Recently, I volunteered at the San Francisco Food Bank (@SFFoodBank). I joined the Northern California chapter of my college’s alumni association and spent two hours sorting, packing and sealing one-pound bags of rice.
The rice would be going to partner organizations, to be prepared and served on Thanksgiving. Volunteering at the food bank was quite rewarding — and at the same time, it taught me a number of things about volunteerism. Let’s explore further.
1) Together, we can solve big problems.
Image: My volunteer group at San Francisco Food Bank.
I was delighted to see well over 60 volunteers participate in our volunteer session. In addition to our alumni group, there were college students, individuals and families. Broad and complex issues exist (e.g. hunger, homelessness, etc.) but together, with the spirit of volunteerism, I think we can make a difference.
2) Break large and complex problems into solvable chunks.
Image source: The Global Food Banking Network.
A fairly sophisticated supply chain helps to feed the hungry. Suppliers donate food items to food banks, volunteers help process and package the donated food, the food banks distribute the food to partner organizations and the partner organizations prepare the food and provide them directly to those in need.
In addition, national and global organizations exist to provide services across entire networks of food banks. One such example is Feeding America. So in short, no one organization does it all. Instead, organizations exist inside a supply chain and play a particular role. They receive input from another organization and drive output (which becomes input to yet another entity).
At the San Francisco Food Bank, we used another sort of supply chain, in the form of an assembly line. The volunteers at each table had defined roles:
- Pour rice from large bags into a bin.
- Approximate one pound of rice (into a bag).
- Measure the bag to precisely one pound.
- Seal the bag.
- Confirm the seal and pack the bags into a box.
- Seal the boxes.
3) Be specific about the impact of volunteering.
SF Food Bank (@SFFoodBank) November 21, 2012
While sorting and sealing the one pound bags of rice, we were told that rice would be prepared and served on Thanksgiving. So each bag that we packaged could feed one person (or more). At the end of our shift, we were told that the group collectively packaged 3,360 one-pound bags of rice.
So we did a small part in helping thousands of people get a Thanksgiving Day meal. Knowing the specific impact of your effort makes the volunteering more rewarding – and, encourages you to come back again. Next time, perhaps, you’ll sort meats that will go to feed thousands more.
Similarly, I love the model of DonorsChoose.org, a web site that accepts donations for specific classroom needs (posted by the classroom teacher). With charitable giving, you sometimes don’t know where your donation is going. With DonorsChoose, it’s just the opposite, as your donation funds a particular need – and, you’ll even receive a progress report from the classroom.
4) Be specific about the impact of donations.
Speaking of donations, food banks depend on financial donations. And right up front, the San Francisco Food Bank tells you the impact of your donation: “For every $1 you donate we’ll distribute $6 worth of food!”
Similarly, Feeding America shows different donation amounts, along with the number of meals they can purchase:
5) Encourage participation by groups.
I performed my volunteer shift along with my college’s alumni group. I also saw families (including kids!) and groups of college students. Encouraging volunteerism via groups is a win/win, as more people participate, which means that more people go home and spread the word. In addition, a group volunteering activity can bring the group (i.e. a family) closer together.
Volunteering at the food bank convinced me that we can make an impact on the world, a dent in the universe. This Thanksgiving, in fact, the San Francisco Food Bank delivered over one million pounds of food! The great thing about volunteerism is that it’s so easy to get involved. If you don’t have time, consider donating money. If you don’t have money to spare, consider sparing some time.
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