“Beating the mouse”
is the goal of volunteer experiences at the Houston Food Bank, according to Brian Greene, President, and CEO. “The mouse” is a day at a Disney theme park. Almost all nonprofits offer volunteer experiences—few nonprofits design operations, buildings, and processes to provide better-than-vacation-day ones.
The value of creating extraordinary volunteer experiences includes tremendous community branding and something critical to the Food Bank: reduced labor costs. Envision organizing 70 million pounds of food a year. You must sort the contents of thousands of collection barrels, sacks of rice big enough for three adults to stand inside, fresh produce in danger of spoiling, and a mishmash of donated goods from grocery stores. Last year over 23,500 individuals volunteered at the Houston Food Bank. They contributed 200,000 hours. “What we have done,” explains Greene, “can be used elsewhere. It’s scalable.”
How does the Houston Food Bank obtain volunteer help? Staff designs its operations and infrastructure to support volunteers and introduce people to the Food Bank. To accommodate volunteers, it is open 22 hours a day. It offers a state-of-the-art sorting center. Here a mechanical contraption brings volunteers baskets of food to sort. The Food Bank uses baskets because they are more engaging than conveyor belts. Not only is the work interesting, but it’s also valuable. The food bank values each volunteer hour at $75 because of the organized food volunteers create.
Moreover, the building site was designed to make sure thousands of new people know about the Food Bank each year. It’s footprint includes a conference center similar to those on college campuses that can support 1,000 participants. The Food Bank provides it to businesses and community groups at cost. When someone attends a conference, they see the Food Bank at work. If the conference involves teamwork, visitors can go down to the sorting floor while others watch them implement new skills from an overhead viewing area.
The Food Bank’s design also includes skilled labor. A job-training program offers people recently released from prison on parole or probation work in the warehouse. With the help of several government agencies, trainees learn job skills and how to use state-of-the-art-warehouse equipment. Here again, the work performed reduces the Food Bank’s labor costs.
The Houston Food Bank designed its infrastructure and programs to reduce the roadblock that kept them from doing more mission. The strategy bi-passes the need for cash and directly obtains needed labor by creating engaging opportunities. The approach is renewable. Volunteers who love the experience return. The infrastructure also educates over 20,000 people a year about hunger. It creates donors for life.
1. Answer the following: “Big picture, what stops you from doing more mission?” If you reply, “money,” then answer this question: “If you had money, what would you buy?” If your reply is staff, answer this: “What exactly would they do?”
2. Gather ideas about how you might obtain the resource. The Food Bank decided to become a volunteer magnet, and it developed a warehouse job-training program. To start resourcing your need, collect at least a dozen ideas. Expand your list as you work.
3. Organize your ideas into areas, such as skilled and unskilled labor. Within these categories, gather the a) Easy-to-implement ideas, like starting a family night; b) First-step ideas, like collecting emails. Extract ideas for your strategic plans, like adding a conference center.
4. Select one area on which to focus. The Food Bank of Houston needed all kinds of help. At first, they didn’t build a conference center or add a job-training program. They improved volunteer opportunities one experience at a time. They created a system that generates 200,000 hours of help yearly from this base.
5. In your focus area, combine an easy-to-implement idea with the first-step one. Start. For instance, you start a quarterly family event. At it, everyone who can read sorts food. Non-readers make cards to include in food baskets. During the event, you incorporate the first-step idea, collecting emails. After the event, you use them to send thank you notes, add them to your newsletter, and send early invitations to the next event.
6. Keep up the momentum. Gather more ideas. Study the work of others. Improve your opportunities one increment at a time. Beat the mouse.
For more answers, check out this Nonprofit CEO Library.
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Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.
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