Voices from the Field: Creative Volunteerism Builds Stories

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If ever there is way to draw attention to your story and attract a broad or cross-generational donor base, volunteerism remains a powerful go-to, and if done right, can have a profound influence on your brand.

Whether your organization is large and established – or is in its first-year of development – building stories and attracting donors means greater strength in sustaining your mission. So, if you’re thinking that wooing and using volunteers has only a marginal influence on a nonprofit’s reputation you had better think again.

Example? A couple of years ago, while still living in New York City, Russian-born Tate Osten was getting increasingly tired and hopeless about the prospects of establishing an influential business in the city. Having owned a gallery in the early nineties and having gone through a variety of artistic endeavors, she realized the time was ripe for a real change.

Reflecting on her roots, and the architecture of her native St. Petersburg, she found herself instantly drawn towards the city that most closely mirrored its history and cultural wealth: Detroit. Within days, she was driving on six-lane boulevards and well-paved highways, amid a great historical landscape of ruins, away from the noise and density of busy New York City streets.

What she saw reminded her not only of her home, but of many Eastern European cities, more specifically, Berlin in the late 1980s, during and after the fall of the Wall. “The decay, ruins, and graffiti was everywhere – so sad, yet so profoundly filled with potential,” Osten reflects. No doubt Detroit presented itself as dangerous: “While I was walking along the street a young man cautiously warned me that I’d better have a gun for protection.”

But that warning was not enough to scare Osten from pursuing her nonprofit dream: Kunsthalle Detroit

(pronounced KOONST-HALLE, German for art exhibition hall), a museum dedicated to contemporary multimedia art, light, and video installations. Osten used all her own funds, took no loans, and purchased a historic bank building and at once began renovate.

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What’s the connection with volunteering and donors? Within weeks of securing ownership of the property, Osten had acquired the help of many caring and concerned art lovers who shared the vision of changing Detroit from the inside out, allowing art to influence a jaded atmosphere and the makings of a community in search of a new story to tell.

Eventually volunteers increased and the story grew, to the point that at the official grand opening in June, Osten’s Kunsthalle Detroit had been covered by numerous media outlets, attendance exceeded expectations, and a global organization called Develop Culture had become a key sponsor. Not bad for less than 18 months at work.

Osten’s story is living, breathing proof of volunteerism at its best, and that even in the midst of the worst possible conditions it can help raise both an entire institution and the spirit of a once-dying city. And it’s only just the beginning.

Getting people to believe in your story, and to believe in you, definitely takes time. Not everyone will be willing to so easily disperse their time and fully dedicate themselves to something they do not fully understand; so it is your role to make it personal, real, and profound, and to explain the importance and the weight of the project. When they do begin to relate to it, and begin to truly understand it, then they will really become part of it, and share it with the world.

The point is, there is a vital thread tethering volunteerism, storytelling, and social capital. Whether it’s huge waves of oxytocin flooding helpers’ hormones into doing more, or just plain good will – the good news is that more people are volunteering, which means that more nonprofits have the means to share their vision with potential donors and make the world a better place.

Jim Bolone is vice president of organization development and learning at Magis Fundraising Specialists, and a volunteer at Kunsthalle Detroit. 

  • Jill Fixler

    Thank you for sharing this inspirational story about how volunteers can help you build organizational capacity so that your organization can fulfill mission and vision.

  • Jackie Norris

    What a wonderful story, and a great point about the value and vitality of volunteerism at its’ best.

    How equally sad, that in this day of increasing dependence on volunteers, volunteer centers around the country are losing funding and closing their doors because not enough funding organizations and individual donors seem to understand the need for an infrastructure to support volunteerism in all our local communities.

  • Krista B.

    Jim, you bring up an excellent point about the importance of volunteers “believing” in your story. When volunteers truly believe in and can relate to the mission they are serving, they are much more likely to put 110% of their heart and soul into the betterment of the organization. As volunteers begin to connect with the cause on a deeper level, often times they are inspired to go out and spread the word about the organization. Resulting in increased exposure and more eager volunteers ready to serve!

    As one of the prior comments mentioned, it is very disheartening that nonprofits are losing funding and having to shut down operations. Nonprofits transform the lives of so many people on a daily basis…it’s sad to see any of them forced to close their doors.