When I took over as operations manager for the Good Works Trust Food Bank 13 months ago my experience with volunteers was limited. I’d been a volunteer myself from time to time, but I’d never recruited or inducted one.
I inherited 3 faithful food parcel delivery drivers; and our annual Christmas event would pull in some good numbers, but the lack of regular manpower had significantly restricted capacity and our ability to fulfil the Good Works Trust mission of reducing food insecurity on the North Shore.
The brutal escalation in demand created by the pandemic exacerbated the problem to a drastic level. Faced with either scaling up fast or closing down, I put the call out for volunteers and I started talking about our work, a lot, really a lot, everywhere, at every opportunity, continually… Describing the need most people never see and what the GWT food bank is striving to do to change things in our region. Our volunteer network began to expand.
Fast forward through a year of Delta lockdowns and Omicron surges (if only that had been possible). We now run 7 volunteer programs with around 40 regular volunteers. We’ve more than trebled our capacity and we’re currently feeding hundreds of tangata each week, thanks to the incredible energy and willingness of our volunteers.
They’re a diverse group – from working professionals to students, stay at home mum’s and retirees, as well as families, friend groups and flatmates.
“Shaun” is homeless – living in a tent in nearby bush, but has become a stalwart, frequently putting in 8-hour days at the food bank working alongside some of our casuals like Gill who is PA to a district court judge 3 days a week.
There’s a group of elderly ladies who collect egg boxes and brown paper bags for us at retirement villages and a home-schooling family who come and fill the egg boxes and sort the bags for us as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Award.
There are weekly re-baggers on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a night pack crew, bakery bread collectors, bread re-baggers, food parcel picker packers, and the front-line food parcel delivery drivers. Plus, the community angels collecting packaging, boxes and donations on our behalf.
Offering a range of volunteer opportunities definitely gives people more chances to say YES; from “behind the scenes” to “in the thick of it”. Some volunteers want the camaraderie of regular involvement with scheduled shifts at set times while others want to dip in and out, or are only available after hours.
By creating “crews” for each area of activity we’re now more resilient and those crews are actively recruiting new crew members themselves which is a cracking result.
It takes loads of communication (and biscuits). And much of it happens outside business hours using text message groups, messenger chat groups, and an app called Meal Train Pro (essentially an editable calendar which crew members can fill in and edit; it generates reminders and the whole crew can see any changes– a total game changer!).
While it all seems to work (holds breath, crosses fingers and touches wood) it’s not at all the same as having staff. You can’t fire a volunteer, or demote them if they get pushy or want to take over, if they’re late, unreliable or just plain annoying. Instead, it’s a delicate balance of leadership and hospitality. Akin to playing a giant game of Jenga with volunteers as the pieces; remove one key piece at the wrong time and the whole tower will messily collapse.
The wonderful thing is that people who volunteer generally do so because of one key driver, a fundamental desire to help, to serve their fellow man, to do good in the world. And so, they support not just the organisation, but each other. They are love-in-action. They are the food bank.
Operations Manager, GWT Food Bank