May 11, 2018 10:30 am

Homelessness nonprofits need skilled volunteers, not publicity stunts

A questionable social experiment inspired columnist Lansie Sylvia to ask three development pros about the best way for skilled professionals to help their cause.

The Back on My Feet team preparing for a race.

(Courtesy photo)

How to Give” is a monthly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


I saw your recent Instagram story critiquing the Philly Ad News article on whether copywriting can improve the public’s “engagement” with people experiencing homeless. I agree that the author didn’t really go about it the right way, but what was the right way? How can creative types give their time and talent to nonprofits in a meaningful way?

Yes. Excited for this one! Let’s catch everyone up here before diving in:

(Photo by Lansie Sylvia)

In the most recent May/June edition of Philly Ad News (the one with five dudes on the cover), David Dee, VP of brand strategy at Avenue Red, published a column called, “Might as well be invisible: Does the copy and design of a homeless person’s sign affect the engagement from the public?”

(Full disclosure: My picture is in this issue of Philly Ad News because I am senior strategist at J2 Design, and we won an award at the recent Addys, so we were featured in a round-up section.)

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The premise for the article is that David want to use his “ad skills” to “help generate awareness and create a sense of empathy towards the homeless.” He’s a “fan of social experiments,” thus he spends three days living on the street, using a different sign for each day:

  • Day 1 — “The Control: Your Average, Run-Of-The-Mill Sign: Homeless. Please Help
  • Day 2 — “Updated Copy: I’m Not Invisible. Please Help.
  • Day 3 — “Design Added To The Updated Copy: I’m Not Invisible. Please Help.” (He uses a “multi-colored, Sharpie-designed homeless sign” for this one.)

Spoiler alert — the third sign was the clear winner when it helped him bring in several cups of coffee and around $14 worth of donations that day. David wants us to know, “This experiment showed the value of putting effort into your advertising … you get what you give.”

Moreover, he is “hopeful” that this experiment will increase donations to organizations like Project HOME and Back On My Feet but that more importantly it can “begin to shift how we perceive and interact with these individuals, many of whom have simply fallen on some hard times.”

So … there’s a lot to unpack here and plenty of people more qualified to tackle the misperceptions of homelessness in Philadelphia, so I’m going to focus on the fact that a presumably highly skilled brand strategist (he’s VP, after all) thought that this was the best way to lend his talents toward this cause.

Skill-based volunteering” is exactly what it sounds like — volunteers use a specific skill (writing, accounting, web development, etc.) to help a nonprofit, free of charge. It differs from a more generalized type of volunteering (serving meals, painting walls, stuffing envelopes, etc.) which is still extremely valuable for nonprofits, but serves as a wider net to include more people.

Skill-based volunteering is volunteers use a specific skill to help a nonprofit, free of charge.

Lending your specific skills to a nonprofit can be extremely valuable for that organization. Let’s use this chap David as a specific example. If his goal was to raise awareness about homelessness in Philly, and to change perception, and also to go out there and really feel it by sleeping on the street, then guess what … there’s an event for that! It’s called a Sleep Out and it’s run by Covenant House PA.

So instead of making three cardboard signs and sitting around outside for three days, David could have contacted Covenant House and donated 72 hours of his pro-bono services to support them for upcoming Sleep Out events … in whatever way that organization thought was the best use of his specific skills!

“Skilled volunteers play a critical role in the nonprofit industry,” emphasized Rebecca Little, development and marketing director for Back on My Feet Philadelphia. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in our relationships with corporate partners when their employees offer industry-specific trainings, such as financial literacy with financial partners and job readiness trainings.”

Importantly, these skilled volunteering opportunities not only contribute valuable resources toward the nonprofit, but also help individual volunteers to better understand the nonprofit’s mission. This hopefully leads each volunteer to become personally invested, both emotionally and sometimes financially, in the specific programs they volunteered with.

Skilled volunteering opportunities also help individual volunteers to better understand the nonprofit’s mission.

More donations because of volunteering? Yes, please! But sometimes this financial investment takes on an even more innovative form.

“We are fortunate to live in a city where imaginative collaborations thrive,” said Christine Moriarty, manager of volunteer programs at Broad Street Ministry. “Rooster Soup Co. is a prime example of this. But such ingenuity starts with engaging in the organization at the ground level. Everyone wants to reinvent the wheel, but investing in a nonprofit’s unglamorous, daily work is the precursor to the greatest impact.”

Luckily, there are many worthwhile organizations that have a bevy of ways to get involved. Stephanie Lin, manager of annual giving and special events at Project HOME, noted that volunteers have lots of ways to plug into their mission to end homelessness and alleviate poverty in Philadelphia.

“Individuals and groups who are interested in volunteering have the opportunity to support our mission by helping at our Hub of Hope walk-in engagement center, tutoring our students, serving a meal, participating in neighborhood street cleanups, or hosting holiday events for our residents,” she said.

Creative types in Philadelphia, let this be your clarion call to use your skills for good!

Here’s your cheat sheet:

  • Find a cause that is meaningful to you.
  • Connect with a nonprofit working with that cause.
  • Ask them how you can help.
  • Understand their needs and how you can add value.
  • Use your talents!

In other words: “Stop, collaborate, and listen.”


Vanilla Lansie


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