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Redefining Volunteerism through Public Service: Why Public Employees Are Uniquely Positioned to Support Their Communities and an Action Plan to Get Started

By David Ciriello

Public employees (PEs) earn their reputation as public servants each day by executing their positions as government representatives. They’ve chosen professions that focus on helping the community with a myriad of programs and services. Many of these professionals go beyond their official roles and support their communities on a volunteer basis as well. These PEs, who serve as dual public servants, are a powerful asset for the community as they bring important access to and knowledge about public needs and resources and can serve as effective facilitators amongst interested citizens.

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There is strong support for this concept. As Robert and Janet Denhardt observed in their 2000 Public Administration Review article titled ‘‘New Public Service: Serving Rather than Steering,” government should work to “seek solutions to the problems that communities face” by leveraging partnerships and the public. They also recommended that PEs “engage citizens with one another to promote understanding of each other’s interests” and develop a sense of community. There is also a strong precedent for this type of partnership from the community perspective, as evidenced by the many citizens that volunteer directly with public entities, such as volunteer firefighters, patient advocates and chaperons on school field trips.

For these reasons PEs are uniquely positioned to promote and lead volunteerism in their communities, foster connections and advocate for the public good. Working from this framework, an action plan is presented below that PEs can leverage when deciding if and how to support a volunteer initiative on behalf of their agency or profession. The unique value PEs can provide throughout this process is highlighted within each phase as well.


A Volunteer Action Plan for Public Employees: Planning Phase

Find Your Cause

As with any project, the planning phase is critical to achieving outcomes. The first step in any community initiative is to select your cause, or the area of public interest that the initiative will support. Many PEs, given their knowledge of public programs and support structures, are uniquely positioned to identify causes and the citizens impacted by them. These programs serve as an indicator of those in need and their existing services can even be extended as a driver or component part of your cause. Further, selecting a cause that you bring technical, experiential or subject matter knowledge of can also lead to innovative ideas and increased knowledge sharing with the community.

Leverage Prior Efforts

It also helpful for PE’s to look within their agency or profession to learn from prior volunteer events. This may provide helpful lessons on approaches or tools that contributed to success. This may also identify community contacts who are predisposed to joining your cause.

Select the Initiative

This includes finalizing the ‘how’ of your volunteer efforts. It could entail a food drive, wrapping gifts for donation or visiting hospitals. This is a critical step as volunteers will need to know what is expected of them and will have their own strengths and comfort levels. Here PEs should secure feedback before finalizing the initiative to optimize the level of buy-in and attendance. PEs should also leverage their existing understanding of the community needs. Contacts from the above step can provide excellent feedback on what support they can bring across different initiative types.


A Volunteer Action Plan for Public Employees: Execution Phase

Leverage Internal and External Partners

Public agencies often have close ties with the nonprofit community and these relationships should be leveraged from a resource perspective. Making the right connection with organizations vested in your cause will grow the reach of your initiative. Given this mission congruency, many nonprofits will welcome the change to partner with government agencies and administrators.

Reach Out to Leadership

PEs are also uniquely positioned to involve stakeholders from their agency to increase initiative awareness, especially if they are an elected official or public figure. These sponsors can provide opening remarks at the event or encourage staff to participate. Their involvement may also help bring media attention and other business leaders to the initiative. Further, PEs should leverage connections across agency, department or professional lines where possible. Your fellows PEs already have an inherent interest in supporting the community and are perhaps the best source of support.

Involve the Community

Volunteer initiatives are the perfect opportunity for PEs to represent their profession and interact with the public. Further, the public will be more responsive to providing time or support if they understand the goal and are confident a sound approach is in place. To grow participation, PEs should consider using easy-to-read marketing materials (flyers, briefs) and practice their elevator speeches in order to efficiently communicate the goals and approaches to the public.

Keep an Open Mind with Regard to Giving

It’s helpful to keep an open mind with regard to fundraising as it can enhance the impact of your initiative. First, giving does not need to be monetary as many causes benefit from used books, eye glasses, clothes or even baked goods. These are all assets that can be donated and with great effect. Another type of asset to consider is the personal skills of your fellow PEs and the public. For example, an accountant can provide pro-bono reviews or a web designer can provide pointers. Here PEs can use their knowledge of the cause and public needs to elaborate for participants how their specific contributions can support those in need.

Leverage Social Media

Social media is a great tool for raising awareness. Fortunately, PEs bring access to respected social media outlets such as agency Twitter and Facebook accounts. With authorization, these assets can spread the word about your initiative. This is also a crucial way to further open the lines of communication with the community for new ideas. It’s also a great source of free infrastructure for event scheduling.


A Volunteer Action Plan for Public Employees:  Close Out Phase

Document Outcomes

One of the most important steps is to thank co-workers, partners and community members who participated. However, PEs should also view this as an opportunity to promote accountability and the shared social good as well. To do this, it’s helpful to connect the outcomes to the original goals of the initiative. Participants will appreciate seeing the results of the combined efforts and coming through on the cause commitment is a great way to demonstrate accountability and partnership to the public. Lessons learned in the form of ideas that worked, tools used and contact numbers should be stored to assist future efforts.

Maintain Relationships

Lastly, over time it is helpful to maintain contact with partners and citizens who volunteered. This is a great source for PEs to learn about new or changing community needs. It can also lead to new ideas and a base of support for future efforts. This is also a great opportunity to leverage program synergies with nonprofit organizations that have similar missions. This can even to lead to an ongoing partnership with recurring events using pooled infrastructure and resources.


Closing Remarks

This Action Plan provides some high level considerations for PEs planning and executing a volunteer initiative. Keeping the focus on the needs of your cause, leveraging your role and knowledge as a PE and partnering with the community are key elements that can make for a positive experience for those involved bring support to those in need. These positive public interactions will further demonstrate the multi-faceted contributions of public servants, create shared community experiences and increase public awareness about public professionals and services.

 

David Ciriello is a Management Consultant with an advisory services firm in the health care arena. He focuses on project and program management across large scale public sector transformation projects. He is reading for a Masters of Public Administration (MPA) at Roger Williams University and is a graduate of Oxford University. David has participated in and led many volunteer events and has served on the Board of Directors for a 501(c) (3) organization and as an Auxiliary Police Officer (APO) with the New York City Police Department. He is active with the Rhode Island ASPA Chapter and can be reached at [email protected]

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