Do you have a “how we met” story? Like all relationships, cross-sector collaborations can begin tentatively, with both parties reluctant to make a commitment. Other times, it’s love at first sight, instant passion, clear connection between shared missions.
Like dinner and movie, philanthropy and volunteerism are a middle ground, the “first date” in many collaborations between the sectors.
According to Sue Ellen Heflin, executive director of the Whatcom Volunteer Center, nearly 65 percent of Whatcom County residents volunteer at least once during any given year. “A lot of corporate volunteerism is employee-driven,” Heflin said.
“We’re seeing employee groups and even associations building their team and getting community recognition through service,” Heflin said. For example, the Association of Administrative Professionals participated in the recent Volunteer Center-sponsored Make a Difference Day.
Many larger employers offer robust volunteer programs and incentives for participation. For example, Alcoa Intalco Works in Ferndale participated in Alcoa’s global month of service, from getting down and dirty restoring watershed habitat to helping plan fundraisers. “By getting involved in a service project with these groups, our staff begin to understand the story of why we support these groups, and the linkage between our philanthropy and our business,” said Jodie Read, PR and communications manager.
In addition to connecting workers to a business’s mission, community service helps build morale and camaraderie. “It was amazing to see how the group – many of whom don’t work together day to day – self-organized and had fun,” Read said, describing the “glorious” sunny October afternoon when Alcoa employees planted hundreds of native trees along a stream bed, getting grubby to help Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association. “Some of these folks were beating down my door the next week, asking for another project,” she said.
Deeper connections with community are not only reflected through volunteerism, but also through philanthropy. According to a Whatcom Community Foundation report posted on WhatcomCounts.org, local individual philanthropy is above state averages, with Whatcom County ranking 13th out of 39 Washington counties. Whatcom County ranks 21st out of 39 Washington counties in percentage of adjusted gross income (AGI) contributed.
The Whatcom County United Way, which hit a record $2 million fundraising record last year, provides a ladder of engagement that starts with workplace giving, and often leads to a lifetime of community involvement.
For example, Cindy Daily, who leads the Bellingham Wal-Mart community involvement programs, served as a “loaned executive” for the 2005 United Way of Whatcom County Campaign. “As a campaign executive, I got to help other businesses step up to the plate to help fund the community safety net,” Daily said. “Plus, I learned about the 31 great United Way partner organizations that provide the community safety net.”
Through her United Way experience, Daily found a passion for the work of Lydia Place, a transitional housing program for homeless women and their children, where she has since served on the board. She’s gone on to get more involved in the community through Whatcom County Relay for Life, and now serves on the Leadership Whatcom Governance Committee after being a 2006-2007 Leadership Whatcom participant.
Alcoa’s Jodie Read sees community involvement as good for the company beyond the positive PR and team-building of one-time volunteer days. “We’re encouraging up-and-coming people to get involved on local nonprofit boards,” she said. “It’s a way for them to develop personal leadership and give back to the community at the same time,” Read said. “It takes them into different environments, challenges them to work with different kinds of people.” Read notes that volunteering in board service helps employees grow skills, build their network, and put the corporation’s work in context. The Whatcom Volunteer Center has picked up the torch of developing the next generation of board leaders by hosting periodic “nonprofit boards 101” training.
Sometimes volunteerism and philanthropy become a lifestyle. “I don’t think of myself as a volunteer,” said Joy Monjure, an Everson resident and City of Bellingham employee. “I think of myself as someone who is absolutely passionate about my community, and make it a better place.”
Monjure, who also serves on the Leadership Whatcom Governance Board, is one of dozens of community members who volunteered to develop the 10-month community-based leadership program, and remains committed today. Why? Over the years in her community activities, she kept seeing the same faces, the same people always involved. “It was a very small group, and I saw people get burned out,” she said. “I saw Leadership Whatcom as an opportunity to grow the next generation of leaders in a really intentional way. Leadership is not about the loudest voices; it’s about people learning to work together.”
Now in its third year, Leadership Whatcom is being recognized nationally as a model for nonpartisan civic engagement. Monjure’s proposal to support the Leadership Whatcom alumni program “Productive Public Conversations” was recently selected out of 5,000 applicants to become a “Top 100 Make it Your Own Award” from the Case Foundation. With the theme “Out of the Armchair and Off the Soapbox,” the next Productive Public Conversation will take place Dec. 4 in Bellingham. Echoing recent controversies about neighborhood and county planning processes, people will discuss when the public should be engaged in the government’s work, and how they can be most effective when they do. Monjure said, “Participants will leave with a toolkit of skills and resources to support productive discussions on contentious issues and will practice strategies for keeping dialogue civil.”
Whether people collaborate across business, government, nonprofit and educational sectors in one-time volunteer opportunities, or engage in philanthropy through the United Way campaign, these “first dates” can lead to people finding their passion while building community.
After all, a healthy community is up to all of us.
Resources for collaborating across sectors:
- Whatcom Volunteer Center: www.whatcomvolunteer.org.
- Whatcom United Way: unitedwaywhatcom.org.
- Leadership Whatcom: www.leadershipwhatcom.org.
Elizabeth Jennings is executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Healthy Communities, which seeks to improve the health and quality of life in Whatcom County by connecting people with information and fostering collaborative leadership and community engagement.