Viva Volunteerism!

Viva Volunteerism!

Turn your desire to help into action with these seven tips. Plus meet Panera Bread associates who are putting others first.

Want to offer your time to a worthy cause? You’re not alone; most of us do have an impulse to help because we know it feels good to give. Research at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom in 2012 found that people who volunteered regularly actually lived longer, healthier lives than those who didn’t. But finding the right volunteer opportunity can often trip us up. Here are seven tips to get started. 

Go online. Start at one of the larger online databases that exist for the very purpose of matching willing volunteers with the projects that best suit them. Three good ones: VolunteerMatch, Idealist, and HandsOn Network. On these sites, you plug in where you live and what your interests are, and you’ll see a list of volunteer opportunities, such as tutoring students and building houses. You’ll also find ways to help charities that are far away but close to your heart, such as helping save Florida manatees even if you live in Nebraska. 

Take account of your time. Volunteer opportunities exist to fill just about any time you have available, from the 15 minutes required to write a sick child a letter to the much longer commitment of serving on a charity’s board. “If you have very little time, you can do what’s called microvolunteering,” says Robert Rosenthal, vice president of communications and marketing for VolunteerMatch. “The key is to communicate your time availability to the nonprofit.” That way, the organization can tell you what you might do. 

Start small. People often don’t volunteer at all because they’re afraid of wading in too deep and regretting it, says Jenny Friedman, executive director of Doing Good Together, which focuses on family volunteering. Examples of small-scale projects: a one-day park cleanup for an environmental charity, or manning a phone bank for a charity fund drive. 

Go local. Not to dismiss the needs of large national or international charities (like the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and The Salvation Army), but “small local charities are often overlooked by potential volunteers,” says Friedman, who suggests researching close-to-home nonprofits (think: a Head Start preschool, an animal shelter, a food bank) and speaking to the director or volunteer coordinator. The benefit? Knowing that you are making a difference in your own community. 

Match your passions to your efforts. Are you a politics junkie? Volunteer at your local polling place on Election Day. Are you feeling out of sorts since your kids fled the nest? Consider organizations that help children, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, or become an unpaid tutor for at-risk students.

Share your skills. Many nonprofits are eager for skilled help, whether that is writing press releases or marketing materials, photographing events, or building and maintaining websites. Let nonprofits you’re particularly interested in know what your talents are (fund-raising, accounting, writing, etc.) and see if they can use some free assistance, says Friedman. 

Consider where you’re most comfortable. Are you a people person? You might want to volunteer to read to residents at nursing homes. But if you’re more comfortable helping from afar (or from home), there’s still plenty you can do: packing and shipping care packages for overseas troops, making phone calls, stuffing envelopes.

Helping Hands

Meet Panera Bread® associates who take pride in their community work:

Feeding others is at the heart of everything Panera Bread does as a company—and that extends beyond the doors of our bakery-cafes. Through our work with Feeding America®, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, we continue to find ways to help wipe out hunger. “We know we can do more,” says Kate Antonacci, director of societal impact initiatives at Panera Bread. “We have 80,000 caring associates who want to get involved, and a passionate customer base who we think would welcome new opportunities to fight food insecurity with us. Feeding America provides food through more than 200 food banks and 61,000 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters in communities across America. We think getting some boots-on-the-ground in such places would be the perfect way to drive change together as the Panera Family.”

Kate’s excited about the many 2014 volunteer initiatives currently in the works that will bring together associates and customers. “We have our eye on many ways to deploy our great associates this year, including organizing dozens of volunteer events to activate our teams and customers together,” she says. Look for details on these opportunities in your local bakery-cafe soon. Meanwhile, keep reading to learn how two of our own associates have been putting their spare time and endless talents to work in their communities. 

Nancy Price, Fresh Dough Facility Regional Human Resources Manager  

Music connects Nancy Price and her husband, Steve, to their hometown of Loomis, California. Since 2010, the couple has organized the Be the Change Winter Music Festival, which raises money for different local nonprofit organizations. 

Nancy was inspired to create the event after reading about the negative impact reductions in city and county funding were having on a number of homeless families and individuals in the area. A longtime music fan, she tapped into her business skills and quickly pulled together the first event in just 30 days. Steve, one of the founding members of the rock band Pablo Cruise, got to work recruiting musicians to donate performances to the cause. 

Already working on the fourth festival, Nancy says she’s thrilled to see the event continue to gather momentum. Fifteen musicians, 33 volunteers, and a local production company donated their talents this past December. About 400 people attended the music event, which raised $18,000, with $6,000 going to the Gold Country Wildlife Rescue and $12,000 to The Gathering Inn, a nonprofit organization that provides those in need with a warm and secure place to sleep at night. 

“What I do for Panera Bread as a human resources manager is work with people to find what they’re passionate about,” Nancy says. “When I’m putting together the festival, that’s what I do too. I steer people to an area where they’ll shine. There is a lot of crossover. The culture in Panera is to treat people as family and do what you can to help the community. I feel fortunate to be able to give back. We came together and created a magical event to help people. Sometimes it just takes a small group of people to get things going.”

Stephanie Wren, Senior Regional Marketing Manager

A first-time volunteer, Stephanie Wren didn’t know what to expect as she walked into the St. Francis Center soup kitchen in downtown Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day 2013. She’d helped arrange a donation of soup and baguettes for 300 and was on hand to help serve.

“The way the kitchen delivered the food was wonderful,” Stephanie recalls. “There wasn’t a long line. It was restaurant style. There were place settings, and we would bring the food to the individuals. It felt really good to be a server, to be part of this great operation.”

In addition to making the food donation, Panera Bread partnered with a local nonprofit organization, EnrichLA (which creates edible gardens in K-12 schools throughout Los Angeles, providing educational opportunities at each site) to serve the guests. Four students from the program also volunteered that Thanksgiving Day with Stephanie. 

In her role as a senior regional marketing manager, Stephanie manages advertising budgets and assists Panera Bread franchises with local marketing. Stephanie was inspired to volunteer by Panera Bread franchisee Ingrid Roberts, who has been part of several local food drives and makes donations and volunteering a part of her business. 

After volunteering on Thanksgiving, Stephanie wanted to give more of her time. So on Christmas Day Stephanie, along with her husband, spent four hours at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank sorting and organizing products there. 

“Panera has introduced me to the purpose-driven approach in the workplace,” Stephanie says. “It made me want to find more meaning to the holidays. I had never volunteered before, and it is an inspiration. These were truly rewarding experiences that added a lot of value to the season.”