Volunteerism


When my husband Brad and I got married 7 years ago, we decided to make it priority to squirrel money away every year and make sure that our 2 weeks’ vacation is used for exactly that – vacation.  Each year since then, those two weeks have consisted of:

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1.  A week long road trip teemed with sleeping in unusually shaped hotel rooms, seeing “the world’s largest” something, and taking pictures of our stuffed alligator Terrence with as many national landmarks as possible.

2.  Going to Disney World.
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Brad and I are complete nerds for Disney World.  We ride the rides, get our pictures taken with characters – the whole nine yards.  As a matter of fact, you can ask me on any given day how many days until Disney World (today – 64) and I will be able to tell you.  In January of this year, we decided on a whim to drive down and camp in the Disney campgrounds so we could take advantage of their “get in free on your birthday” offer.  Curious to find out if they were doing that again this year, I did an internet search for “free Disney World ticket 2010” and found something pretty great.

In 2010, instead of offering free tickets to folks on their birthday, Disney World has decided to offer 1 million free tickets to anyone over the age of 6 who performs one full day of volunteer service for a nonprofit.  By partnering with the Hands On Network (which helps potential volunteers find volunteer projects and programs that align their passions within their community), Disney is making it possible for nonprofits to pay back their volunteers with something tangible – and your organization can participate!

Aside from the fact that this program gives nonprofits the opportunity to give their volunteers a tangible thank you gift that they may have never been able to afford, it also will encourage a whole new group of individuals and families who may have never done volunteer work before to serve in their community.   While we hope that people would choose to serve out of the goodness of their hearts, a free ticket to Disneyworld might be just the push some people need to open their eyes to the importance of volunteerism for the first time.   Don’t miss out on this great opportunity to recruit new volunteers!   Visit the Hands On Network’s “Give a Day, Get a Day” page to become involved.
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beebs and these two

Have you heard of the term “slacktivism” yet? Even if you haven’t, I bet you’ve been a participant in some form or another:

“Slacktivism (sometimes slactivism) is a portmanteau formed out of the words slacker and activism. The word is considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.

Examples of activities labeled as “slacktivist” include signing internet petitions, the wearing of wristbands (“awareness bracelets”) with political messages, putting a ribbon magnet on a vehicle, joining a Facebook group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services, or taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day or Earth Hour.” (Wikipedia.com)

Now let’s look at some quotes from critics of slacktivism, who shall remain nameless:

“[Slacktivism is] feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in “slacktivist” campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.”

“Slacktivism allows stupid, apathetic people to con themselves into believing they are helping make the world a better place.”

“Slacktivism is fun, easy, and builds self esteem in a cheap way.”

Now here’s my opinion on the subject, whether you want it or not.

I think it is premature to completely dismiss activities that have been classified as slacktivist. I think slacktivist activities, though different from traditional change-inducing activities, can have value.

In my mind, there is nothing different about gathering to protest in a public square or gathering in a Facebook group to support an opinion. If anything, the online gathering is safer, more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, and has the ability to draw more people. In either case, the objective is getting the attention of the people who have the ability to create the desired change.

Another popular activist activity involves creating and distributing flyers, advertisements, and op-eds. I have to ask: is a written piece any less effective if it is digital? Can a YouTube video not have as much (if not more) impact on a person’s mindset, voting habits, and opinions as a traditional print item? Here again, there are similar benefits to be found in the digital format – greater reach, cost-effectiveness, and environmental friendliness.

A slacktivist is not necessarily a lazy person. I know this because I am one, in large part. Yes, I do participate actively on two nonprofit boards and give to charity occasionally. But in large part, I do not have time or money to spend on getting involved, no matter how supportive I feel about a cause. I work full-time, do web design on the side, am working on my second master’s degree, commute 3 hours per day, and do some board service. I am also married and have a household to keep up with. I eschew most social activities and hobbies because of my schedule. It is unlikely that I will come to a protest or party (though I will wholeheartedly tell other people I know about events). I am environmentally concerned as well, so when someone on the street hands me an informational flyer, I ask if the information is available online and ask for the URL. I do not take a flyer so that I can read it and put it in the trash later.

What I do digitally to perpetuate organizations of my choice is to join and promote Causes on Facebook, tweet and re-tweet interesting information on Twitter, and connect other people to the causes I care about. The main thing I can do for any cause is to draw other people. I have larger social networks than many individuals and, while I may not be your volunteer or donor, someone I know may be. Therefore, I think there’s something to be said for simply standing up for a cause and spreading the word.

