“We can elevate and transform our community through volunteerism. We just need enough volunteers to make it happen.”Volunteer Odyssey
Memphis is an incredibly philanthropic city and has been for a very long time. Memphians support the causes, nonprofits, and organizations they feel drawn to through financial donations. What many people don’t think about is the capacity that nonprofits have to efficiently and effectively use that money. Their dedicated staff can only do so much (which, we should note, is a ton of powerful and impactful work). It surprises people to learn that despite this financial generosity, Memphis has one of the lowest volunteerism rates in the country (according to the Corporation for National and Community Service). In order to maximize their efforts and fulfill their missions, they need volunteers. That’s where we step in.
Volunteer Odyssey was founded in 2013 by Dr. Sarah Petschonek, who graduated from the University of Memphis with her PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology. After graduation, Sarah took a corporate job, but felt like something was missing. She spent 30 days volunteering at 30 nonprofits in Memphis and noticed trends around the difficulty finding and signing up for opportunities. It took her several weeks to find enough opportunities for her month of service. This is an unsustainable model for getting the general public involved in civic engagement. Sarah knew that if Memphis was to be on the map for service, something had to change. She traveled the country researching best practices, and that time, coupled with her Industrial Organizational Psychology background, laid the foundation for Volunteer Odyssey.
Born out of a problem and a strong desire to find sustainable solutions, Volunteer Odyssey has been working to meet community needs through volunteerism for almost nine years.
The drive behind this work is two-fold. Our nonprofits need volunteers to fulfill their missions and complete their day to day operations. Simultaneously, volunteers need to have a quality experience to keep coming back. We understand that nonprofits are overwhelmed by the needs in our community. We know that meaningful volunteer engagement retains volunteers. We believe everyone can make a difference.
We partner with nonprofits to help them build capacity, streamlining the experience so they can spend more time engaging volunteers and meeting their missions. We support our partners in multiple key ways: sharing best practices for volunteer engagement, monitoring volunteer feedback, providing the technology tools and support, promoting their opportunities, and helping them recruit volunteers. We work alongside our partners to help them make the best use of volunteers and meet their missions. In order to fill their specific volunteer needs, we help match volunteers to an organization that is a good fit for them- taking into consideration the volunteer’s availability, passions, and skills. Referring volunteers to organizations and ensuring they offer high quality experiences enables us to create a culture of quality, which inspires investment and cultivates retention.
As a city, our volunteer rate is roughly 34%. We know there are more people who are willing and able, we just have to reach them. We know there are people who want to volunteer, they just aren’t sure how to get started. It can be difficult to see and sign up for opportunities or to find an experience that fits your schedule, interests, and talents. Another barrier is how volunteerism is thought of, or not thought of. Volunteerism is not a front-of-mind issue. It is often an after-thought, a requirement, or a reaction. We want it to be a choice. Volunteer Odyssey tackles these issues head on through quality and innovation. By creating a streamlined system to sign up for high-quality experiences, volunteers face less barriers and are more likely to keep coming back.
In addition to supporting our nonprofits internally, we work with organizations to broaden our reach and better engage the community. Our partnerships with groups like Choose901, cityCURRENT, and ILoveMemphis opens the doors to cast our net wide. These resources and partnerships give us the chance to reach the most possible people – the more people we reach, the more nonprofits we can support. Engaging as many Memphians as possible is important for organizations and is also important to the volunteers themself.
There are many benefits of being civically engaged. It creates connections between yourself and members of the organization and between yourself and members of the community. You meet neighbors you wouldn’t have the chance to meet elsewhere. You learn about different organizations and the gap in resources that their missions work to close. You practice new skills and learn more about your own interests and talents. Through all of this, you also create an economic impact through donating your time. Every volunteer hour generates $24.52 that goes back into the community (Independent Sector Yearly Report). Our nonprofits can focus their time where it needs to go. Our communities are uplifted by support. Our citizens are more informed, connected, and involved. Volunteering impacts every facet of our society.
For every talent, schedule, and passion, there is a nonprofit that needs you. For those interested in working with neighbors experiencing hunger or homelessness, Catholic Charities of West TN, St. Vincent de Paul, and Room in the Inn need you. For those interested in allowing animals the chance at a healthy and happy life, Memphis Animal Services needs you. For those looking to support local artists, no matter their medium, WYXR and Arrow Creative need you. For those who want to help maintain community greenspaces, Memphis Botanic Garden, Pinecrest Camp, and the V&E Greenline need you. For those looking to impact the life and wellness of a child, Carpenter Art Garden and Youth Villages need you. If you want to lean into a passion or find a new one, there is an opportunity for you to invest in Memphis.
We can elevate and transform our community through volunteerism. We just need enough volunteers to make it happen. Most people say they would volunteer if someone invited them. Let’s take that first step. We invite you to start today.
Dannon Thornton is the Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Odyssey. She graduated from the University of Memphis where she spent lots of time falling in love with the city through volunteering. You can contact her at email@example.com.