#161 Spring 2010 — Organizing Post ACORN

Volunteerism in Community Development: Going Beyond a Helping Hand

The 2008 presidential campaign showed us another side of volunteering. It drew literally millions of people, many for the first time, into the electoral process. But beyond political campaigns, can volunteerism provide increased capacity for communities and community organizations?

Photo courtesy of La Casa of Goshen

Volunteers, taking part in an extensive NSP plan in Goshen, Ind., participate in a volunteer work day organized by La Casa of Goshen.

Image shows volunteers working on a garden in Indiana

Volunteers taking part in an extensive NSP plan in Goshen, Indiana, participate in a volunteer work day organized by La Casa of Goshen. Photo courtesy of La Casa of Goshen

Talk to Jessica Norwood, the youthful founder of the Emerging ChangeMakers Network in Mobile, Alabama, about volunteerism, and she will tell you that, in 2008, the average age of first-time homebuyers was 33, the average age of having a first child was 26, and the average age in the workforce was 40. These are the people who are settling down and getting ready to make commitments to community. She will go on to tell you, “We are promoting volunteerism as a lifestyle: a way of being and doing in the world.”

People volunteer for many reasons. Skilled medical personnel give their time to save lives in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, unemployed computer programmers set up data management systems for their local food banks, residents organize crime watch groups, college students tutor teens, and teens keep younger children out of trouble. All of these and much more are what make up “civil society.” Volunteering brings out the best in people, connects us to each other, and gets things done that might not otherwise get done.

The last presidential campaign showed us yet another side of volunteering. It drew literally millions of people, many for the first time, into the electoral process. Those who worked on the Obama campaign can attest to the level of organization that managed these volunteers, feeding data back to campaign headquarters as soon as a call to a prospective voter concluded.

By the end of that campaign, the economic recession and foreclosure crisis had hit communities across the United States like a sledgehammer. The newly unemployed joined the ranks of restless campaign volunteers looking for outlets for their time and energy. Distressed homeowners began to show up at neighborhood organizations desperate to help stabilize their neighborhoods. And many nonprofits weren’t quite sure what to do with all of these newfound volunteers.

Welcome to the world of volunteering in 2010.

Community-based development organizations hold a special place in this mix. Their missions are about revitalizing low-income communities, making them stable and healthy places for people to live. While most community development organizations focus their work on affordable housing, their stated missions beg the question: How do we engage residents?

Some organizations, like Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) in Ventura, California, integrate resident volunteers into all aspects of their work. Others may have the required one-third resident composition on their board (if they are a federally recognized community housing development organization) and that’s about it. Those in the latter category are missing out on a golden opportunity — or worse.

Volunteerism, when approached as a capacity-building community effort, aligns precisely with community development goals of sustainable, resident-driven neighborhood revitalization. When approached from this perspective, it looks different (sometimes in obvious, other times in nuanced, ways) than more traditional social service volunteerism.

CEDC’s leadership development opportunities present a good model of the type of new capacity created in the community even after the volunteers go home. There’s the typical board and committee work. Then there’s the organization’s partnership with the Gamaliel Foundation and CAUSE, two issue-oriented organizing groups. A year and a half ago, CEDC staff created opportunities for residents of their low-income housing developments to take part in planning a massive community action to draw attention to immigrants’ rights, youth rights, and environmental justice. CEDC staff encouraged participation of residents from three of their developments, Villa Cesar Chavez, Villa Victoria, and Hacienda Guadalupe, in a first planning meeting. The residents received training in outreach, community organizing, and public speaking. By the end of the planning process, these resident leaders committed to bring out 300 to 350 residents and their families. They applied new skills and became part of a successful grassroots effort that brought 800 community members to Oxnard High School to take a stand on critical community issues. This event culminated with a call to action for elected officials, all of whom agreed to work with the community to address their concerns.

There were several key elements that made this community development volunteer opportunity successful, including:

  • Leadership training and skill-building for residents;
  • Capacity building at individual, organizational, and community levels;
  • Educating residents about how personal obstacles are connected to larger, systemic issues;
  • Partnerships that address a broader array of issues than a typical community development organization; and
  • Creating opportunities for action related to systems change.

Working with Nonresident Volunteers

Leadership development and capacity building can also be integrated when the volunteers are not the low-income constituents served by a community development organization.

HomeSight in Seattle, Wash., decided to engage the MLK Business Association as a way to familiarize new community residents with the goods and services available in their ethnically diverse business district. Staff organized a group of residents to go on a tour of the business district, and the MLKBA recruited 10 shops to offer coupons, free samples, and enticing stories about their businesses. Likewise, Georgia Stand-Up in Atlanta works with non-resident volunteers and ensures resident benefit by adhering to fundamental principles that include familiarizing volunteers with the neighborhoods, matching outside volunteers with residents, and integrating advocacy education and organizing opportunities with the volunteer work. For example, Georgia Stand-Up runs a Policy Institute for Civic Leadership that teaches about the city budget process, policy development, and resident engagement in governmental decision making.

Don’t Forget the Youth

In many distressed communities, youth are seen as part of the problem. If we are looking for long-term stabilization, we need to find ways to make them part of the solution.

At Community HousingWorks in Escondido, California, Pablo, an 11-year-old participant in the organization’s Neighborhood Civic Leadership course, used the skills he learned to organize a school-wide project to increase outdoor play among the students.

