Sarah Ford, Marketing Director, America's Charities | September 25, 2019

How to Build an Employee Volunteer Program That Makes an Impact

Thanks to a KaBOOM! project funded by The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation and 150 volunteers organized by Marriott International and America’s Charities’ member PHILLIPS Programs for Children and Families’ networks, a kid-designed, community planned playground was built in a single day on May 22, 2019 for the children and families who attend PHILLIPS School~Laurel, located in Laurel, Maryland.

But this didn’t happen overnight. Months of planning, strategic alignment, and behind-the-scenes support from multiple organizations made this playground – and the volunteers who helped build it – possible.

For a better understanding of how this volunteer event was coordinated and funded, and ultimately what made this multi-organization collaboration a success, we spoke with Debi Alexander, Director of Development at PHILLIPS Programs for Children and Families, and her partners at KaBOOM!, Marriott International, and The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation.

Let’s backtrack to 2018 when the planning and funding for this playground all started.

Setting Objectives and Selecting Funders and Community Partners

A national nonprofit dedicated to bringing balanced and active play into the daily lives of all kids, particularly those growing up in poverty in America, KaBOOM! has been collaborating with organizations to build playgrounds for underserved children and communities for 22 years. Lifting up a community-led build model alongside the opportunity for a transformational single-day volunteer experience, KaBOOM! traditionally identifies a funding partner to cover a majority of the project’s cost and matches them with a community partner between six months to a year prior to a build. In this case, The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation provided funding, with Marriott International dedicating most of the volunteers to build the playground and taking a role in other aspects of the planning process. Selection of a community partner was guided by The Foundation’s strategic funding priorities, as well as Marriott International’s location and timeframe preferences.

The overall mission for this partnership was to build a playground that enables all kids in the community to play more in order to address the problems of rising childhood obesity, weakening academic performance, prevalence of childhood depression, and behavioral issues for children who do not have access to safe places to play. With a project goal of knocking down barriers to play for the kids who need it most, KaBOOM! announced the grant opportunity in early spring of 2018, which is when PHILLIPS Programs applied. Serving over 500 children and their families annually in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, PHILLIPS Programs is a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to enable and empower youth, clients, and their families to develop to their maximum potential in their home, school, and community.

After a screening process, which included a 90-minute phone call, additional follow-up phone meetings, and a site visit, PHILLIPS Programs was notified they had been selected as the community partner for the project on December 4, 2018.

Design Day, Volunteer Recruitment, Tools, Food, and Fun

How to Build an Employee Volunteer Program That Makes an Impact Eight weeks before the project build date, PHILLIPS Programs and KaBOOM! hosted a Design Day, consisting of three components: a logistical site walk, a kid-driven dream playground design brainstorm, and an adults’ workshop to lay the foundation for planning. Then the PHILLIPS Programs team went to work. Responsible for helping recruit additional volunteers and support for prep and build days, PHILLIPS Programs created committees to handle the various aspects involved in a volunteer event of this scale: volunteer recruitment and vetting, tools, construction, food, music, and play (activities that meaningfully engage kids in the project on build day).

PHILLIPS Programs applied for membership in the Baltimore ToolBank, which provided all construction tools needed for pennies on the dollar. This was a wonderful service as the extensive tool requirements could have been a barrier for PHILLIPS Programs’ team going forward with the grant. A DJ donated his services for the Build Day and they had a photo booth and scavenger hunt with prizes.  Food was donated to feed 30 volunteers on prep day and 150 volunteers on build day, and PHILLIPS Programs’ culinary arts students prepared chili, hot dogs, and baked potatoes with all the fixings. For volunteer recruitment, PHILLIPS Programs reached out to its workplace giving partner, America’s Charities, to help reach companies with employees interested in volunteering for the build.

The Results and Impact

How to Build an Employee Volunteer Program That Makes an Impact Together, volunteers from the Marriott and PHILLIPS Programs community built a brand new playground and numerous side projects in just five hours 45 minutes!

In addition to the playground, side projects included sanding and painting two bridges, building picnic tables and benches with planters and a painted exercise course on the walkway to the side entrance of the school.  An outdoor classroom was also constructed in the woodsy nature area next to the school building.  According to Debi Alexander, the playground greatly enhanced the playability of the campus and attractiveness to families in the community seeking a school for their children.

Operating four schools, PHILLIPS Programs provides career and technical education programs through Career Partners and offers home-based family services.  It is often difficult to describe the severity and complexity of issues confronted by the students’ serviced by PHILLIPS Programs. All youth served by PHILLIPS Programs have been in some type of crisis in their previous school placement. This crisis is compounded by the fact that 82 percent of the Laurel School students subsist below the federal poverty line. To adequately provide for students with varied and intense special needs, a program must have a wide array of educational services available to wrap around each unique student in a complete yet flexible manner. PHILLIPS Programs builds individualized support around youth rather than having youth fit into a program.