To further explore this idea, I created a continuum of activism (below) to compare and contrast levels of participation vs. levels of technology usage in regards to activism:

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When considering the various aspects of activism in this light, there seems to be less difference between slacktivists and people of low involvement (which I have labeled “passive activists” for lack of a better term) than one might think. If a person is going to get involved, he or she is going to get involved. Those who are not, will not. Our challenge, as nonprofit organizations, remains the same as it always has: how do we increase the level of involvement within our base of supporters? I think what throws us off is that we have answered this question for traditional methods of activism. We know how to gain support and there is historical data to show what works, who participates, etc.

I think we have yet to figure out how to effectively engage people using technology, or at least I think that we are mostly infants in these particular skill and mindsets. I also don’t think there is a simple or fast solution to the issue – I think we will have to experience growing pains and pay for our knowledge with our mistakes as is typical of the human condition.

So my final thought, all things considered, is that we should refrain from bashing people for slacktivism. Figure out what your organization can do to increase their involvement in ways that they are able to handle. Ask me to participate in a one-time online focus group. Ask me to donate $5. Ask me to email my senator (and make sure you give me a way to look up the address easily).

A slacktivist might just be the pebble in your organization’s pond that sets off desired change. Don’t ignore or dismiss him or her because of an inability or lack of desire for high involvement.

On Saturday May 30th, sometime around 10 pm, someone decided that they no longer wanted their dog. So, they dumped her over a 6 foot fence into the backyard of an apartment building at the corner of Davis and California Avenue in Brighton Heights. Luckily for this nameless dog, she couldn’t have landed in a better place.

This apartment building (a beautiful old home with turrets that we refer to as “the castle”) belongs to my friend Jeff. Among the castle’s tenants are my friends Matt and Traci (along with their daughter Annan), who noticed a dog in the backyard on Saturday night and called Jeff. That night was a long one – the dog was howling, so Matt and Jeff threw some food over the fence and tried to give her words of encouragement from a safe distance.

Kitty WThe next day, Jeff came to investigate the dog (a black pit-bull), carrying an air horn in one hand, and a can of pepper spray in the other. In the daylight, it was discovered that neither were needed to fend off this dog. The pit-bull was a female who had just had pups, and was an extremely submissive and docile dog who adored people, especially when they rubbed her belly.

More neighbors came to help – Shayne and Lisa, who lived next door to the castle, came armed with dog food, and volunteered to take the dog to Animal Friends to see if she was chipped. (They did, and she was not – there’s no way of ever finding out who dumped her or why.) By the time my husband Brad and I got caught wind of this dog on Monday, the small team of neighbors had already made her a shelter out of an old futon mattress and tarp, and she had unofficially been dubbed the new neighborhood mascot.

Brad and I decided to bring “Kitty” home with us (she seemed like a classy lady so we named after Ms. Kitty Wells, queen of country music) where she has been ever since. She has a clean bill of health from the vet, and will be staying with us at least through the end of the month until she is fully recovered from her spaying surgery thanks to the wonderful folks at Hello Bully. She dines on food and plays with toys donated by Shayne and Lisa, is walked regularly by Jeff (who refers to her as his “step-dog”), and is doted upon by the whole gang of neighbors who found her.

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Whenever I walk her, I’m usually stopped by someone and asks something like, “Hey…is that the dog that was abandoned in Jeff’s yard?” (Word travels fast!) When I reply that she is, it’s always followed up with something like, “What a great dog! Wonder why her owner got rid of her?” Good question. I have no idea why Kitty was dumped, but as I said before, she couldn’t have been abandoned in a better place. I have a feeling that the love she has been given in the last 2 weeks by our small gang of neighbors is more than she had ever received in her life. Way to go, Brighton Heights!

soy milkWhen I realized that my daughter was lactose intolerant, I looked into buying a soy milk maker.  But thebeer-mugy’re almost $200…  But, our neighbor has one. We brew our own beer, which is a something she doesn’t make, nor does she want to invest in the equipment.  So we built an exchange. 

 So every monday evening, we exchange a bottle of beer for a quart of soy milk.  Everyone says that she’s getting the better end of this deal, but I need the soy milk!  I’ve always liked the sweet soy milk that you buy at the store, but I wasn’t fond of the unsweetened variety.  But now, my husband and I often look forward to the warm, fresh soy milk to make hot chocolate. (OK, it’s still sweet, but fresh soy milk is good!)

Nonprofits have been good at coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems for a long time. Several nonprofits went in together to share an HR staff member–something none of them could afford by themselves.  POWER, Bethlehem Haven and the Center for Victims of Violent Crime created this joint position to handle the increasingly difficult HR issues that arise.