Paint Not Prison, a youth-based partnership between CEDC and Arts for Action that gives juvenile graffiti offenders a chance to rehabilitate rather than face heavy prison sentences, took seven CEDC youth and six youth on probation through a 16-week course on the arts, the prison system, community organizing, and public speaking. CEDC staff assisted in development of the curriculum and prepared youth for presentations to decision makers, including the Graffiti Task Force, the mayor, and the Probation Department. The youth involved in the program also helped to facilitate a community design process to create the program’s first mural in a blighted area of Oxnard, Calif. Throughout the process, youth learned critical thinking skills as they explored ideas about environmental and social injustice in low-income communities. They also learned outreach skills, public speaking, and mural art techniques. One youth leader stepped up to be coached through city meetings with policy makers to influence decisions regarding graffiti fines.

Alternatives Inc., in Chicago, takes youth volunteerism one step further. The youth in their program identify and develop their own projects and do their own recruitment of other youth to participate. Through this process, Andy Tonachel, one of the adult staff, learned that “we as adults often feel we need to be around. The reality is that we don’t always need to be around. We need to be supportive [of the youth].”

Making the Most of Volunteers During Tough Economic Times

LaCasa of Goshen, Indiana, serves a county that has been hard hit by the current economic recession. Last year, staff and residents decided to launch their own Neighborhood Stimulus Project. Through this project, neighbors hire neighbors for clean-up and fix-up projects large and small. Some of the neighbors who don’t need the money take part as volunteers, working side by side with those who do. Jose Luis Marquez, a member of one of the neighborhood associations who volunteers on weekend clean-up projects, recognizes the multiple levels on which this project revives the community: “In these tough times, it is a good time for people to get together, an opportunity for convivencia [cooperative coexistence].”

Last summer, Community Works Rhode Island tapped into federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to expand opportunities for leadership and workforce training for local youth. The organization partnered with the city of Providence’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism in developing the Healthy Elmwood Team summer employment and training program. This program provided 20 low-income youth with education and community service opportunities centered on the theme of “healthy communities.” The youth carried out community clean-ups, created a mural in a neighborhood park, and participated in trainings on employment skills, financial fitness, civic engagement, healthy nutrition, urban environmental challenges, and conflict resolution. Community members unveiled the team’s mural at a community celebration attended by over 150 community members. The Healthy Elmwood Team has continued into the school year as an after-school leadership training program, engaging eight young residents of CWRI housing in service-learning opportunities for leadership training, active citizenship, and environmental stewardship, using the Americorps Roadmap to Civic Engagement curriculum. Throughout the fall and winter, the team has worked with a local industrial designer to develop a “green” curriculum and kit to teach inner-city families the fundamentals of home energy saving. New Directions Housing Corporation in Louisville, Kentucky, and southern Indiana has a culture of volunteerism that annually involves nearly 2,000 people in service and leadership in home repair, organizing, tutoring, and consultation. Recognition that volunteers bring highly developed skills and uniquely differentiated core competencies led the agency to explore volunteer encouragement in project management and neighborhood revitalization. Some volunteers have followed their interests into paid positions with the agency, most notably two resident leaders who have assumed newly defined staff duties in neighborhood management coordination and neighborhood stabilization. A retiree with previous aircraft maintenance expertise is now overseeing construction management at a multifamily housing community. And board committee leaders seek and manage some of the agency’s most important resource development relationships.

Doing It Right Is Not Always Easy

There are issues that emerge with this shift in focus. Specifically, power dynamics may become exposed that highlight existing disparities in skills, education, or confidence. A resident without a college degree feels undermined by an outside professional who insists he knows the right way to do something. Staff find themselves in a bind when resident volunteers identify priorities for a neighborhood project that don’t correspond with grant requirements. College students get frustrated with the slow pace of collective decision making. Anybody who has worked with volunteers or served as a volunteer has undoubtedly been in one of these situations. None is easy to deal with.

Doing it right means tackling these tensions and power imbalances. Orientation and training for all parties should include discussion about these issues. In fact, this can become an opportunity to learn the historical context that has led to current inequities and to explore ways to productively address them, in real time. Many of the examples above inherently do exactly this.

At a national forum on volunteerism in community development last summer, NeighborWorks asked participants to do a few role plays focused on these power dynamics. Then we asked the group what worked and how they might approach each situation. The consensus was that it’s important to create a safe space to recognize and discuss these dynamics; to assume that people mean well, even if they come across offensively, and that they simply are unaware of the impact of their words or actions; and to remember that whatever role you are in, you should model how to talk about what’s going on.

Sustaining the Effort

The volunteer activities and systems described above are really about creating a culture of resident engagement. NeighborWorks America asks its member organizations across the United States to report on numbers of volunteers and residents engaged in their work. When a local group can report that over 25 percent of the adults in their target community are engaged in the course of a year, we begin to see how this can work. We may never get to 100 percent, but the more opportunities we offer, the closer we can get to that aspiration.

In the end, volunteerism can be key to sustaining our work in community development. It can inform our programs and services, enhance our capacity, and cultivate new leaders and new sources of support. Perhaps most importantly, it feeds the hope and vision that brought most of us to this work in the first place.


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