Why do Volunteers Get their “Hands on Nashville?”

My mission was to answer the question, “Why do they do it?” There must be a reason why people give up their time to help others, with no visible evidence of compensation, and I was going to find it. I walked into the renovated Rolling Mill Hill Trolley Barn that is now the official Hands on Nashville office space, question in hand, to talk with the nonprofit and volunteer relations coordinator, Julie Abbott. As someone from the West Coast, this overwhelming hospitality and seemingly always-present “extra set of hands” was a new concept to her. And although I have grown up in The Volunteer State myself, our conversation during those thirty minutes was going back and forth, working to uncover what it is, precisely, that give us the want to, the need to, the drive to give back.

After five years in Nashville, Julie explained the realization that it is now hard for her to go back to the West Coast. “People here live up to the “nicest city” reputation. The feeling of wanting to give back… it’s just what Nashville does! It’s why volunteerism works here,” she said.

I think something of note is the community present in the HON office. Julie explained that the employees come together as service-oriented people and each department has a good idea about what everyone else is doing. “Everyone’s door is wide open; it’s the culture here. We all wear multiple hats, and our work is intertwined,” she said. “I think when new people come to work here, they are blown away by the fresh fruit and veggies provided to us every Monday morning, just a part of our green and sustainable culture. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten on here.”

Hands on Nashville has 150 community partners, and the full-time employees spend 40 hours a year serving them. One of Julie’s favorite projects is a big hit: the Home Energy Savings Project. Julie, as a project manager, goes in to engage volunteers in improving the energy efficiency, comfort and safety of Nashville homes owned and occupied by Nashvillians living on a very-low-income. Utility analysis of each home allows for measurement of the environmental impact of the work: changing lightbulbs, caulking windows, adding insulation to the attic, etc. You can see the immediate effect on the house from the difference in the air flow and being able to watch the number drop. “It’s so awesome to see how a lady’s energy bill every month would be dramatically different, just from two simple hours of work,” said Julie.

So why do these people find their work important? They are the liason between the eager volunteers and the needs of the city. The nonprofit partners come with their needs, and through the HON system, the needs are met. Julie said they can always use more volunteers, but do not generally find a shortage of them: “The big thing is that people are always willing to step up and help. It may not be the frontline opportunity, but it’s important. When people learn about it, they always seem to be ready.”

Service HouseSo then I have to ask myself, why do I do it? Why am I spending 10 hours a week serving? Admittedly, it feels good to serve, but I don’t think that means there is a selfish motive, necessarily.  I think the best I could describe it is through my value of being a servant and showing others the hope and love I have. I’ve never been in a postition where I was the victim and a team of volunteers came and made life better for me. So my need to give back might just be from a place of gratitude for the blessings in my life already. For the want to share the kind of life I have. To make the relationships with those who don’t have the life I have, and being able to provide something better for them. And even with that said, I still don’t think that describes it, fully. I’m stuck.

But one thing I can do? Follow up. Make the connection, and don’t let it go. There is a certain upkeep to these projects, and it’s up to the volunteers to make sure things are working and will continue to work. There may be a lot of “one-and-done” sort of jobs, but the community is fostered when the relationships are maintained after the fact.

There are a lot of repeat volunteers. Julie has noticed that after someone has been served, sometimes they are the ones coming and helping to pay that service forward to someone else. Giving back. It truly is a need we feel as humans. Is it guilt? An allegiance? Who is to say? Whatever it is, it garnered roughly 1,600 volunteers at this year’s HON Day on September 19, in its 24th year. People spread out all over Nashville, painting, weather-stripping and gardening at 31 Metro Nashville schools, including some former students of those same schools, making a $110,736 economic impact.

So, I cannot say whether or not we were successful. This is a question I think that one cannot really answer, but only observe. I think our conclusion was that people volunteer for their own reasons, and individuality may actually be at the core of this Nashville group mentality, as ironic as that sounds. People do it because it’s in their blood.

 If you feel it’s in your blood too, head on over to the Service Calendar or the HON Service Opportunity Site, and find your own avenue to give back! And if you think of anything else that might prompt one to serve, let me know in the comments!