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Volunteers Give Nonprofit Sector its Momentum

PHILANTHROPY: Volunteer Appreciation Week Is April 16-22

“Volunteers are definitely the lifeblood of the organization.”

Edith Glassey
Chief Philanthropy Officer
Serving Seniors

Those are the words of Edith Glassey, chief philanthropy officer of Serving Seniors.

She was talking about the people who help her organization do what it does every day. That statement, however, could be expanded without much fear of exaggeration to something broader: volunteers are the lifeblood of San Diego’s philanthropic community.

April 16 through 22 is National Volunteer Week, also called Volunteer Appreciation Week. To mark it, the San Diego Business Journal checked in with the volunteer coordinators, nonprofits and the people (and corporations) who are part of this ecosystem.

“We have a very vibrant nonprofit sector here in the San Diego region,” said Emily Young, executive director of The Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego.

Emily Young
Executive Director
The Nonprofit Institute
University of San Diego

The region has approximately 12,000 nonprofits structured as 501(c)(3) organizations, but only a quarter of those are staffed. “Most organizations rely on volunteers,” Young said.

According to a USD survey, 31% of San Diego residents reported volunteering in the second quarter of 2022. That is down from 40% prior to the pandemic.

Passing Along STEM Skills

One notable San Diego County volunteer is Alex Szeto, who recalled arriving in the United States from Vietnam at age 18 without a high school diploma. The people at Mesa College saw potential in him and showed him what he could accomplish with some education. Today Szeto is a systems engineering manager with Northrop Grumman Corporation.

Alex Szeto
Systems Engineering Manager
Northrop Grumman Corporation

On the side, Szeto works with students, familiarizing them with STEM subjects – that is science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One day, it might be pre-kindergartners; the next it might be a student from the University of California, Berkeley. He coaches robotics teams and works as a mentor.

Szeto volunteers for 25 hours during a typical week. When it’s time for a competition, he might put in 50 or 60 hours. People helped him, and volunteering is Szeto’s way of paying it forward.

Szeto also researches up-and-coming technologies such as bioengineering, since STEM education advances hand in hand with the latest technology of the day.

Third Thursdays, With Pizza

Casey Castillo, CEO of Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank and North County Food Bank, said volunteer labor of all ages helps the nonprofit’s mission.

Casey Castillo
CEO
Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank
North County Food Bank

For example, the staff of Bill Howe Plumbing has a standing appointment on the third Thursday of every month to work in one of its warehouses. A typical visit includes pizza and childcare.

Volunteers from all corners of San Diego contributed 84,000 hours last year. “We could not feed the community and have reach we do without these amazing volunteers,” the CEO said.

Corporate support is also excellent, he said. Neurocrine Biosciences was one of the largest donors during the pandemic. Castillo also reports strong support from Albertsons Vons, Apple, Alaska Airlines, Baker Electric Home Energy, Bank of America, San Diego County Toyota Dealers, Mission Federal Credit Union, PNC Bank, Fox 5, Kaiser Permanente, Sharp Healthcare, Illumina, LPL Financial, SDG&E and ShopCore.

Saying Thank You, Telling Stories

Feeding San Diego has room for warehouse volunteers as well as people with more specialized skills. Database entry? Photography and videography? Gratitude callers? All are needed, said Allison Glader, the organization’s strategic marketing and communications consultant. “Anyone with a specialty with free time? We will take it,” she said.

Allison Glader
Strategic Marketing and Communications Consultant
Feeding San Diego

At Feeding San Diego, the number of volunteers fell off during COVID, but has rallied recently to 15,000, Glader reported.

The organization benefits from donations of food from San Diego County Starbucks locations as well as Ralphs grocery stores. Jensen Meat Company provided the organization’s largest food donation: 784,000 pounds of protein, including plant-based patties.

It’s a notable gift. “Protein is very expensive,” said Glader.

Doordash, Google, Nordson, Qualcomm, SDG&E, SOLV Energy, Vertex Pharmaceuticals and television stations have provided corporate support and labor. Schools and churches have helped too.

