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Archive for Friday, April 29, 2011

Tips for how to best volunteer with local nonprofit organizations

April 29, 2011

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Only in Lawrence 2011

A special section honoring your neighbors, unsung heroes and people who do the little things that just make life better in Lawrence.

Only in Lawrence 2011: Community

Read about the honorees for the 2011 Only in Lawrence: "Community" category.

Sandy Hazlett considers herself a career volunteer.

During the 1990s, she was heavily involved in such organizations as the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen, Jubilee Café and the Social Service League. Recently, when she decided to re-enter the workforce but had difficulty finding a job, she decided to return to volunteering — both as a way to make connections and to keep motivated.

“It does a whole lot for you as a volunteer, as well as for the people who are getting the services you’re providing,” she says.

Now, Hazlett splits her time between administrative duties at the United Way, stocking warehouse shelves at Just Food and helping out at the Social Service League.

It’s people like Hazlett, who donate both time and money, who keep Lawrence’s nonprofit sector serving its clients daily, says Erika Dvorske, United Way of Douglas County director.

But before diving into a big-money donation or volunteer commitment, Dvorske says potential donors or volunteers should do their homework about an organization.

“It’s important to think more about the results than the activity,” she says. “It’s about connecting the heart and the head simultaneously.”

Check them out

For anyone wanting to make a contribution — of either time or money — Dvorske suggests:

  1. Visit an organization’s website. “Check out how they present themselves. Learn about their outcomes and the results they’re hoping to achieve.”
  2. Examine the organization’s financial reports. The website www.guidestar.org posts forms filed with the IRS, but Dvorske says many organizations now post that information on their own websites. “One of the big pushes nationally is a focus on transparency and making sure everything is available.”
  3. Talk to a nonprofit’s leader. “You should ask if they are financially stable and current on financial reporting to the IRS. But there’s another layer to that: How outcomes tie into your mission. Those are questions that most folks should be able to respond to.”

Protect yourself

Charles Branson, Douglas County district attorney, says his office gets an occasional phone call about the legitimacy of a charity. One recent request for information came from a woman who wanted to know something about a charity for children with hair loss. In that case, he says, the nonprofit was, in fact, legitimate and had filed the proper paperwork with the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office.

“Our constituent was very happy because it was a charity that was meaningful to her,” Branson says, “but she wanted to do everything she could to make certain her hard-earned money was going to be well-utilized.”

Telephone, direct mail and the Internet are the three most common ways donors get scammed, Branson says. His tips for protecting yourself:

  1. Check to see if the charity is registered with the state. The quickest way to tell is by checking www.kscharitycheck.org, which is administered by the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office.
  2. Pay by check so you have a receipt of payment. Don’t pay by cash or give personal information.
  3. Don’t fall for high-pressure or emotional appeals to donate at a particular moment.

Get connected

For new volunteers or donors, Hazlett suggests going through the Roger Hill Volunteer Center, which is a nonprofit clearinghouse administered by United Way of Douglas County.

She suggests balancing your skills with your passions. She also recommends understanding the level of commitment. Some volunteer positions — such as counselors at Headquarters Counseling Center or on-site disaster response workers for the American Red Cross — require hours of training just to do the job.

While Dvorske says there are hundreds of volunteers and donors in Lawrence doing great work and more are always needed, she admits a minority of people contribute the majority of the volunteer work and donations. Because of that, she says, nonprofit leaders are always sensitive about asking too much — and are usually fine with taking no for an answer.

“Rejection of an invitation to volunteer or give is not a down vote on who the organization is. Folks who are busy and committed are saying, ‘No, I honestly can’t do as good a job as you would expect,’” Dvorske says. “I always work to try and at least make it safe to say no, because especially for leadership positions, folks need to be committed.”

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