Bergen County’s United Way (BCUW) in New Jersey is where I started my non-profit career 24 years ago this month. It turned into my longest tenure at a job, and I have often wondered why I left.
The experiences I had in the non-profit sector, the people I encountered, and the impact on numerous causes I feel I had post BCUW, proved to be extremely rewarding. So, no regrets. Although now having an opportunity to once again be part of the United Way’s work here in Chicago is truly satisfying.
If I had one piece of advice to give someone who wants to move to a new city, it would be “find a job first.” When I came out to Chicago over two years ago knowing only two people here, I had secured only a (very) part-time position, and planned to build my business with the rest of my time. It never occurred to me that two people probably wasn’t a sufficient network to do that.
When I was working for United Way at the beginning of my non-profit career 20 years ago, I first heard the term “Active Community Investor.” While anyone can be a potential donor to charity, these Active Community Investors were the people who were deemed to be our best prospects. They were the people who were already donating their time. They were the volunteer little league coaches, scout leaders, volunteer fireman, and PTA members. They were the people who attended town council meetings, ran races or did walks for charity, or were actively involved in their house of worship.
We should all be Active Community Investors, but sadly this group is probably the minority. But it’s never too late to become one. There are opportunities all around us. If we dare to complain about anything, we are part of the problem if we are not actively part of a solution. I’ve put together a list of where you can start with the easiest to those that take a great deal of commitment. (Also read what I wrote last year about volunteering, here).
Vote. This is by far the easiest way to make your voice heard and engage in your community. Here in New Jersey we have a new Governor to elect on November 7 as well as State Legislators. In my town there is a heated race for two council seats. There are a lot of people with something to say, but about 30% of registered voters in town didn’t vote in last year’s presidential election. This year’s turnout is likely to be a lot less.
Donate. You do not have to be rich to make a donation to a charity or political campaign. $25. $10. $5. These amounts when combined with the small contributions of others add up and can be very impactful. Even my teenage daughter with the income of a part-time job made a small recurring monthly donation to a presidential candidate last year. So the next time you get an email from your cousin asking to support her run or walk, click on the donate button. It will make you feel good and make your cousin feel even better about you. If you’re happy your neighbor decided to run for office to do something about all that’s wrong in town, at the very least, make a donation to show your support.
Just Help. You do not need to be a full-blown volunteer who makes a commitment over the course of months or years and spends hours sitting in meetings to make a difference. Some people have constraints on their time that others do not. Figure out what you can do. Can you just pick up a store bought item for the school bake sale? Maybe volunteer to bring the juice boxes to the soccer game? When my daughter was in elementary and middle school I worked full-time, and spent over two hours everyday commuting. But when I saw a break between positions, I quickly committed to taking on the role of Girl Scout Cookie mom. When the call went out for chaperones for Teen Canteen at the Middle School, I sucked it up and gave up my Friday night.
Volunteer. Every non-profit organization, youth sports team, school, municipality, and special event relies on volunteer time. And it’s always the same people. I was at a meeting for my daughter’s high school Graduation Gala committee a few days ago when one of the moms noted that all the people in the room were most of the same people we’ve been seeing since kindergarten. She was my daughter’s soccer coach in 2010. The chair of the committee and the treasurer were my daughter’s Brownie Girl Scout Troop leaders. And looking around the room I saw lots of familiar faces, fellow chaperones from Teen Canteen and a woman with whom I remember working the snack stand at the park. There were about 50 people in the room, from a pool of close to 400 senior parents. If you are one of the parents who think you can continue to sit things out while your child reaps the benefits, or a citizen that wonders why your candidate didn’t get elected when you didn’t do anything, please reconsider. Your community needs you. Please think about what you can do to personally contribute your time (at the very least see #3).
Serve on a Board. Serving on a board (or even chairing a committee) is volunteering at a higher level. All of the organizations that rely on volunteers also need leaders. This is a time commitment and therefore you need to be involved with an organization that is personally fulfilling and honors your values. I have served on two non-profit boards for over the last 5 years, and have served on running club boards. These are meaningful to me, utilize my skills, and require a time commitment that is manageable. You don’t have to say yes to everything. But do strongly consider the things that are a good fit.
Run for Office. This takes an enormous amount of commitment, as well as courage. Our towns, cities, states, and country cannot function without our elected officials. And we need good elected officials, but most people would never think of running for office. It’s a big commitment of time; it’s a lot of responsibility. Plus we hear our neighbors complain and criticize and most people don’t want to be in the line of fire. As I’ve seen the local Council race heat up, I’ve heard about candidates getting harassing messages from citizens, citizens who chose not to run themselves.
The bottom line is, do something! Set a good example for your children and if you don’t like what’s happening, act. Even if your child is a senior and you’ve never volunteered at any school function, the Graduation Gala committee can still use your help. Even if you’ve never been “political” if there’s a candidate that you really like, they can use your time too. Both of my parents were Active Community Investors (I wrote about them here and here). I’m an Active Community Investor because they were. Although my daughter seems to be annoyed by even my attendance at Back-to-School night, I still know she’s watching. Ultimately, being an Active Community Investor is personally fulfilling and as the kids begin to live their own lives and you have more time, being actively invested in one’s community is a the perfect way to honor your values and fulfill your life’s purpose. There is a community investment opportunity for every area of interest.