Reflection on my first few months “building capacity” as an AmeriCorps VISTA

January 11, 2013

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, the work that I have begun and will continue for the next eight months is centered around capacity building within Emergency Foodshelf Network’s volunteer program. Emergency Foodshelf Network is a local and independent food bank with over 200 hunger relief partners and several innovative programs designed to address hunger relief in Minnesota. Upon arrival to EFN, I learned that 12,593 individuals clocked in 30,113 hours of volunteer work at our warehouse and events during the 2011 fiscal year. My initial thought was something along the lines of, “What can I do to increase capacity of a volunteer program that is already so successful during my year of service at this organization?”

I soon learned that while EFN is fortunate enough to have a large and reliable network of volunteers, capacity building does not only apply to increasing the number of volunteers and hours they donated. Capacity building also refers to establishing sustainability of a volunteer program. It is not enough to simply invite volunteers into EFN’s warehouse and hope that they will automatically be satisfied with their volunteer experience. A lot more thought and planning is necessary to maintain a successful and sustainable volunteer program than I had initially thought. From recruitment to recognition, each component of any volunteer program poses several things to consider. How will volunteers be greeted upon arrival to our warehouse and what crucial information about our organization and the hunger relief mission we embody should be presented to the volunteers? How can we maintain communication with volunteers after they leave our building and what methods and tools should we use to keep them involved with our organization? Questions like these are all so directly related to the success of a volunteer program, and even a little change could potentially make a big difference.

Realizing that there is so much out there to learn about effectively managing volunteer programs, I began to do some research. I began researching similar hunger relief organizations, sharing ideas with volunteer managers at those organizations, and looking at their program processes. I followed up by exploring volunteer programs at several other non-profit organizations and looking at more general resources associated with volunteer management. I have really enjoyed learning about volunteer program best practices at non-profit organizations in the past few months through my work here at EFN, and I will say that MAVA has been a wonderful resource to aide my learning.

I stumbled upon a blog that was intended to be a central location where food shelves, food banks, on-site meal programs and other hunger relief organizations could communicate with each other and share relevant information—only to find that it hadn’t been updated in about a year and only had a few posts…but what an amazing idea. I found this concept similar to some of the work that MAVA does every single day. It’s great that MAVA offers members the opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other through workshops, events, the website, etc. For someone like myself who is just learning about utilizing volunteers at a non-profit organization, resources like MAVA are invaluable.I look forward to continuing to learn about volunteer program best practices at non-profit organizations with the help of MAVA and other resources and am excited about the innovation and new ideas to come to the volunteer management field.

Michelle Barcelona

AmeriCorps VISTA at Emergency Foodshelf Network