Harvest campaign means happiness for one volunteer


February 22, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

This is one of those weeks that Larry Adam looks forward to with glee. Over the course of the next week, the letter carriers of the Baltimore District of the United States Postal Service will collect nonperishable food from their customers.

So, why is Larry Adam so happy?

Adam is one of the founders and a leading volunteer for the Harvest for the Hungry program, putting in more than 20 hours to help feed the needy in a typical week. Last year the postal workers collected an astounding 670,000 pounds of food for the Harvest for the Hungry campaign -- food that was given to the Maryland Food Bank and other food banks around the state for distribution to the needy.

To earn a living, Adam is a senior vice president for investments at Dean Witter's downtown office. I spoke with him and other devoted volunteers to explore what motivates people to commit such large blocks of time to the causes they espouse.

To be sure, the Larry Adams of the volunteer world are far and too few between. Only a small percentage of volunteers end up putting in such considerable time and energy. Still, there are lessons that we can all learn from what motivates these people to volunteer. With careful planning, nonprofits can structure workplace conditions and programs to draw in these committed people.

"The best situation is when an organization creates what I call a win-win-win program," Adam says. "In the Harvest program the poor benefit, the groups that help -- like the Postal Service -- benefit, and the individual volunteer benefits."

In the Harvest program, for example, the poor have benefited enormously from the work of its hundreds of volunteers. Last year, a record 1,644,000 pounds of food was raised, more than the prior five years combined.

The wonderful thing about these results is that they were achieved through a truly grass-roots effort, led by Adam, who had never before volunteered for a nonprofit, and four other program advisers. "I think the key thing is that there needs to be a real enthusiasm about the mission," Adam explains. "People have to believe there is a real need for what the organization does."

Too often a nonprofit simply assumes that the volunteer recognizes the need for its services, without providing visible evidence of that need. Volunteers should be constantly apprised of client needs and successful ways the organization addresses those needs.

Another tip that Adam provided is that organizations should try to help volunteers be part of something they can see. In the case of Harvest, people might print fliers, call on neighbors, gather nonperishable food items or transport them to a food bank.

The challenge for many nonprofits is to structure experiences that help volunteers feel part of a service delivery team. That is often more difficult than it sounds, especially with organizations that do not have the luxury of structuring physical, hands-on tasks that show an immediate payoff.

"Volunteers are people, too," one very devoted volunteer told me. Volunteers like to know that they can make a difference.

Hunger is something we read about in the news every day. We are daily painfully reminded of it when we spend time downtown. Yet, aside from sending a check to our local food bank, we are many times frustrated that there is so little we can do about it.

Harvest offers a very real, very tangible way the ordinary citizen can get involved today and make a difference in someone's life tomorrow.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md, 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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