In anticipation of today, the 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Day, designated as a National Day of Service, I was interviewed by Meghan McCarty Carino for National Public Radio about how organizations have adjusted their MLK Day of Service plans given the pandemic. As is the case with most media interviews, we talked about many things and I shared examples, information, and opinions, from which two quotes were extracted. Thank you to NPR for covering volunteering and service and the increased interest in volunteering in response to the many crises that have emerged in the last year.

Yet, there’s much more to the story. Days of Service are a double-edged sword. On the positive side, they are an effective device to raise the profile of volunteering in our communities. Because national days of service such as MLK Day and 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance garner great media attention, organizations can leverage this spotlight on volunteerism to broadcast their mission and volunteer opportunities more widely. With volunteers increasingly seeking short-term or flexible volunteer opportunities, a day of service is a way to reach new volunteers. And, for those organizations that have meaningful projects that actually require large numbers of people to accomplish them – like park clean ups or painting a school – a day of service can be an effective way to attract the workforce needed to get the work done quickly. But, let’s be honest, such large-scale projects that are meaningful are the exception rather than the rule. Which leads to the other half of this double-edged sword.

Days of service are often – I’ll come out and just say it – a burden to nonprofit leaders. Finding – or worse yet – creating projects for large groups of volunteers to do in one day has been challenging for years. For example, even without the social distancing protocols associated with a global pandemic, many organizations don’t even have the space to accommodate large groups. I have repeatedly heard from colleagues at homeless shelters, food pantries, and senior centers that they simply cannot accommodate more than 5-8 volunteers in their kitchen at a time or have more volunteers than they have clients to support on any given day.

The challenges posed by days of service run deeper than just logistics. As Jerome Tenille, MSA, CVA recently shared in his thoughtful and thought-provoking post The Misunderstood Social Construct That “Does Good:

…while giving back to others is a good thing, it can unintentionally cause harm to others, silently undermine the very issues we’re seeking to solve, perpetuate injustices and force cultural norms onto others.

Despite their good intentions, days of service can deepen cracks of inequity in our society by reinforcing misconceptions and presenting “quick” solutions to complex, systemic challenges. Writer Jayne Cravens also addresses the challenges in her recent post Nope, volunteering is not always inherently “good” (and in many other posts in years past), coming right out and noting that, while she does not outrightly oppose days of service, there are elements of such initiatives like “vanity volunteering” that she finds problematic.

I encourage you to read both Jerome’s and Jayne’s posts as any summary I could provide here would not do them justice.

The events of the last ten months have forced organizations to rethink and re-engineer how to do business. Whether arts organizations piloting virtual exhibit tours or food pantries responding to a three-fold increase in food support needs, nearly everyone has been affected – and the roles that volunteers play in mission-delivery have also been re-evaluated. As highlighted in the NPR interview, days of service have been redesigned to include more virtual opportunities. While I fervently hope the vaccination efforts underway will bring about the end of this pandemic very soon, I do not hope that we “go back to normal” when it comes to days of service – or volunteer engagement in general.

Just as the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of virtual volunteering year-round for many organizations – a strategy that has increased impact and made volunteering more accessible for many organizations for years – what innovations from our pandemic era days of service can fuel an evolved vision for days of service? Here are a few questions I am pondering:

  • How can we evolve days of service towards a message of “commit to serve” – so that we can inspire individuals to sign up to serve in future weeks or months when needs are still pressing?
  • How can we evolve the vision of service days towards days of reflection or learning? If we really want to get beyond vanity volunteering and engage people to address root causes of hunger and poverty, for example, how can we more widely incorporate learning into these days so that we tap into the best of effective “service learning” which includes learning, service, and reflection?
  • How can we equip leaders of volunteers and organizations to confidently have the difficult conversations with companies, faith-based organizations, and community groups that approach with the offer to bring – as I often describe them – “38-people-in-matching-t-shirts-to-do-something-meaningful-in-3 hours…”? What tools and resources can we provide so that they are comfortable explaining the challenges that large group projects may pose, sharing impactful alternatives that may look different, and even saying no?
  • How can we collaborate with funders to re-imagine a vision for days of service?

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope that these questions will fuel the conversation now – and sustain us after the pandemic ends.