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Organizing a successful one-day service event takes careful planning. Finding a project that fits everyone may be the hardest part. After you do, it's a matter of putting all the pieces together, from recruiting volunteers to finding supplies, getting the word out and the work done. Here are some guidelines for making your Make A Difference Day event a success. To make planning easier, we've broken it down into five critical components of campus outreach to help guide you from start to finish.

Critical element #1: Community Voice

Before you identify a community service project, listen to the voices around you, and voices of the community. Community members can best define what needs to be done since they live there and share a history. Listening to their ideas is essential if we are to build bridges, make changes, and solve problems. There are many ways to learn about the needs of your community. As a resident, you probably already have some idea about the major problems facing your community. The best way to find out specifically what you can do is to contact community gatekeepers. Often they are not individuals but agencies that deal directly with the community, including schools, clinics, hospitals; local houses of worship; community groups, organizations, and associations such as Rotary, Lions Clubs and PTAs. Call them up. Attend a meeting. Ask questions. Do some research. Take notes, and most important of all, listen.

Getting Started

Get organized! First, establish an organizing committee. Once you have a committee, your first job is to choose a project and service site.

Choose a project
After you've contacted several community groups to determine their needs, the next step is to choose an issue or several issues on which your Make A Difference Day service event will focus. Here are some examples of service projects that other campuses have held in conjunction with specific issues:

  • AIDS - deliver meals to homebound patients, visit hospices
  • Criminal justice - tutor in juvenile justice centers
  • Disabled - help out with sports programs for people with disabilities
  • Domestic violence - work with women and kids in shelters, collect supplies in a food or clothing drive
  • Education - present special educational programs to schools such as science experiments or arts & crafts projects
  • Environment - large scale clean-up projects, parks, beaches, etc.
  • Health care - visit hospitals, work in community clinics
  • Hunger and homelessness - sort non-perishable goods at a food pantry, cook and serve food at a soup kitchens, distribute clothing
  • Senior citizens - serve with a Meals on Wheels Program, visit seniors in nursing homes, Adopt-a-Grandparent

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Once you've chosen a project, focus next on recruiting volunteers to help. The biggest reason people get involved is by simply being asked! In order to recruit volunteers successfully, you need to do more than post fliers and send out mass e-mails. That statement aside, you know what will work best on your campus. You know where people hang out, the places they walk past every day, and with what organizations other students are involved. Capitalize on that! Every campus activity is an opportunity for recruitment. Some suggestions:

  • Put tent cards or fliers on dining hall tables before meals.
  • Set up a table outside the student union and talk to students as they go in and out.
  • Go door-to-door in dorms.
  • Ask student leaders to make announcements during their meetings.
  • Ask your professors to let you make announcements at the beginning or end of a class or let you write announcements on the chalkboard.

Fundraising and finance
Another issue that you will need to tackle is funding your event. If you are going to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to deliver to the local homeless shelter, who is going to supply the peanut butter? The jelly? The bread? The knives? Who will provide the transportation? You need to determine your program budget and find ways to either get supplies donated or raise the money you will need to carry out your project. Here's how:

  • Check with your student government office to see what services they may offer.
  • If you have several different campus organizations represented in your planning committee, ask each to make a contribution to the Make A Difference Day fund.
  • Ask administrative or faculty departments for contributions. The Dean's Office or the Office of the President might be eager to support your efforts in some way.
  • Ask local businesses and corporations for help. Often businesses will provide in-kind contributions. For instance, you might be able to get a local bakery to donate day-old bread. Offer them something tangible for their contribution, such as publicity on your recruitment materials or on the back of your T-shirts if you have them printed for the event.

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Transportation and liability
Liability issues could be a major nightmare if there were to be some kind of accident. Check with your school to ensure protection for student volunteers. Getting to the site is also important, so ensure that it's accessible to volunteers. You may want to arrange for pick-up and drop-off services. See if you can get public transportation costs donated. And provide site maps as well as agency contact info to all volunteers.

