Volunteer administration is big business at Food Bank for New York City. It takes a lot of help to provide food for over 400,000 meals a day for hungry New Yorkers through a network of 1,000 community-based food pantries and soup kitchens across the City.
“We engage over 20,000 volunteers each year,” says Heather McGreevy, Volunteer Engagement Manager for the Food Bank. “We have over 30 types of volunteer opportunities each week and need about 800 volunteers to fill them. It’s a really heavy lift.” And, she emphasizes, it is critical that she recruit these volunteers. “The work doesn’t stop; it has to happen every day.”
The Food Bank’s regularly-scheduled operations which rely heavily on volunteers fall into three areas.
The agency’s 90,000 sq.ft. warehouse in the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx is the hub of its operations, where major food deliveries are taken in in tractor-trailer size quantities and then re-packaged and shipped out to meet the specific needs of individual emergency food programs throughout the five boroughs.
“If we get a truckload of cabbage, like we did yesterday, that is fantastic,” says McGreevy. “But our members can’t take a full pallet of cabbage.” The Food Bank uses volunteers to take donated food items and re-package them in manageable quantities.
“We use shifts of 50 volunteers each, twice a day,” McGreevy explains. “That’s 100 volunteers a day, 500 per week, just in the warehouse.”
The warehouse requirements for large numbers of volunteers every day is actually an advantage. “This large opportunity makes it a fantastic fit for large groups, both civic groups and large corporations. We work with a lot of corporate groups for their annual ‘Days of Service’ where they come the same time each year,” says McGreevy. “A lot of nonprofits aren’t able to regularly take volunteers in such large numbers.”
The Food Bank also operates its own Community Kitchen which serves 400 to 500 meals every night at 252 West 116th Street. “We use about 25 volunteers a day here,” says McGreevy. “There are three or four different kinds of work.” Some volunteers want to work up front with the clients, she explains. They can help serve meals or welcome clients and help them find seating. For those who want to work behind the scenes, there are volunteer opportunities in the kitchen where they get a chance to see what it’s like to be preparing dinner for 500 people.
The same location also features a Food Pantry which operates using a “Choice” model where clients make their own selections of individual items from the pantry shelves – just like in a local supermarket. “We use volunteers to walk seniors through the pantry, explaining what they can get and helping them make selections,” says McGreevy.
In addition to these daily requirements, the Food Bank uses lots of volunteers for one-time events. “We engage 2,000 volunteers for the Food Network NYC Wine and Food Festival,” says McGreevy. “It is more than 120 different events over four days.” All of the net proceeds from the event go to the Food Bank and Share Our Strength. Last year, the Festival’s contributions made it possible for the Food Bank to provide over 3 million meals for hungry New Yorkers.
For MLK Weekend of Service, the Food Bank recently engaged 400 volunteers to work on projects at various emergency food programs in its network. “One group built a greenhouse at a program that has its own garden to supply fresh produce,” says McGreevy. “Now, they will be able to extend their growing season and have fresh produce through much of the year.”
And, the Food Bank uses volunteers to staff pop-up Campus Panties at schools where there is a need. “A Food Bank truck arrives and volunteers offload the truck, set up the pantry in the cafeteria or the gym and then walk families through the pantry,” says McGreevy.
How Do They Do It?
So, how do you recruit, assign, train, and supervise an annual “workforce” of 20,000 seemingly ever-changing volunteers?
“When you are managing volunteers on that scale, you need a really strong system,” says McGreevy, who has been with the Food Bank for about a year, but previously worked in volunteer administration at New York Cares and Jersey Cares.
The Food Bank has an extremely robust volunteer recruitment and management system built right into its own website. “If you don’t make it easy for people to volunteer you are not going to get people,” says McGreevy. “They can go to the site and create an account for themselves. It only takes about 60 seconds. Then there is a volunteer opportunity calendar where all our volunteer opportunities are posted. They can self-select an opportunity that they choose based on their own availability and interest.”
The system, which is powered by Hands On Connect, also shows potential volunteers where the volunteer opportunity is located, gives a description of the work and tells them how many spaces are available, in case they want to volunteer with family or friends.
“Once they click to sign up, they get a confirmation,” says McGreevy. “They also receive an automatic email that contains everything they need for the project – address, directions, who they will meet, what to wear, and what they will be doing.”
When volunteers come to the Food Bank, they receive a briefing and chat with staff members. At each individual work space, specific staff are assigned to greet volunteers and take attendance. Staff members guide them through the project, answer questions and make sure they are comfortable while they are working.
“At the end of the project, volunteers are given an ‘Impact Number’ – how many families were served, how many meals put out, how many pounds of food were repacked,” says McGreevy. “Volunteers leave with a ‘thank you’ from staff and knowledge about how their service had an impact.”
And, afterwards, they automatically receive another email “Thank You” that asks them if they would like to provide feedback on their experience. “We monitor that feedback and use it to work with our own staff,” says McGreevy.
Despite the finely tuned system, the Food Bank still faces some challenges in attracting volunteers. “Most of the work has to be done during the day. It is difficult to get volunteers to commit for that,” says McGreevy. “That is always a challenge for any program looking for daytime volunteers.”
The Hunts Point Market location of the warehouse is also a challenge for some potential volunteers. “Many volunteers want to work in their own communities where they live or work,” she explains.
To address these and other isssues, the Food Bank is continually refining its own operations to help meet the needs and interests of its volunteers. “Food Bank To Go” is a way of accommodating the volunteering interest of corporate groups who want to volunteer, but simply can’t get out of the office. “We bring our operations to them,” says McGreevy. “We take food to their location, set-up a temporary pantry and the volunteers can pack ‘meal boxes’ right there. We’ve done large scale projects with up to 3,000 people and smaller ones for just 20 or 30. The volunteers find it really cool to see their office space transformed into a food pantry and they know they are making an impact because all the meals they pack goes right out to programs that night.”
These volunteers aren’t the only ones who know the importance and value of what they do.
“If we didn’t have volunteers, it would cost us millions of dollars to do this work,” says McGreevy.