After I pick up my soy milk, (this time on a Monday morning) I’m headed for my volunteer shift at the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library–a cooperative started over 34 years ago for families to have a safe place to play with developmentally appropriate toys for children ages 6 and under.  It is open six days a week and has no paid staff.  Because of its proximity to Oakland, there is an incredibly internationally diverse group of families who frequent the “Library”.  Long term friendships are developed between parents.  Babysitting leads are shared, playdates are arranged, parenting advice is easily discussed.  It is one of the unsung gems in Pittsburgh.  It is a major parental stress reliever.  But it is an incredibly creative solution to a lack of funding for staff–and a way to make all families invest because it is THEIR center.

Let’s keep thinking creatively.  Now my neighbor and I are considering bees & chickens… honey and eggs.  Yummmm.

There are many ideas coming out of the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh–I’d love to hear some more stories!

Congrats to Gavin from Western PA Conservancy, the latest winner of our blog comments contest and of a 1 GB USB drive.  This is the last week of our contest, so get your comments in before June 1!


Sometimes I stay up later than I should at night, Googling things that worry me and thinking about the various wrongs in the world.  I have been an activist in various capacities since my high school days, but as I age I find myself becoming more acutely aware of issues, concerns, and problems plaguing our planet, its people and animals.  At times, I feel overwhelmed with the amount of work that needs to be done for things to improve.  I wonder if we are all simply beating our head against the walls.

I was in one of these contemplative (pessimistic) moods on the evening before I started to draft this blog post.  At one point, a lyric from an older U2 song entered my brain:  “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.”  That sent my thought train down a different track.  I think this mentality – small, personal change – is probably the key to improving life on our planet and would be more effective than anything all the collective nonprofits in the world could possibly accomplish.  Suspend reality for a moment and imagine if every single person on this planet took personal responsibility for action, justice, and change in all arenas.  Imagine a world where everyone made an effort to make the world a better place in small ways, rather than leave it to the nonprofit sector to fix things.

Then I started making a mental list of small things we could all try to do to make the world a better place.  Here’s my top 9.  (I tried to get to 10 and ran out of steam.  As previously mentioned, this was drafted late at night.)

  1. Vote. Voting is one of our privileges and responsibilities as US citizens.  Always remember that there are many people in the world who are not given this simple right and that we should be grateful that we are able to choose.  Educate yourself as a voter, learn about the candidates and their platforms – don’t just vote for the people with the most prominent roadside campaign signs.  The League of Women Voters is a great advocacy organization to get you started in the right direction – http://www.lwv.org/.
  2. Volunteer. Nonprofits need volunteers now, more than ever.  If you have an interest, a talent, or a skill to share, chances are there is a nonprofit out there that can use you.  There are many ways to volunteer.  Check out http://www.volunteermatch.org for volunteer opportunities in your neighborhood.
  3. Recycle. Even if you only recycle on a limited basis, perhaps only office paper or only cans, it’s better to recycle those items than not at all.  Every little bit that doesn’t go into a landfill counts.  Keep in mind that re-using and re-purposing items you own counts towards the greater good as well as recycling.  Give things to a friend, a church, or a thrift store.  Have a yard or garage sale.  Find a creative new use for an old item.  For information on recycling centers near you and information on how to recycle, visit http://earth911.com/.
  4. Go vegetarian and buy cruelty-free products. I’m a recent vegetarian thanks to PETA’s Vegetarian Starter Kit, available at http://www.goveg.com/ORDER.ASP.  The cruelty of factory farming is a reality for thousands of animals in our country and we may not be able to save them all, but we can cease contributing to the problem by going meatless or buying from family farms.  If you absolutely do not want to give up meat, at least find a local, non-factory farm source at which you can get it cruelty-free.  A great site for this is www.buylocalpa.org, which lists fresh, local, and organic food sources and restaurants.
  5. Support small and local business. Yes, Wal-Mart and other big-box stores are convenient because they are often one-stop shopping.  I sometimes shop at those types of stores too, but I’m finding more and more that I can frequently get the same products from local grocers and other vendors for nearly the same price.  In addition, frequenting a small, local business is like the bar on the 80s TV series Cheers –where everybody knows your name.  Supporting local business is good for our regional economy because it keeps the money here instead of sending it to the home office of a corporation in another state.  A bunch more reasons can be found here:  http://www.newrules.org/retail/why-support-locally-owned-businesses.
  6. Reduce your carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is a measurement of your activities and how they relate to the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  You can calculate a carbon footprint to gauge how environmentally-friendly you, your household, or your business is.  (You want to see lower numbers here.)  A side benefit of lowering your carbon output is that it also saves money!  Calculate your carbon footprint and learn more here:  http://www.carbonfootprint.com/.
  7. Smile more. This may sound simple-minded, but think about it.  It costs you nothing to do this and help brighten the day for those around you.  There are a myriad of other benefits as well:  http://thinksimplenow.com/happiness/the-art-of-smiling/.
  8. Take care of your piece of the planet. Keep your home in good repair, pick up trash blown or thrown into your yard, and keep your office or workspace neat and attractive (as possible).  Basically, just try to leave things in better shape than you find them.  There are tons of resources online available to you:  http://www.doityourself.com/, http://www.diynetwork.com/, http://www.onlineorganizing.com/, etc.
  9. Buy less “stuff.” We are a consumption-oriented society.  It’s no wonder; with all the choices we have available to us in the stores and online.  Owning “stuff,” however, takes up your time, space, and psychic energy.  All the things we own require a degree of maintenance and the more things we own, the higher the collective maintenance will be.  Don’t buy into the gotta-have-the-latest-thing mentality. There’s a reason that companies spend billions annually on advertising – don’t fall for it.  Buy “stuff” when you actually need “stuff.”  Learn more: http://www.sustainablestyle.org/blog/2006/10/sustainable-lifestyles-a-z-buy-less.

