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Nonprofits: VISTA project will improve resources for volunteers

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A three-year project that starts this month will improve the way nonprofits in Georgetown County recruit and train volunteers. Not only will that allow the groups to expand services, it will create a stronger community, according to members of those groups.

Through the United Way chapter, 11 nonprofits will share five VISTA members. The national service program, which began in 1965, provides short-term volunteers to help communities develop long-term solutions to poverty.

The VISTA members will work in the county for a year. Five more volunteers will take their place next year, and another five in 2013. They will help the local groups develop and implement a volunteer network.

By 2014, Lynne Ford, the development director for United Way, envisions a “virtual volunteer system” that will exist online.

But along the way, VISTA members and the nonprofits will also develop ways to better use the skills of existing volunteers and to train new ones.

“We can’t go out and recruit 50 volunteers and call it a success,” said Anne Faul, executive director of the Smith Medical Clinic. “We have to make sure the match works.” And for the clinic, that means better ways to train and integrate new volunteers into the nonprofit.

The nonprofits started meeting a year ago after United Way started developing a proposal for VISTA. One aspect of the service program is helping providers “build capacity.” Given the state of the economy, fundraising was one area they considered. But they soon focused on volunteers.

“We’re competing for the same resources,” said Capt. Jason Hughes of the Salvation Army. So the groups said “let’s focus on service.”

There are no numbers available for how many volunteers give their time to nonprofits in the county. But those who work in the sector think it is far below its potential. Hughes thinks it could be as low as 5 to 10 percent of those who would be willing to volunteer.

Faul said volunteers who arrive at the Smith Clinic routinely tell her it’s a well-kept secret. “There’s a lot of untapped capacity,” she said.

For the Salvation Army, which has a couple of hundred volunteers, the question is “are we utilizing our volunteers to the best of their ability,” Hughes said. “The real army behind the Salvation Army is the volunteers.”

And the unspoken answer is, no.

“We all need volunteers, but when we get them we don’t know what to do with them,” Ford said.

The other nonprofits involved in the program are Teach My People, Neighbor to Neighbor, Miss Ruby’s Kids, Helping Hands, Tara Hall and the YMCA. Georgetown County Parks and Recreation will also participate. Each put up $1,000 toward the support of the VISTA members.

But Ford said the project will benefit all the county’s nonprofits as the information is developed and shared. “It’s going to be great for the community,” she said.

Eric Spatz, director of Teach My People, said in his five months with the nonprofit he’s been impressed by the level of cooperation between the groups. He believes that bodes well for making sure the result of the VISTA project has a wider impact.

“There is a high expectation for this collaboration,” Faul said. With new people moving in and looking for opportunities to get involved, “it has the potential to change the whole spirit of the community.”

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