Monday, January 6, 2014

Creating Engagement: How UWCW’s Hands On Greater Portland team is working to break the cycle of childhood poverty

By Megan Nugent, United Way Director, Marketing and Communications

Becky Blumer
In August, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette launched a new strategic plan to break the cycle of childhood poverty in our four-county community. This shifting focus had large implications on the structure of our organization. United Way’s Community Impact (CI) team had arguably the biggest change. In order to clearly articulate to the public these changes we created a three-part blog series in which we interviewed the leaders of the three teams that now encompass the new CI department. In part 1, we talked with Alejandro Queral to discuss the newly formed Systems Planning and Performance (SPP) team. In part 2, we had a conversation with Mayra Arreola regarding the recently created Community Collaborations (CC) team.
In this third and final installment of the blog series, we will be focusing on our Hands On Greater Portland (Hands On) team and their part in breaking the cycle of childhood poverty. I interviewed Becky Blumer, director of the Hands On team, to discuss volunteerism’s role in the new CI structure.

Hands On Greater Portland formed in 1996 and is part of the larger “Hands On” global network which originally formed in Atlanta, New York, DC and Chicago. There are now more than 200 affiliates worldwide. Several Hands On affiliates are programs of their local United Way. The local Portland chapter started in 1996. Blumer has been with Hands On since 1999.

First off, how do you all fit into the larger CI department?

We consider ourselves the engagement arm of the CI department. We work directly with our community to get people out volunteering on opportunities that align with our new strategic goal of reducing childhood poverty. We also offer a broader selection of volunteer opportunities, such as working on environmental issues or helping the elderly.

Tell us a little about your model and how it works.

Our model is based on the belief that everyone has the opportunity to serve. We believe that when you volunteer to help your community, it’s not only the recipient that gains, but volunteers’ lives are also enriched. We believe that service is something that we all have in common and that it is transformative.

On any given month we have approximately 100 volunteer events up on our calendar of opportunities. We provide done-in-a-day volunteer opportunities, and also make long-term referrals for mentoring, tutoring and other critical volunteer opportunities that support the nonprofit infrastructure in the four-county area. Many of our projects are led and managed by trained Hands On Volunteer Leaders who guide volunteers on the project and ensure they have a great experience. Our projects are great for families, groups (school and corporate) and people of all ages. We strive to provide something for everyone.  Last year we made more than 20,000 volunteer connections and partnered with 400 nonprofits in our community.

In 2012, Hands On merged with United Way. Has this model changed at all? 

To our volunteers and partners we look the same. But internally there have been some changes. When we merged with United Way it allowed us to focus on what we do best ‒ connecting volunteers to opportunities. We have been able to streamline our operations, cut overhead costs and free up our staff’s time to connect our volunteers with meaningful volunteer opportunities.

How does Hands On fit into the new strategic plan with the focus on breaking the cycle of childhood poverty?

The primary way we are going to be able to help break the cycle of poverty is to bring more volunteer resources to the table to work on this issue. A large part of the new plan is this idea of a connected community, and we see volunteerism as integral to that. When neighborhoods have a large array of services and support they can help elevate the families and children living in them.

We are really working to align our projects and events with the mission. Currently, 50 percent of our projects on the MLK Weekend of Service impact children and families. We are looking to deepen the impact on kids and their families in our service area as we continue to grow our volunteer offerings.
Another thing that people might not know is that while we have a robust set of projects on our website, we are more than just a website that matches volunteers with projects. Our role is also to train a corps of volunteer leaders to dig deep and develop their own leadership skills while leading other volunteers in meaningful service opportunities. We also work closely with our nonprofit partners to bring them more volunteer-related resources.

We also have a program called TeamWorks that brings together teams of up to 12 volunteers on a series of projects designed to explore specific issues, organizations and/or communities through volunteerism. Past themes have included poverty, food of the future and “Discover Portland.” I think this avenue would be a great way to have people explore the issue of kids in poverty and how they can help.

What are your goals for Hands On in 2014? 

Now that we have completed the merger and we have our footing it’s really all about digging deeper programmatically. It’s so exciting that thousands of people connect with our new strategic plan. We can now harness this energy. We’ve had great conversations with many in our community – now we can start getting the job done.

This is the final installment of a three-part series looking at how United Way’s community impact team is realigning in order to help break the cycle of childhood poverty. You can read more about Alejandro’s story and Mayra’s story on our blog.

Interested in how your organization can help break the cycle of childhood poverty? Learn more about funding opportunities from United Way. 

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