It Takes a Village…And, a Lot of Volunteers!

Last year the WMCCAI named Park Potomac (a 57-acre mixed use community off route 270 in suburban Maryland) their “Charitable Community of the Year.” At the time, Park Potomac had just celebrated the 10th anniversary of our “Ice Cream Social for Charity” (ICSC)—an event that has collected more than ten thousand new backpacks over the years for underprivileged children in Montgomery County. Many of my colleagues have asked me, “What’s the secret? How do you motivate volunteers to participate in a major charity event even once, much less for more than ten years?”

It’s a good question. As the event has grown, planning and execution has become more and more complicated. In addition to recruiting corporate sponsors and soliciting donations from local merchants for door prizes, we now have to worry about logistics, tents, flyers, posters, a sound system, vendor contracts, insurance, security, marketing and social media, and professional photography, not to mention selling ice cream tickets and collecting donations!  That’s a lot of stuff to worry about.

The idea for a neighborhood charity event originated back in 2008 when a group of us who had just moved into the neighborhood were musing about what we could do to give back to the larger community. Someone in the group suggested working with an organization called Interfaith Works of Montgomery County to help underprivileged children get ready to go back to school.

We realized early on that none of us had the experience or skill, much less the time to do this alone, and so we formed a committee—we called it the ICSC Planning Group. Looking back, here are some thoughts on how we managed to pull it off:

  • Someone must be the zealot. In order for there to be a vision there has to be a visionary—someone whose passion for the cause is so deep that it infects the others who are asked to help.
  • Articulate the cause. Although by some measures Montgomery County is among the wealthiest in the nation, the fact is that over one in three county school children qualify for free or reduced-price meals—a Federal government program for low income families. Many of these families struggle to provide the supplies their children need to begin the school year excited, proud, and ready to learn. That is a story that needs to be told.
  • Don’t be shy about asking for help. There are lots of people who may be willing to help but are reluctant to volunteer on their own. This may be the hardest part of the whole process because it is socially awkward to ask for help and sometimes it means facing rejection.
  • Assign clear responsibilities. Once we had the Planning Group in place it was a pretty simple matter to break down the project into pieces and assign each to a member of the group. Our process starts in early June with a kick-off meeting, then one or two status meetings in which each person reports on their area of responsibility prior to the actual event (in late August).
  • Make the event fun. In general, people want to help the less fortunate and are willing to work on a project if you are clear in articulating your cause. But, at the same time, you must make it fun in order for them to enjoy the experience. We try to create an atmosphere of comradery both in planning and during the event itself. And, we give each person a logo’d t-shirt to wear at the event so that they can easily be identified as a volunteer.
  • Partner with an organization that can provide full time follow through. It is important to recognize your group’s inherent limitations. In our case, we were pretty sure we could collect backpacks and school supplies, but we knew we needed help in getting them to the families that needed them. Interfaith Works (http://www.iworksmc.org/) provides a long list of emergency and empowerment services to low income county residents and was the perfect partner to handle the distribution.
  • Recognize your sponsors, donors, and volunteers. Most people don’t volunteer or contribute to charity because they seek recognition. But it is nevertheless important to thank all the people involved for their time, hard work, and other contributions.

Finally, it may seem counterintuitive, but it is important to publicize your accomplishments.  Working hard may be its own reward, but it is also nice to know that you have made a difference in children’s lives. Last August, we collected 2,946 backpacks and thousands of other school supplies. To see a short video of the last Park Potomac Ice Cream Social for Charity, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5t2gMYjDREA&t=0s

By Bruce Fonoroff

 Bruce serves on the Park Potomac Condo, HOA, and Master Association Boards of Directors and is the Chair of the Park Potomac Ice Cream Social for Charity. Previously, he served eight years on the Montgomery County Commission on Common Ownership Communities (CCOC) and is a longtime member of WMCCAI.

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