******  I know there will people reading this post that will say “but that’s unrealistic – we can’t expect people to act this way.”  I never claimed to be a realist here.  (They call us “idealists” for a reason.)  If we don’t dream big and expect change, it’s definitely not going to happen. ******

For each item on this list, there are dozens, probably hundreds, of nonprofits out there already attempting to address the issue.  As much as the nonprofit sector is my bread and butter too, we cannot continue to rely solely upon charitable organizations for change.  We have to take steps as individuals.

Everyone knows and loves the Margaret Mead quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  I like this one as well:  “I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.”

What could you be doing to make the world a better place?  Don’t just think about it…start doing it, even if it’s a small thing.  Paraphrasing author Terry Goodkind:  be the pebble thrown into the pond – the small object (you) that eventually causes great ripples (changes) in the pond (our world).


Have a question or something to add to this post?  Leave a comment, and you’ll be entered to win a 1 GB USB drive.  One winner per week through the end of May.

SHE-roes abound for many of our readers…what a joy it has been to read of other people’s women they admire and celebrate!  We are compiling  a list of  recommended she-roes and I’m beginning to dream about writing a book to admire and lift up the idealistic and generous women who have made our lives rich and full…especially those who have worked tirelessly in the nonprofit sector.

Today I have the great fun of going to talk to the Magee Hospital volunteers…these amazing women have contributed more than 47,000 hours of service this year!  If you use the number developed by the Independent Sector for the value of a volunteer’s hour ($20.25 in 2008), these folks have contributed nearly $1 MILLION of additional service, kindness, hospitality and love to the women treated at Magee Hospital. 

But I am especially proud to talk to them because I am the daughter-in-law (36 years this week!) of Betty Jo Outon who has won her 10,000 hour pin and worked for almost 21 years at St. David’s Hospital in Austin, TX.  My darling mother-in-law is the Holy Grail of volunteerism – courteous to a fault, dependable as the mail, a professional serving without pay.  Whenever we visit, her freshly pressed Robin’s uniform is hanging from some door, waiting to go to work.  Women of her generation have shown so much generosity beyond self…it’s so quiet…and it’s so important to how our institutions can be human and effective…so a big Happy Mother’s Day to all those wonderful women…

And remember your nominations for SHE-roes are making my days bright and happy – and keep ’em coming!  We’re working every day to try to shine a bright light on women and their work as we are privileged to experience with them at the Bayer Center…

Much love, Peggy

Congratulation to Chad Stacy of  Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, the latest weekly winner of our blog contest!  Chad has won a 1.0 GB USB drive.  (To enter in this random drawing, simply post a comment to any article on our blog now through May 31.)


Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns.
~Author Unknown

The kindness of others never ceases to amaze me – particularly during difficult times. Last night, while I performed my nightly ritual of bonding with Brian Williams, a news story reminded me about the power of generosity.

Over the last few months, we’ve been inundated with stories of personal hardships. We hear a lot about the mortgage crisis, the credit crunch, the soaring unemployment rate – but are we ignoring the losses of life’s simpler pleasures? For instance, what about the students who have waited years for the prom? Have we forgotten about a dream that is now out-of-reach for many students?
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Well, not in a small town in Connecticut where a high school assistant principal recognized the prohibitive cost of prom. With the help of three teachers, they transformed the Spanish room into an upscale boutique, complete with donated evening wear, accessories, and shower curtained dressing rooms.

For the pre-owned and donated dresses, girls paid what they could afford. In some cases, this amounted to $20 – in other cases, it was free. Any proceeds were used to supplement the purchase of additional accessories. And the generosity didn’t stop there. Local vendors, such as dry cleaners, nail and hair salons also donated their services.

One small town pulled together – demonstrated absolute generosity and kindness – to ensure that their high school students have a night to remember. Pretty incredible.

Have a question or something to add to this post? Leave a comment, and you’ll be entered to win a 1 GB USB drive. One winner per week until the end of May.

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