National Lutheran News

Is volunteerism the future of finding justice, serving others?

Nonprofit organizations — whether churches, social service agencies, or international development groups — rely heavily on both professional staff and volunteers. Over the last decade, philanthropic and government oversight have led to staffs of these institutions becoming more professional and accountable. Efforts are now afoot to help with the recruitment and training of volunteers, so that their participation may become more efficient and effective.

“Some aspects of the work of resettlement is best done by volunteers,” Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), recently told Metro Lutheran. “What volunteers bring to community engagement is important to them and to us.”

Hartke believes that volunteers can incarnate the calling of the church to engage the world in very authentic ways. With that realization, LIRS recently asked an outside research firm to survey a representative number of its volunteers. “The results of the survey are very important to us, and have become a foundation for future efforts to find volunteers,” said Tara Mulder, director of marketing and communications for LIRS.

“LIRS is now in a better position to recruit and equip people interested in offering their time and gifts.”

Following Hurricane Katrina, a group of volunteers from the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA traveled to New Orleans to help with cleaning and recovery. Photos provided by Sara Masters, Minneapolis Area Synod ELCA

“We wanted to find out about the motivation of our volunteers,” explained Mulder. “So, we surveyed voluntters who worked with LIRS on refugee resettlement and those who worked with LIRS on advocacy, whether online or meeting with their members of Congress.

“We found out more about the connection between our work and our volunteers’ lives. LIRS is now in a better position to recruit and equip people interested in offering their time and gifts,” said Mulder.

The survey of more than 200 people yielded significant detail. LIRS volunteers typically have a Master’s degree or higher, and make a higher-than-average income. Also, most volunteers with LIRS have some international connection in their lives. “Most volunteers either have had a significant travel experience or have an international friend whom they care deeply about,” Mulder told Metro Lutheran.

The volunteers engaged in the direct resettlement of refugees are more likely to say that they had a friendship with someone living outside of the U.S. Their care for this person motivated them to make a difference in someone else’s life.

Advocates, while also involved in direct contact with refugees, tended to want to make a macro-change in lives of people. They were motivated by a call to justice.

Finding reasons to give time

One of the most important motivators for volunteers with LIRS, most of whom have a connection with a church, is the invitation of their pastor. Often, it was the pastor’s “push” that initially opened the connection.

A volunteer engages the creativity of children at a Lutheran congregation in Galveston, Texas, at a Camp Noah event in 2006. Camp Noah is a program of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS).

Those individuals involved in advocacy also identified information provided in their congregation or by their denomination as important to their involvement. “There is a ‘viral’ aspect to their involvement,” said Mulder. At significant rates, they identified “receiving e-mails about issues and causes from friends or congregants” as important to their ongoing connection.

“Knowing this, we have been able to develop new tools for recruiting and training volunteers,” Mulder explained. “We will soon release a video to use at church events or to watch online to help people to get involved. We also will have education modules for classroom settings about what the refugee journey is like, what challenges recent arrivals face, and how LIRS and congregations fit into their resettlement.” These tools will help to better inform and equip volunteers, she added.

These resource tools look at the best practices of volunteering for LIRS. Since they are still in process and should be ready for summer distribution, people interested in knowing about availability can contact LIRS at outreach@lirs.org.

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