Thanks for joining us in our third installment of Summer of Service! Each Monday in June and July, we're privileged to be featuring a fantastic guest blogger sharing his or her unique and personal perspective on service, volunteering and citizen philanthropy. Today, please welcome Debra Askanase, nonprofit new media expert and the founder of Community Organizer 2.0 as she shares her journey from volunteer to community organizer. We're especially excited about this post as VolunteerSpot gives every volunteer the power to become a community organizer. Thanks, Debra!
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Models of Volunteering:
The Volunteer as a Community Organizer
by Debra Askanase
I grew up in a family that prided itself on volunteering, spearheaded by my mother who deeply believes that donating time to worthwhile causes can change the world. The cause most dear to her heart was feminism, and especially the promotion of women in politics. She is of the era that led the charge to open opportunities for herself and her daughters. She spoke of Gloria Steinham, EMILY’s list, and Marlo Thomas. Of course Free To Be You And Me was a household staple!
As a child, during election season, we always had a folding table set up with envelopes and papers ready to stuff – and we were encouraged to stuff envelopes whenever we had a minute. I remember the bustling energy of my mother’s female friends coming to the house to stuff envelopes, lick stamps, or coordinate some aspect of an election campaign for a female political candidate. My mom worked hard on the campaigns of Eleanor Tinsley, the first female city councilor in Houston (who eventually became a close friend), and Kathy Whitmire, the first female mayor of Houston. My mother, volunteering day and night during election season, and off-season too, was a volunteer organizer. Bringing people together to change the community.
And it wasn’t only political-season volunteering: my mother spearheaded Mitzvah Day at our synagogue, coordinating hundreds of volunteers for a day of service. She wrote the grant proposal to fund the first teen pregnancy center in Houston and brought us there to volunteer. We were taken to community cleanup days, and we watched votes being counted during local elections. We were taught that volunteering is a necessary requirement for being a good citizen.
And that it can really make a difference.
Not surprisingly, my career path led me to nonprofit work. After moving to Boston, I worked as a tenant’s rights advocate at an anti-poverty organization, helping tenants understand their legal rights and also finding emergency fuel for the winter in times of need. The second winter I was there, many of the same tenants called again asking for 100 gallons of heating oil. That was my “aha!” moment: I could locate donated heating oil every winter for tenants in need, or work with the community to change living and working conditions. Like my mother who believes so strongly in the power of organizing to bring women into politics (now a given fact that women belong and can succeed in politics), I understood that organizing communities can make a lasting difference in the way the community functions and in the lives of community members.
And thus I became a professional community organizer – organizing a multi-issue low-income organization north of Boston, taking on issues in the community that members had the power to change. I worked with hundreds of community volunteers. Members organized for stricter lead paint testing and fair pricing at the local supermarket. I worked with tenant organizations to purchase their buildings cooperatively from their building owners, and organize building owners to make safety repairs. Everyone I worked with volunteered his or her time to change their communities. Everyone was a volunteer organizer. The “volunteer as an organizer” made a difference: dreams of home ownership realized, safe living conditions, affordable food in low-income communities. Hundreds of community members volunteer thousands of hours to make their dreams a reality.
Eventually, I transitioned from organizing into the field of economic development. I became a volunteer organizer myself for Potters for Peace, organizing pottery cooperatives in towns in Nicaragua so that female potters could pool resources to break the cycle of poverty. After joining the cooperatives, the annual income of the potters I worked with improved 200%. I saw the possibilities in the volunteer as organizer model for economic change.
When I returned to the United States, I became the executive director of the Hyde/Jackson Main Street Program, working entirely with local volunteers to improve economic conditions in the neighborhood. Through the “volunteering as organizing model,” local volunteers donated hundreds of hours to their neighborhood to make it a strong economic center, and a vibrant and livable community. Conversely, without the volunteers, there would never have been an organization.
Every person chooses the model of volunteerism that suits him or her best. Volunteerism comes in many shapes –from donating office equipment, to stuffing bags of food at holiday time, to coaching your child’s softball team. Each one is a strong model of volunteering. I think it was inevitable that my preferred volunteer model would be the “volunteer as organizer.” And it’s been incredibly rewarding to be a small part of community change.
Debra Askanase is the founder of Community Organizer 2.0, a social media consulting firm specializing in customized social media strategies, solutions, and training for nonprofit organizations. Before founding Community Organizer 2.0, Debra worked for 20 years in nonprofit organizations in many positions, among them executive director, program director, fundraiser, and community organizer. She was named one of the Top 29 Nonprofit Bloggers to Follow by the 300,000 Twitter followers of twitter.com/nonprofitorgs.
(Image Courtesy of Beth Kanter)
Debra's award-winning professional blog, www.communityorganizer20.com,
offers advice, strategies and opinions about using social media in the
nonprofit sector. In 2009, the blog won Web Host Magazine's Editor's Choice Award for Practical Application of Web 2.0 Concepts. She is an international speaker and presenter on engagement strategies creating online community. Debra can be often be found chatting away on Twitter @askdebra.