When Charlotte’s Salvation Army’s shelter for women and children ran out of bed space in June of 2016, it put out a call to the community for donated play pens, sheets and blankets, in hopes infants could use those as beds.
Within five days, the shelter had been given 74 portable play pens, 320 boxes of diapers and 300 boxes of baby wipes from individuals. On top of that, Family Dollar donated a pallet of baby wipes, $500 worth of gift cards, and gave the shelter a $1,000 grant to purchase more play pens.
That’s the way it works in Charlotte, a city that has a reputation for giving back in ways big and small.
The Observer writes regularly about millions of dollars being awarded to charities from the likes of Wells Fargo, Bank of America, the Leon Levine Foundation and Duke Energy. But there are hundreds of small nonprofits in Mecklenburg County and they often have need of something other than grand sums of donated money.
Volunteers are also critical, whether it is for sorting food at Loaves & Fishes, serving hot meals at one of the city’s shelters or moving merchandise at Crisis Assistance Ministry’s Free Store and Furniture Bank.
Charlotte has two recognized leaders when it comes to connecting individuals and groups to volunteer opportunities: United Way’s Volunteer Center and Hands On Charlotte, which partners with charities and manages service projects.
United Way’s Volunteer Center connected about 8,000 individuals and groups to projects last year. Leslie Rink, who heads the program, says those volunteers included corporate and civic groups, religious groups, individuals and families.
The biggest need in Charlotte right now, she says, is for mentors in the schools. “You don’t have to have a skill set. You don’t have to know how to build a house or a wheelchair ramp. All you have to do is have time and a desire to give back and make the world a better place,” she says.
Rink has advice for those considering reaching out to help, having experienced countless calls from folks who aren’t quite sure how volunteering works.
1. Give thought to the kind of volunteer work you want to do. Physical labor? Gardening? Working with the elderly? Mentoring? Reading to children’s groups at the library? “Before you call, think about what you enjoy, what you’re interested in and how you want to try and make a difference,” Rink says. “In some cases, people want to do the exact opposite of what they have done all their life at work.”
2. What hours and days will you be available? An hour a week? A day a month? Weekends only? Holidays only? After work? Options are available in all categories, Rink says, noting some people only volunteer on holidays when most charity workers are home with their own families.
3. Does proximity matter? “You may need to volunteer close to home, or close to work,” Rink says. “If you are going to volunteer to be a lunch buddy for a child at school, you probably want that school to be close to where you work.”
4. Working with children means a criminal background check. Big Brothers and Big Sisters, for example, wants to keep its children safe. If a nonprofit working with children does not require a background check, that’s a red flag, experts say.
5. Treat volunteering as seriously as you would a job. “Once you decide what you want to do and make that commitment, keep your promise,” says Rink. “Many agencies base their staffing on how many volunteers they have coming in that day. If Second Harvest is trying to fill shelves with food, they count on those volunteers to be there and do that.” If you can’t be there, she says, at least call and let the charity know.
6. Can you take it to the next level? The recession cost local charities millions of dollars in donations and they have compensated by trying to get their mission accomplished with fewer paid staff. This means they are searching for volunteers who have skills in finance, fund raising, the legal system, marketing and program implementation. Board members are also highly valued. “We sometimes find retirees who don’t know how to connect with the community after they leave the work place,” says Rink. “They are not ready to retire and still have something to give back, a way to use the skills they’ve honed over the years.”
Mark Price covers philanthropy, nonprofits and immigration for the Observer.
How to connect
Hands On Charlotte: www.handsoncharlotte.org or 704-333-7471.
United Way Volunteer Center: email firstname.lastname@example.org, website uwcentralcarolinas.org/get-involved/volunteer-center, or facebook facebook.com/uwcentralcarolinas.