In a city like Philadelphia, there is a vast network of small nonprofits that rely on volunteers to keep the doors open. Here are a few of them.
In spring 2015, an international nonprofit called BuildOn announced that it would have to close its Philadelphia branch due to lack of funds.
For employee Greg Lynch, that meant he was out of a job. But he couldn’t just walk away from the work, or the young people it was helping.
“For a lot of our kids this was really their family, their place to fit in, their place to belong,” said Lynch.
BuildOn organized volunteer projects for city youth so they could help improve their own communities and learn the value of service. Lynch figured he could preserve the bones of what BuildOn had established. For nearly two years now that’s exactly what he’s been doing.
Lynch launched his own organization, Youth Volunteer Corps of Philadelphia, a month after BuildOn closed shop. Since then, YVC has recruited over 400 young people to participate in volunteer projects and organized regular club meetings at a number of Philadelphia public schools.
Lynch works 40 hours a week keeping the fledgling organization afloat, and he does it all without taking a salary.
“Obviously that’s not sustainable for me forever and time is getting a little short, but it’s my dream that I’m able to generate enough support that I can continue working on this with them for the long term,” said Lynch.
There are scores of nonprofits across Philadelphia with similar dreams and similar means. Nationally, about 30 percent of public charities report less than $100,000 annually in total expenses, according to the Urban Institute. And that total excludes organizations like YVC, whose gross receipts don’t meet the IRS filing threshold of $50,000.
Like so many entrepreneurs fiddling away in garages, the people who run these start-up nonprofits rely on ingenuity and sweat equity. For them volunteerism isn’t simply something to perform once a year on this National Day of Service. Rather it is embedded into their daily lives.
And thousands of young people around the city benefit from their service.
Take the case of Rebel Ventures, which also has its roots in a painful closing.
In 2013, the School District decided to shutter George Pepper Middle School in southwest Philadelphia. At the time, Jarett Stein was running a small nutrition program at the school that seemed to be generating some momentum.
Noticing a dearth of healthy food options at their school and in their neighborhood, the students in Stein’s program decided to create their own brand of snack bars. The idea and the product quickly caught fire. Stein knew he couldn’t let the initiative die just because the school was closing its doors.
“The kids were talking with me and it was just so powerful and positive that it seemed like we’d really figured something out there,” said Stein.
The program soon migrated to the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for community partnerships, where Stein works as a director of student engagement. There it grew into a small business run almost entirely by young people, a place where they spread the gospel of good nutrition, receive job training, and learn the nuances of entrepreneurship. In just the last month, Rebel Ventures became its own 501(c)3. Stein’s title is volunteer executive director, a job that requires about 20 hours a week of work.
Other organizations, like Minds Matter Philadelphia, rely on whole networks of volunteers.
Minds Matter is a mentorship program that prepares high-achieving, low-income students for college. Students join the program as sophomores and stay until they complete high school, meeting weekly during the school year with mentors who help them navigate their school work, college entrance exams, college applications, and the harrowing financial aid process.
Each student has two dedicated mentors, all of which are volunteers. The dozen or so people who run the organization also donate their time. Minds Matter doesn’t have any paid employees.
Devon Madison, senior vice president of programs, dedicates 10-20 hours of time a week to Minds Matter. She does that on top of her job as an assistant principal with the Mastery Charter Schools network.
“The fact that our organization is all volunteer is something I’m really proud,” said Madison. “It puts a smile on my face.”
For Greg Lynch of Youth Volunteer Corps, most days end with a smile, as well.
“Four out of the five or six or however many days of the week this is incredibly exciting and I’m passionate about it and I’m having a great time,” he said. “And then one or two days it’s just completely terrifying.”
It’s easy for doubt to creep in. Lynch has now gone nearly two years without a paying job, all in his quest to make YVC a permanent fixture of the Philly nonprofit scene. He admits raising money is tough, and receiving rejection notices from philanthropists and foundations may be even tougher.
At the moment, YVC is running an online campaign to raise the $15,000 it needs to meet its operational expenses for the year. The goal of the organization’s recently formed board is to ultimately scrounge together $80,000 so it can support the program and hire someone full-time to run it.
“A lot of our kids come from places where they don’t have a lot of communities of support,” said Lynch. “And that’s really the reason I’m doing this work, because I see the value in that healthy community and the positive outcomes it has for the kids that are involved.”