I didn’t catch his name and I didn’t much like him, but he really helped me out.
I was sitting next to him at a meeting at a nice school that serves low-income kids. He was an older fellow. He wore thick glasses and had a crooked smile. Everyone was there to see what we could do for the school. We went around the table and introduced ourselves. The crowd included school officials, people from other nonprofits, donors, and myself.
If you’re reading this, you probably know that I run a large volunteer organization called Big Sunday. We now do events throughout the year, but our largest event, and the thing for which we’re best known, is Big Sunday Weekend. Last year on Big Sunday Weekend, more than 50,000 people of all ages and all backgrounds, worked together at more than 500 different different nonprofit events in more than 100 towns and cities throughout southern California. The idea is that everyone has some way that they can help somebody else. Cool, right?
I couldn’t figure out why the fellow next to me was there; he wasn’t with the school, with any of the nonprofits, or with me. He said what he did, but it didn’t seem to fit in with anything. He was, I figured, a donor; nonprofits always need donors and he was there to help.
When I told the crowd what I did and why I was there – we were planning to do a big project at the school on Big Sunday Weekend and I wanted to see what was most needed and how we could best help – the crowd was very complimentary, responsive, and nice. The school officials were excited and grateful for our offer of help. As the meeting went on (and on)(and on) I looked around the table and started wondering, based on our introductions, how we might all work together to help both this school and other projects we might be involved with.
Finally, the meeting ended. As I was gathering my things, I turned to the fellow next to me. I’d figured out a cool way we might work together to help the school. I extended my hand and told him that it was nice to meet him. He responded with a crooked smile, and a suggestion of his own: “Now you just have to figure out how to get those people involved the other 364 days of the year.”
Okay. Yes, I believe he was just, in his own, ham-fisted way, trying to help. And, perhaps yes, he probably was good-hearted. But…I need this?
Doing Big Sunday I get asked all kinds of questions: How can I help? Is it too late for my nonprofit to get assistance? What else can I do? But, without doubt, my favorite is the one just asked. Actually, this gentleman didn’t put it as a question – it was somewhere between a not-too-friendly suggestion and an order – but you get the idea.
Truth is, I like this question, because not only is it a good one, but also because if this is someone’s reaction to what I do, I’d prefer for them to ask me so that I can answer it directly. Now, this question, is usually not asked in a way that is, um, polite. The attitude is usually somewhere between “Gotcha!” and self-righteousness. It is also a tad insulting because it suggests that a) the event that I (and many others) work hard on is stupid and b) that because I had never considered this question, I am stupid, too.
In short, I am glad to be asked the question to prove that I am not, in fact, an idiot. (Sometimes you’ve gotta set the bar low.) However, the trick is to answer the question without seeming a) a tad insulted, b) defensive, or c) pissed off that I have just been a tad insulted.
I’ve gotten pretty good at my explanation, talking to the person about their concerns, and checking my irritation. After all, the goal of Big Sunday is to bring people together in the name of greater understanding, and if I can clear the air and maybe build a bridge, so much the better.
This is the deal: Some people volunteer all year-round. They do every year, and they have for as long as they can remember, and more power to them. For others, Big Sunday Weekend may be the first time they’ve volunteered all year. It may be the first time they’ve volunteered in their life. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all good. My job is to put the volunteer opportunities out there, and let people know that they’re wanted and needed. Maybe they’ll learn about a nonprofit that they’d never known about before. Perhaps they’ll discover that they can help in all kinds of ways that they’d never imagined. I see events like Big Sunday Weekend as putting the spark to the flame. At the least, we get a lot of work done at the time; at the best, we become a catalyst for an involvement that continues throughout the year.
To be sure, many people who participate on Big Sunday Weekend do remain involved. It’s great to meet someone who participated on Big Sunday come back the following year and say, “Last year I volunteered on Big Sunday at that school, and now I’m a mentor there.” Or, “we went to that home for people with AIDS and went back at Christmas and brought them a tree.” Or “I painted that drop-in center for runaway teens, and now I’m on their board.” (All true stories.)
Of course, there are people who just help on that one weekend — or, just one day of the weekend – and that’s it. But they’ve helped someone else, and that’s good, too. It’s all good.
For the record, Big Sunday now does events throughout the year. We have a community calendar with about 60 events a month. We do more than 75 projects between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. And we’ve started monthly special events to help out and fill gaps where we’re most needed. re always looking for new ways to meet the needs of our many nonprofit partners who need extra help as well as the many good-hearted people out there who want to provide it. Still, the event we’re best known for is Big Sunday Weekend.
So, I have my answer, and I think it’s a good one. But on this day, with this fellow, it was particularly tough to respond. That’s because the gentleman was, um, hurrying away as he said it. (Really.)
And unfortunately, I’d never mastered the quick reply. I’d tried for years, but I could never nail it. If my usual rap is an elevator speech, this was more like the jumping-out-the-window speech. How do you answer that in one second, to someone walking away? Frankly, the first response that came into my head was short. Actually, just two choice words. However, since I was standing within earshot of a nice school principal I kept them to myself – when suddenly, finally, the answer I’d been searching for for ages popped into my head, and I called out to him: “Gotta start somewhere!”
He looked at me over his shoulder, smiled his crooked smile one last time, and then he was gone.