displays different artifacts from Puerto Rican culture and refers to them throughout his presentation. Muñoz believes that by creating spaces like El Yunque youth and other community members are given the opportunity to learn about various aspects of Puerto Rican heritage and the role the plants play in that heritage.
The garden has been featured in many local publications including Mass Live. The entire project run and funded by Muñoz, who utilizes donations from various community resources, to keep El Yunque going. Donations of plant pots, soil, plants, garden decorations, and monetary contributions are always accepted.