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Stepping Up to the Challenge

September 20, 2011

When it comes to volunteers, the need nearly always exceeds the supply. In the past, I’ve had many head-banging hours attempting to recruit people. Along the way, I’ve learned the elements of a good volunteer experience: a concrete result, the feeling that the volunteers are making a difference, and a sense of camaraderie. Thankfully, my luck turned, as I recently had a very pleasant and deeply rewarding experience at work organizing a major project with all three elements. I was the co-chair for my office for the Feds Feeds Families campaign, a massive federal government-wide food drive.

Normally, I’m not into food drives – I’d rather help people learn skills that build confidence and sustainability, than give them supplies. However, I immediately volunteered for two reasons. First, food banks, like the excellent Capital Area Food Bank we supported, are serving larger, needier populations than ever before. Although teaching skills is more productive in the long-term, it doesn’t help the family who needs food on the table tonight. Although food banks have always been important, they need more help than ever before during the Great Recession. Second, federal government employees have a huge potential to help and little is done to recruit them. Because of a variety of well-meaning and important laws, federal government employees can’t formally promote volunteer activities outside of the annual Combined Federal Campaign and Feds Feed Families. So I was certainly going to take the rare opportunity to enlist such a large group to one of my big causes.

With my co-chair, we decided we would have an inter-program office competition with the prize being a visit from our agency’s Secretary. Each office would tell us how much they had brought in each week and we would send out a weekly summary. As I wrote the summaries, I aimed to motivate people by expressing both cheery competitiveness and describing the heart-warming impact their actions would have. I also illustrated the results with graphs that compared the program’s results to each other. I hoped that the combination of language and visuals would help people enjoy the process and feel that they were “making a difference.”

Although the initial results were discouraging, attitudes began to shift quickly. Offices took pride in coming in first on a given week. People wondered why their office had a zero on the graph and sought to change that statistic. Leaders brought in baked goods to motivate more people to give. And groups began organizing large runs to the grocery store, strategically working together to increase what they could do. One group sent me a great photo of a staff member at a check-out line, giving a thumbs-up to the camera with a giant, goofy smile on his face. As that enthusiasm and straight-up fun is what I’m always going for, I was really glad they were able to capture it.

In the end, the smallest program of all won the entire thing. They brought in an average of an amazing 47 items per person! I was personally shocked at how much they beat my program by. I knew the tremendous amount my group had brought in from two different runs to Costco, as I hauled it all downstairs. In total, the entire office brought in more than 5,000 items of food and toiletries, far surpassing our goal.

As I tallied up the results, I was both impressed and so proud of everyone for coming together in such a big way. Honestly, I was quite honored that I could help lead such an effort.

Although my program didn’t win, we did come in third place, much to my gratification. One way I tried to motivate people was by offering to bring in a homemade goody for every week that we won. Despite bringing in vast quantities of food, we actually only won two separate weeks. As I wanted to make something sweet and had a lovely zucchini ripe from my garden, I made zucchini brownies. As Treehugger had just run its very useful “100 Things to Do with Zucchini” article, I found a good recipe and with Chris’s help adapted it to our needs. As the original recipe noted that their brownies came out rather cakey, we added an egg yolk. As a result, ours came out very sticky, which made them tasty, but rather messy. The folks at work enjoyed them anyway and several quite shocked that they involved vegetables at all.

Zucchini-Chocolate Brownies
Adapted from Get in the Garden’s recipe
1/4 c. natural applesauce
¼ c. vegetable oil
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 c.  organic granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 c. organic flour
1/2 c. cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. packed shredded zucchini, with the water squeezed out as much as possible
OPTIONAL: 1/4 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 c. chopped walnuts
Heat oven to 350 degrees. grease and flour a 9″x13″ pan. Mix the applesauce, oil, sugar and vanilla, blending well. Add the flour, cocoa, salt and baking soda. Mix well. (The mix will be dry.) Stir in the zucchini and optional ingredients if using. Spread into the baking pan. Bake 25-30 minutes until the top springs back when touched. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

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