New to our synagogue a few years ago, I was looking for ways to get more involved that would work for someone like me: a busy working mom with two young children in lots of activities. I found myself on a sub-committee that met once a month and needed someone with PR/marketing skills. As we were brainstorming new ideas for engagement, I casually mentioned that, for the past decade, I had planned my company’s annual community service day, in which we split up and tackle various projects around our city, such as painting murals, helping Habitat for Humanity build a home, stocking food at a local food pantry, serving lunch at a shelter, cleaning up neighborhoods, and so on. It’s been a ton of fun — in addition to doing good for our community, it’s proven to be a great team-building activity.
This piqued the group’s interest, and out of that conversation, my synagogue’s Mitzvah Day was born. After seven months of planning, Mitzvah Day was held this past Sunday: Volunteers painted pumpkins at a nursing home, led a bingo game at a daytime shelter, cleaned up the perimeter of the shelter as well as cleared brush on a local trail. The children in our religious school – including my 7-year-old daughter – joined in, too. Wearing Mitzvah Day buttons that read, “Act Like You Care,” they made 200 fall-themed placemats for our local Meals on Wheels recipients.
The day was a success, and now that it’s behind us but still fresh on my mind, I wanted to share our best practices so Kveller readers could think about planning their own Mitzvah Day this spring.
1. Set the date about 8 months in advance.
We sent out save-the-dates and got on the synagogue’s calendar right away to ensure no other activities were booked over us. We planned it for October, thinking it would be a nice way to piggyback off the sentiments of the High Holidays — but, truth be told, people were burned out by this time of year. Participation would have surely even better had the timing been different; next time, we’ll do it in the spring. #liveandlearn
2. Keep your service day short and simple.
I’m used to planning an eight-hour volunteer day for my colleagues, so this was a totally different animal for me. We initially had scheduled three to four hours, but we cut it in half to keep people engaged and interested. Two hours of volunteering proved to be the perfect amount of time on a Sunday morning — people felt like they did something good, but they still had half a day left by the time we wrapped.
3. Ask people where they want to volunteer.
Similar to employee satisfaction, congregant engagement is a tough nut to crack. But I have found by asking for input, people feel more deeply vested. So, three months out, we sent around a Survey Monkey, asking where people would be most interested in volunteering. Because we were limited to holding our Mitzvah Day on a Sunday, we couldn’t secure projects at every location congregants asked for — but we did score two, and no one kvetched that theirs didn’t make the cut. (I call that winning!)
4. Have a variety of projects, regardless of how many participants you have.
Our congregation includes several religious school families like my own, but is mostly composed of members 60 and older. To that end, we ensured we had at least two indoor projects and that they weren’t all projects requiring physical labor. In my experience, I’ve learned that groups of 10 tend to work the best for most projects — unless it’s a giant outdoor clean-up project. Then, the more the merrier.
5. Assign team leaders.
Nominate one person in each group who will gather supplies and serve as the point of contact for the group during Mitzvah Day should any issues arise. Trust me when I say having one point person per group makes things much easier for the organizer(s). It also cuts down on the questions from the group because they’ll know who to turn to.
6. Have a back-up plan if a project ends early or there is inclement weather.
One of the biggest complaints volunteers give about service days is there is too much idle time or not enough to do. Avoid this by having a back-up plan. For example, we had plenty of extra placemats and cards for the adults to make if they finished early.
7. Feed people.
Everyone loves snacks and free food, and a little goes a long way. We put out donut holes, fruit, and coffee in the morning, and offered a light lunch for participants. It may not seem like a lot, but food makes people happy and serves as a nice low-cost reward after volunteering.
8. T-shirts and buttons.
If your budget allows, have T-shirts made up for your volunteers so they can present a unified front in your community. The shirts also help make a great group photo, and can be donated to a shelter if volunteers don’t want to keep them. We also handed out buttons with the same logo as our shirts to the religious school kids and teachers. That was a nice bonus touch.
Of course, no matter how well you plan, something will surely go awry. Take the hiccups in stride and remember what a great thing you’re doing in your community. Go for it!