“For most of us, recollections of our childhood center around fuzzy warm memories of play.  Who can forget the adventure of climbing up the giant hot metal slide?  Or the thrill experienced when we all piled on the Merry–Go–Round and held tight as our friends spun it as hard as they could?  Or the calming rhythm of the to-and-fro movement, gliding sweetly through the air on a swing? The schoolyard playground is one of the timeless and sacred sanctuaries of childhood.  But for too many children there are barriers to accessing playgrounds and enjoying the vital activities surrounding play that are crucial for healthy development of their physical, cognitive and emotional strengths.  The playground made possible by the KaBOOM! grant ensures that our children and youth will grow up to have treasured memories and all of the developmental benefits they gain while enjoying the simple pleasures of play.” –  Debi Alexander, Director of Development at PHILLIPS Programs for Children and Families

The Key to a Successful Nonprofit-Corporate Partnership

According to America’s Charities Snapshot Research, the importance of workplace volunteering is accelerating. Its research has shown volunteering is the second most important component of employee engagement programs, and the number one motivation for workplace donors (even ahead of matching gifts). As more companies have prioritized volunteering and brought this spirit of innovation to their employee giving programs, they have seen the results: improvements in recruitment and retention, employee satisfaction, leadership and skill development, brand value, innovation, community relationships, employee health, and so much more.

However, all too often companies whose employees are genuinely interested in volunteering their time and skills to benefit a nonprofit fail to address the actual critical needs of the community. The playground builds driven by KaBOOM!’s model fit the interests of the more than 70 percent of companies who want volunteer opportunities that allow for team building and can be done in larger groups on a specific day. However, as America’s Charities Snapshot Research has revealed, nonprofits often struggle to find meaningful work that can be accomplished in groups and on short notice or specific days. Rather than making clear volunteer projects that would yield far more results for their organizations, nonprofits often feel obligated to provide some volunteer activity, because they value their corporate partners and don’t want to jeopardize the financial or future support they receive from the partner. Yet, when goals are misaligned in this way, not only does the volunteer activity fail to deliver value to the nonprofit, the employee volunteer experiences are less than inspirational. Volunteers then miss the opportunity to form deeper connections with these nonprofits and the constituents they serve.

Turning a Transactional Relationship into a Transformational Experience

Employee volunteers are vital to nonprofit missions and impact – but it’s imperative that their offering is considered from more than a transactional viewpoint.

“Companies need to ask – and really listen to – nonprofits to determine how their employee volunteers would be best put to use. Likewise, nonprofits need to offer up their objectives and frame those goals in the larger picture. Instead of accepting or declining a volunteerism offer at face value, nonprofits should help their corporate counterparts understand where they are now, and where they want to go, as an organization. All good collaborations are a two-way street, and that is no different for nonprofits and companies that want to partner for the greater good. Alignment between the needs of nonprofits, the interests of employees, and the expectations of employers is crucial – for all parties.” – Lindsay J. K. Nichols, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, America’s Charities.

While most nonprofit-corporate volunteer partnerships can’t directly replicate KaBOOM!’s volunteer engagement model, there are plenty of best practices that can be learned and applied to other causes.

A corporate partner with an authentic desire to make a real difference, a nonprofit partner who is transparent about their needs and how best it can utilize volunteers to drive meaningful and strategic partnerships, is key to success and tangible impact.

“Nonprofit-corporate partnerships are powerful because they create the conditions for businesses to support nonprofits in bringing their ideas and impact to scale, and vice versa. Genuine will, commitment, a common goal, and a collaborative spirit are the key ingredients. Of course, when serving communities, it’s critical to include businesses and their employees in the process at every step. When they are a part of the change, they feel a genuine sense of ownership and can build on the positive change they helped spark.” – Andrew Williams, Partnership Manager, KaBOOM!

How to Build an Employee Volunteer Program That Makes an Impact

Next Up on the Horizon

“KaBOOM! is honored to continue our work with long-time partners Marriot International and The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation. Through this partnership, we have actively engaged more than 1,500 Marriott volunteers, who always bring infectious energy, enthusiasm, and determination to Build Day. It’s a reflection of Marriott’s spirit to serve and shared commitment to ensuring play is an essential part of the daily lives of kids across the Washington D.C. region.” – Andrew Williams, Partnership Manager, KaBOOM!

Each year, KaBOOM! builds 150 playgrounds in “child-rich, playground poor” neighborhoods, bringing a great new play resource to families and children that is designed, built, used and maintained by the community. In the process, the community gains skills, confidence, and courage to do even more for their kids.

As for PHILLIPS Programs, there are a variety of volunteer opportunities throughout the year for individuals interested in giving back to the community by giving of their time and talent. PHILLIPS also welcomes businesses who have an interest in volunteer opportunities that can accommodate their staff or department for a day of service. Click here to learn more about PHILLIPS Programs’ volunteer opportunities and to contact their team about volunteering.

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