Good Neighbor Center aims to steer volunteers where they're needed
July 26, 2015 12:00 AM
Lois Mufuka Martin, the new United Way's Chief Volunteer Engagement Officer.
By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Days after she started her job at United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Lois Mufuka Martin walked into a room in the agency’s Strip District headquarters where 130 volunteers were huddled over sewing machines making quilts out of used T-shirts for homeless female veterans.
Among those who showed up for the “sew-in” organized by United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council and the nonprofit HomeLost Project, were employees of local businesses including Gateway Health, BNY Mellon, Federated Investors and the Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as a group that traveled by bus from the Vintage Senior Community Center in East Liberty to lend help.
For Ms. Martin, the convergence of corporate and community representatives was a model of the kind of volunteerism she hopes to replicate through United Way’s soon-to-launch Good Neighbor Center.
As the new chief volunteer engagement officer at United Way, Ms. Martin, 47, is charged with developing the center by creating partnerships between corporations, nonprofits, schools, universities, churches and other organizations seeking to connect volunteers with recurring, meaningful projects that will have long-term impact on the region.
She describes such volunteerism as “transformational rather than transactional” because it goes beyond a one-time stint at a soup kitchen or shelter and can benefit the volunteers as deeply as it does those who receive their help.
“In some ways, it’s a larger community organizing project,” said Ms. Martin who was chief executive officer of Bethlehem Haven for seven years prior to taking the newly-created position at United Way last month.
“Instead of going from church to church or project to project, there will be a framework to create strategic partnerships and relationships … between volunteers, [nonprofit] agencies and the beneficiaries,” she said.
Major funders for the center’s launch are FedEx Corp., which committed $75,000 more than three years; and the Fine Foundation, which is supplying $20,000 over two years.
Hub for helping others
The center, which takes its name from the legacy of the late Fred Rogers who espoused the idea of being a good neighbor in his books and public television programs, will operate mainly as a virtual base of information about volunteer opportunities.
For instance, businesses will be able to tap into the center to learn about projects that would provide corporate volunteer initiatives for their employees. Organizations such as senior groups and youth associations could notify the center when they want to volunteers.
Meanwhile, nonprofit agencies that provide services to people in need will supply details about projects with which they need assistance. Then the center will form collaborations.
Providing the best technology to support the center is her first challenge, said Ms. Martin.
She wants it be as easily accessible to senior citizens who aren’t computer experts as to millennials who work exclusively on smartphones, laptops and tablets.
“It can’t take 100 clicks on the website to get to it,” she said.
The idea for the center evolved through conversations among United Way officials who believed there was room to grow volunteerism by helping businesses and others in the community identify specific ways to assist people at-risk, said Henry Maier, president and chief executive of FedEx Ground in Moon and a United Way board member who co-chaired the committee to formulate plans for a new way to approach community volunteerism.
United Way estimates that 6,000 volunteers contribute 60,000 hours annually to its partner agencies.
Benefits of volunteerism
At FedEx, its 3,500 employees in the Pittsburgh region participate in United Way’s Days of Caring as part of an annual FedEx Cares Week during which employees use paid time off to volunteer at nonprofits including Holy Family Institute and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
But the company is always seeking new agencies and organizations that need their employees’ assistance, said Mr. Maier.
“If FedEx has a need, there must be other businesses that have a need,” he said.
Gretchen Haggerty, former chief financial officer of U.S. Steel and co-chair of the committee that spearheaded the center, said United Way needed a more strategic way to connect millennials and others with the charitable fund that raised nearly $35 million in its 2014-15 annual campaign.
“Some younger folks aren’t making a lot of money, so they don’t have money to give to United Way or other nonprofit agencies,” she said. “If they get involved in volunteering, they may continue to support those agencies when they have money to give. If you engage people in the mission and they see the good their actions are having and the people they’re helping, people will be more generous.”
Volunteerism also can be a way to raise employee morale and allow businesses to demonstrate that they care about more than the bottom line.
At the Sextant Group, a North Side-based technology firm, its 63 employees nationwide marked the company’s 20th anniversary July 17 with a paid day off during which they selected nonprofits where they wanted to volunteer. Among the places that benefited from the in-service day in Pittsburgh were Jubilee Soup Kitchen, Little Sisters of the Poor, Northside Common Ministries and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
“By offering the company-wide day off for charitable efforts, Sextant Group is united coast to coast under an umbrella of both service and celebration,” said Mark Valenti, president and chief executive.
A lifetime of service
For Ms. Martin, words like philanthropy and charity didn’t enter her vocabulary until she was an adult.
The Zimbabwe native said her parents raised her and two siblings “with the African concept that it’s more about obligation than philanthropy.”
“You do for others because someone has done for you,” she said.
She grew up mainly in Greenwood, S.C., where her father taught at Lander University and where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history. She later got a master’s in education with an emphasis in counseling from Clemson University.
Her career has included positions as a coordinator for a children’s advocacy network, executive director of a nonprofit that supported teenage mothers, and community fund director for the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County in North Carolina.
She landed in Pittsburgh because her husband grew up here.
In 2008, she joined Bethlehem Haven after that agency — which provides emergency and transitional housing for women — merged with Miryam’s House, another organization that assists at-risk women. There she managed the integration of two cultures and oversaw streamlining of the combined agency.
Volunteerism was a significant component of that job, she said, because Bethlehem Haven relied on volunteers from more than 250 faith-based groups.
As manager of a new program for United Way, she looks forward to “thinking creatively around volunteers, agencies and beneficiaries.”
“I wake up in the morning thinking about things like that.”
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.
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