The Business Angle

San Diego has never been a center for Fortune 500 firms, but it is home to big businesses, which make their presence known.

Forbes reported in early 2023 that giving back, or volunteering, has become a top retention strategy for companies, particularly in their relationship with young people (aka Gen-Z) just entering the workforce.

It cites research from software provider Benevity Inc. that companies see 52% lower turnover among newer employees when they participate in what the research calls “purpose programs.”

Sharon Vidal
Global Lead, Corporate Social Responsibility
Illumina

One big company that encourages volunteerism is Illumina.

Like many large corporations, Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) offers paid volunteer time off and matches employee contributions to a nonprofit. “Fostering a culture that emboldens our employees to give back is integral to our mission,” said Sharon Vidal, Illumina’s global lead for corporate social responsibility.

Illumina does not use the word “global” lightly. The corporation has impacted 46 countries with community investment. During 2022, Illumina said it achieved 50% employee participation in giving or volunteering.

Energy giant Sempra (NYSE: SRE) also contributes to causes its employees care about, matching employees’ financial contributions and matching their contributions of time (the company matches volunteer time at a rate of $20 per hour). On particular days of the year, it offers more. April 25 is one of three “double match days” in 2023.

“It is a huge component of our company,” said Patricia Kakridas, corporate communications manager.

In 2022, employees from Sempra companies volunteered 32,000 hours and contributed more than $2.5 million to qualifying charitable organizations, for which Sempra Foundation provided $2.7 million in matching funds.

Cox Enterprises, the privately held parent company of Cox Communications, has an initiative called 34 by 34. Its aim is to empower 34 million people to live more prosperous lives by the year 2034.

Cox provides employees with 16 hours of paid time a year to participate in volunteer activities. Last year, employees in San Diego logged in nearly 4,000 volunteer hours in the community, said Ceanne Guerra, media and public relations manager.

Cox employees kicked off Volunteer Month at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center in National City. There they weeded, mulched, planted and harvested the community garden used to teach local students and the public about topics such as organic gardening, environmental stewardship and nutrition education.

Volunteerism can be highly specialized. Like many law firms, Procopio provides pro bono legal services to the community. The hours of service run into the thousands, said Patrick Ross, a representative of the firm.

Computers 2 Kids has 22 staffers and 100 volunteers. It could not meet the need it does, and do the volume of work it does, without volunteers, said CEO Cheri Pierre. The organization distributed 43,000 computers last year.

When Dog Days Are Special

Students going through the nursing programs at North County colleges frequently volunteer at Palomar Health, said Margaret Mertens, Palomar’s director of volunteer development and spiritual care. The hospital has about 225 volunteers, doing multiple jobs. “We just started a baby cuddling program,” Mertens said.

Margaret Mertens Director of Volunteer Development & Spiritual Care Palomar Health

There are also 10 teams of people and dogs in the Palomar PAWS program. A visit from a dog “alleviates a lot of stress and anxiety” among patients, Mertens said.

Palomar plans an April 20 luncheon for its volunteers.

Business models are evolving at some nonprofits.

Many San Diegans still think of United Way as an agency that takes payroll deductions and forwards them on to nonprofits.

Alicia Kitagawa VP, Strategy & Engagement United Way of San Diego County

Alicia Kitagawa, vice president of strategy and engagement with United Way of San Diego County, says her agency might now coordinate a day of service, where employees of Company A volunteer to benefit Nonprofit B. One example: stuffing backpacks for people who need school supplies.

United Way is also available to facilitate corporate social responsibility strategies, she said.

Also, in partnership with the University of San Diego, United Way helps train individuals for service on the boards of nonprofit organizations. It can connect a willing individual to a nonprofit that needs to augment its board.

Business Has a Role to Play

Businesses can play a part in this aspect of civic life by supporting nonprofits, said Emily Young at The Nonprofit Institute at USD. Businesses can provide financial support to nonprofits where possible, and encourage their employees to volunteer.

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