There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sun was already invitingly warm at 8 a.m., when I arrived at James Garfield Elementary School in Southeast Washington earlier this month. In the next 30 minutes, more than 200 adult volunteers streamed in from Maryland, Virginia and the District. But, it wasn't until the young schoolchildren arrived, more than 100 of them, that the excitement really began.
The mission was simple: In the space of one day, bring in enough volunteer help and expertise to completely renovate an all-black, inner-city school building, inside and out. Who ya' gonna call? In this case, the Sterling Community Service Foundation and its World Schoolhouse Project.
"I've been wanting to get this type of thing to go on for years," PTA President Cheryl Williams said, smiling at the scene surrounding her. Like a beehive, people swarmed everywhere, each concentrating on his or her task, ready to help the next person. Lots of laughter, teasing, yelling for equipment.
"Getting parents to agree to come out on a Saturday and you don't get paid and we're asking you to rebuild a building to have some pride in your neighborhood. It's a beautiful thing to see," said Ms. Williams, who has three children in the school and three nearing school age.
By time the day was over, the bathrooms received new plumbing; the auditorium was scraped, painted and had new flooring installed; fencing was in place around the entire school; a baseball diamond had been cleaned, plowed, seeded and rolled; murals were painted on school walls; carpeting was installed; and on and on. The school shone, but not as brightly as the smiles on the faces of the children.
This workday was unusual. Most organizations try to keep volunteers for as long a period of time as possible, especially if they have invested in the volunteers' training and skills development.
Yet, unlike so many one-day volunteer projects staged by non-profit organizations, this one was highly successful, leaving everyone involved feeling good -- and exhausted. Why? As I watched the various work groups, I noticed some common elements for success -- and some common lessons for all-volunteer efforts.
* First, and most obvious to anyone walking past Garfield Elementary School that day, was the event's incredible organization. Every volunteer had been asked to bring certain tools, which were tagged and registered immediately upon arrival. Adults and children were registered and assigned to work groups, ranging from outdoor cleanup to plumbing and painting, each one supervised by a knowledgeable captain. Attention to detail extended to meals and walkie-talkies for the safety group.
* Next, like any good volunteer project, the Sterling Community Service Foundation helped Garfield's staff reach out to the broadest array of community groups for help. "The whole idea is really building relationships," Sharyn Herman, co-project leader, said. "Our role is empowering people to take it upon themselves to make things happen."
And happen they did. Part of the planning process involved raising donations of cash and materials. District businesses donated carpeting for the kindergarten and pre-kindergarten rooms, even supplying the labor for installation. Seabees from the Anacostia Naval Center arrived with a crew to erect perimeter fencing for the school, a chore they much preferred over their recent Desert Storm experience.
The local senior center and two community neighborhood groups helped with registration, meals and outdoor work. The police department sent volunteers. A national pizza chain donated 60 pizzas for dinner.
* The event was carefully planned. One of the most satisfying aspects of the project, according to Garfield's Principal James Peal, was the training key people received. "We've been at this since October, first with training in Boston, then monthly meetings here, then biweekly meetings, and lately, weekly meetings." Good volunteer projects don't just happen, they are painstakingly planned.
* Volunteers like to be recognized for their work. Sure, the work itself is its own reward, and the Garfield project was no exception. Volunteers took delight in showing off their own piece of the action, while lavishing praise on other groups. But, at the conclusion of the day, the volunteers were treated to a huge dinner, followed by recognition of their efforts and the dedication of the school staff.
* Finally, one-shot volunteer projects are of dubious value if
there is no carry-over. Good projects teach people to fish. They stimulate, motivate, help people to see exciting new possibilities.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.