(Photo via twitter.com/BEN_Comcast)
In late 1994, Todd Bernstein huddled in the old Liberty Bell Pavilion with some major political players — former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Mayor Ed Rendell. There, the group made a decision: to dedicate themselves to getting the national King Day of Service off the ground.
Bernstein, now the founder and president of the civic engagement nonprofit Global Citizen, collaborated with Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, who were close with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement, to draft the King Holiday and Service Act earlier that year. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law on August 23, 1994, creating the national King Day of Service.
The community-serving holiday launched in Philly in 1996 with just 1,000 volunteers but has since blossomed into the largest annual MLK Day event in a nationwide movement. Now, Bernstein anticipates more than 150,000 Philadelphians will participate in more than 1,800 community service projects across the city as part of Global Citizen’s 24th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service on Jan. 21.
From cleanups and educational activities to meal service and youth programs, companies and individuals can explore a multitude of opportunities to give back on MLK Day. Global Citizen will also host a civic engagement expo at Girard College, its signature site, to help connect community members with organizations to explore ongoing volunteer opportunities.
But with so many projects to choose from, how can a company choose a meaningful service opportunity where volunteers can actually be useful? And how can bosses make sure the volunteer opportunity benefits both the nonprofits receiving help, as well as their own employees?
Comcast’s Black Employee Network (BEN) partners with City Year Philadelphia each year on MLK Day to participate in a beautification effort at a local school in need. Roughly 50 BEN employees join a group of about 1,000 volunteers from other companies to help paint murals, build bookshelves and do other light construction projects to transform a school in a single day.
The service project stems from BEN employees’ personal interest in the cause and the company continues the volunteer project by helping City Year with a few other volunteer efforts throughout the year.
“It gives us a sense of pride for those of our employees who are products of the Philadelphia School District,” said Charles Hardy, a Comcast specialist of human resources quality and release management and BEN’s community service co-lead. “It gives us an opportunity to get back in there and really partner with an organization that’s doing a lot of good for the students of Philadelphia and the city as a whole.”
On the nonprofit end, the partnership is equally beneficial and sustainable. City Year starts the selection process during the summer for the school to visit on MLK Day — also the nonprofit’s largest annual volunteer effort. But the nonprofit also conducts about a dozen similar school beautification projects throughout the year, said Dorothy Wong, City Year’s senior director of corporate partnerships.
“I really see more and more how important it is for people to give back and align [the companies] where they’re going to be working [with] employers [who] are also really aligned” with their values, she said. “Being able to know that this is something that their company really supports is a huge incentive” to volunteer on MLK Day.
Companies, here’s what to consider when choosing your own MLK Day opportunity, with tips from the pros.
Think about your company’s size
It’s easy to think “the more volunteers, the better,” but that’s not always the case for every nonprofit.
“We always have to remind our larger groups that sometimes more hands can be more of a burden than not,” said Jeanette Bavwidinsi, volunteer engagement coordinator in the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service.
If you plan on bringing a large group to the volunteer site, consider giving your time to a more established program with large facilities, such as Philabundance or City Year. These larger organizations often have partnerships with smaller on-the-ground groups that can lead to further volunteer relationships if volunteers want to continue giving their time individually.
Match your company’s mission
Don’t reinvent the volunteering wheel: Stick with what you do best and find a volunteer opportunity within your company’s focus, be it technology, youth education or urban development.
“Companies should really take a deep look inside themselves and think about what they care about and what they’re willing to leave a sustainable impact on,” Bavwidinsi said.
Choosing a service opportunity that makes sense for your company will also help the day be a positive experience for employees because they’ll be feeding their passion.
“We travel these streets and … we’re from these places, and to work with your company that we all love to make change and make service opportunities happen there, I think means a great deal,” Hardy said of BEN’s partnership with City Year Philadelphia.
Ask your employees
Let your workers play a role in picking a company MLK Day project. Hold a meeting to hear feedback on potential volunteer options, or survey employees to see where their service interests lie. You’re asking them to devote their time, so it’s important to consider what will make them feel most fulfilled to participate in.
Consider creating your own volunteer opportunity
Decision time: Do you want to design your own company service project, or join an existing opportunity?
Building your own can get the creative juices flowing and help build team spirit, but signing up for a nonprofit’s call to action can be more straightforward — especially if your company ~might~ have procrastinated on finding an MLK Day service opportunity. Check volunteer databases from Global Citizen or the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service for hundreds of projects seeking MLK Day volunteers.
Build on existing partnerships
Does your organization collaborate with any nonprofits throughout the year in other ways? MLK Day is the perfect way to take that partnership to the next level through a dedicated volunteer project.
Keep sustainability in mind
Consider this: What are the things we deal with as Philadelphians that just don’t go away? Those resistant challenges might be a good place to send your volunteer forces. Bavwidinsi said she often directs companies to volunteer in the education sector because it’s a sustainable volunteer opportunity.
“There will always be children, there will always be children that need things, schools will always need resources,” she said. “So how can we set you up for a day of service and maybe do a beautification [project], but that may lead to something else?”
Invite the family …
Through years of MLK Day volunteering, Hardy said his favorite moment was watching his 6-year-old daughter paint a mural of “A Knock at Midnight,” a collection of sermons by King, during a City Year school beautification project.
“Seeing her being very engaged in painting that, it was a very proud moment for me because I’m looking at her serving others and being enthusiastic about it,” said Hardy, who has brought his daughter to his company’s MLK Day volunteer projects since she was 3.
If your employees weren’t volunteering with you on MLK Day, they’d be home with their families. Let them be a part of your process and you’ll have happy employees and more helping hands — it’s a win-win.
… and don’t forget the friends, too
Giving employees a volunteering plus one lets them mix their professional and personal lives, which can boost morale. Plus, you never know who might catch the volunteering bug and decide to give back on their own time down the road.
To make the day a positive experience for your employees, make sure people from all levels of your company turn out to volunteer. This lets your employees rub elbows with higher-ups in the company they wouldn’t normally meet and helps them develop organic connections that could be valuable for their careers.
Reflect on the experience
After a solid day of tutoring, building or otherwise serving as a team, spend a little time reflecting on the volunteer experience as a group.
“One of the things we do and encourage is at the end of the process, [volunteers] are given the opportunity to talk about the meaning of the day, why on a day when they could have been doing something else, or nothing on a vacation day, they would choose to do something in celebration of Dr. King and to discuss what the relevance is to Dr. King’s life,” Global Citizen’s Bernstein said.
Touch on sustainability with your team: Why is it important enough to volunteer like this not just on MLK Day, but throughout the year, too?
Turn it into a long-term partnership
Volunteering shouldn’t start and end with MLK Day. In fact, that can do more harm than good.
“If you as a company go to a location that you just had an awesome volunteer opportunity, before you leave that space be sure to set up a meeting with either the volunteer coordinator or the director of the program to start to begin a more formal relationship and see what that can look like,” Bavwidinsi said.
This way, you can turn your stellar experience into a year-round partnership with quarterly or even monthly volunteer opportunities.
Keep mission top-of-mind
Ultimately, remember you are spending the day giving back to honor the life and mission of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fuel your do-good spirit into continued volunteer efforts throughout the year, even if it’s on your own. Show up to a project ready to listen and help with what the nonprofit actually needs, opposed to what you thought you would contribute pre-arrival.