By: Jordan Graham
It has been a year since the launch of the Volunteer Evanston website, and according to many involved, the platform has grown steadily, providing numerous benefits to Evanston residents and organizations alike, particularly keeping volunteers in town instead of heading into Chicago to help.
In the year since its Feb. 14, 2011 launch, the website has accumulated 385 registered volunteers, 67 registered organizations and 506 recorded volunteer hours.
Developed through a partnership between the City of Evanston, Northwestern University,District 65, Evanston Township High School and local nonprofits, the website allows Evanston organizations and institutions to post community service opportunities and then links them with potential volunteers.
Shanee Weston, former volunteer coordinator for the City of Evanston, said that the website was created in part to keep volunteers local. Evanston residents had been going to Chicago to volunteer, she said, often because they thought there were fewer local needs and opportunities.
The platform allows users to personalize their accounts and request to be notified of all volunteer offerings posted by a certain organization or opportunities that fall within a given field. Users can choose to be briefed by email or use the website as their primary resource. Additionally, users can opt to track their total volunteer hours through the website, a feature that many reportedly do not use, making the total volunteer hours that have resulted from the website essentially unknowable.
Site helps people find best volunteer fit
Seth Green, executive director of Y.O.U. (Youth Organization Umbrella, Inc.), an Evanston-based nonprofit that fell second only the City of Evanston in total recorded volunteer hours through the website, said that Volunteer Evanston had helped the organization expand its mentorship program.
According to Green, the two-year-old program had doubled in size over the past six months and has attracted more than 250 new mentors in the past year. Though Green could not say for certain how many volunteers came as a direct result of the website, he said that he thought it had been a large contributor to the recent growth.
“We don’t get all the volunteers, we get the best volunteers for our particular needs,” Green said. “What’s exciting for people, I think, is that they get to this website and there’s a menu there, so they can really fit their skills and goals around what the community needs. I think that’s what we’ve found so powerful about the matching process, because the people that ultimately come to us, it’s a subset of the people that want to volunteer, and it’s a subset that has specifically read our opportunity and said, ‘I want to make a real commitment to kids in the community.’”
For Y.O.U., this has meant that an overwhelming majority of its recent volunteers have stuck around to make long-term commitments to the mentorship program.
Green also said that the coalition of organizations and institutions on the website has encouraged collaboration within Evanston community. Y.O.U. has used the website to discover service learning opportunities offered through Evanston Township, and then used those programs to benefit its own mentees. Additionally, Y.O.U. has recently developed a partnership with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and has seen a large influx of student volunteers.
Andrea Bell, student community service coordinator at Northwestern University, said that she has encouraged students to join to discover local volunteer opportunities.
Bell said the website has most benefited independent students, who might want to volunteer on their own instead of through a student organization.
“We definitely know of students who have found volunteer opportunities that way,” Bell said. “Students who prefer to perform regular service on their own, rather than with student groups.”
Site continues to grow
In addition to partnering with local institutions, the City of Evanston has promoted the website through ads in local newspapers, social media, community service fairs, fliers and the city website.
Weston said the website is continuing to grow as more Evanston residents and organizations discover it.
Green said that even he has been amazed at the number and diversity of opportunities available within the city.
“Sometimes you say to yourself, ‘Evanston is a relatively small community. We likely know everything that’s happening,” Green said. “It turns out that there is so much going on in this little community that having a tool like the city’s this common platform, can be absolutely transformative.”
Volunteer Evanston allows only Evanston-based community service opportunities to be posted on the website, but volunteers can come from anywhere.
Other local organizations that the City of Evanston reported have been very involved with the website include Evanston Festival Theatre, Inc., Peer Point Medical Education Institute, LLC, and CJE SeniorLife.