Critical element #2: Orientation and Training

The next critical step in preparing your volunteers for the service day is orientation and training. Orientation should be mandatory for every participant and as close to the time and date of the service program as possible. Information should be provided for volunteers about the community, the issue, and the agency or community group with whom they are to work. Keep in mind that to be successful, everyone should have a pre-assigned task or the clear understanding of what will be required of them at the chosen project site.

Why do you need to have an orientation?

  • To give a general overview of what kinds of service the agency provides, what clientele they serve, what volunteer needs they have
  • To resolve any misunderstanding about the agency or the issue
  • To let the participants know why they will be working at the service site, what is hoped to be accomplished, and what they are expected to do
  • To prepare participants to learn as well as work
  • To prepare volunteers for emotions they may encounter at the site, i.e. frustration, uncertainty, sympathy, hope and joy
  • To train participants to act effectively at the service site

What needs to be included in your orientation?

  • The goals of the community service program
  • Information on the issue to be addressed (e.g. teen literacy)
  • Information on the agency and service site (e.g. alternative education center)
  • Information on the service client (e.g. emotionally disturbed teens)
  • Review of past experience from former clients and participants
  • The participants' responsibilities in the program: be on time, attend reflection/evaluation sessions
  • Program procedures and logistics: times, dates, how to get there, etc.

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Critical element #3: Meaningful Action

Meaningful Action means that the service being done is necessary and valuable to the community itself. Meaningful Action also makes people feel like what they did made a difference in a measurable way and that their time was well used. In determining what is Meaningful Action, there are two players involved. Both the community (represented by the agency with whom you are working) and the service participants (your volunteers) need to feel that the service was worthwhile. Activities that address both the community's need for action and change, as well as the students' need for a sense of well-being and accomplishment represent true Meaningful Action. Many times when students come in for one day of service, agencies will want them to do a task like stuff envelopes for a fundraising mailing, something that is not disruptive for the staff or their client population. An activity like this can be made meaningful for the student participants if they are working alongside clients of the agency, such as senior citizens. This kind of interaction with the clients would give the students a chance to learn about them and get an idea of what volunteering on a regular basis would be like.

Critical element #4: Reflection and Learning

After your work is done, volunteers should get together to share their reactions, personal stories, feelings, and facts about the experience. Discussing the day is an opportunity to dispel any stereotypes or ignorance about the group or cause served and get ideas about how to better serve the community in the future. Reflection also provides an opportunity to place the experience in a broader context. Volunteering often encourages continued community service. It is a learning experience. Discussion is an opportunity to share what volunteers learned.

Possible questions to ask participants or volunteers:

  • What was the project's most enjoyable/frustrating/surprising aspect?
  • What did you learn about yourself? About the issue?
  • How do the problems of the clients tie into bigger issues?
  • What did you like/dislike about the agency's services? n Why do you think the clients are in need?
  • How did this experience change the way you would combat the issue?

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There are many different methods for reflection ranging from group discussions centering around the issue to keeping a service journal, but one of the simplest and most flexible models for reflection after a one-day service event addresses three types of questions:

  • What? (What actually happened during your experience?)
  • So what? (What was the significance?)
  • Now what? (What do we do now?)

Critical element #5: Evaluation

Evaluation measures the impact of the volunteer experience and how effective community service can be. Service participants should evaluate what they learned or experienced as a result of their work, and agencies should evaluate the results of the volunteers' contribution of time and effort. The dual evaluation helps both giver and recipient determine how to improve, grow, and change future service events.

Here's why evaluation is valuable:

  • Evaluation can help volunteers have a more powerful learning experience.
  • Evaluation can help strengthen campus-based and community programs.
  • Evaluation can strengthen collaborating agencies' programming for clients and better enable them to use volunteers productively.
  • Evaluation can help document the impact of your programming and help you win support and expand the number of agencies and volunteers involved in Make A Difference Day in years to come.
  • Evaluation helps solve the community's social problems and provides those who use it with the ideas and tools to be more effective leaders.

More In Make A Difference Day

Make A Difference Day, the largest national day of helping others, is sponsored annually by USA WEEKEND Magazine and its 800 carrier newspapers. Make A Difference Day takes place on the 4th Saturday in October each year.