Jeff Griffiths seeks to unlock the power of volunteerism at HandsOn NEO

Jeff Griffiths launched HandsOn Northeast Ohio to be a support mechanism for nonprofit organizations that struggle to assemble the resources they need to do their valuable work.

“Most social services rely upon people power to execute their mission,” says Griffiths, co-founder and executive director at HandsOn.

“But they often don’t have that infrastructure to make it easy for people who want to help. There are people out there who are aware of the needs and they want to do something to better the place they live. During the course of my career journey, I realized I could play a role in unlocking that power that everyone has to do good, regardless of age or who you are or where you live.”

Griffiths has logged more than 230,000 miles in his 2012 Honda Fit driving around his territory of Cuyahoga, Lake and Lorain counties.

“Our work centers around making it easy for people of all ages to volunteer on projects that are coordinated and managed by us,” Griffiths says.

“We support each project and coordinate the logistics and then we’re on the ground managing it with a volunteer we train. By doing that, that organization can take the time and money they would otherwise spend managing those volunteers and apply it toward their mission. Adopting more dogs, getting more services for seniors, providing more wraparound services for kids.”

Each year, HandsOn manages about 5,500 volunteers at more than 700 projects across the region.

“At some point this year, we’ll have managed our 40,000th person at a project,” Griffiths says. “I feel the weight and responsibility of those volunteers, leaders and board members, as well as the donors and supporters who have invested in us. They rely upon our volunteer management to fulfill their work. So of course, like everyone, days get stressful.”

When that happens, he takes some time to hang out with his three kids and his wife, Tina.

“Any time I need to breathe or unplug, I do so with them,” he says. “But then I get right back to it.”

Time to do more
A graduate of Miami University, Griffiths spent a short time in Chicago where he worked with a nonprofit volunteer organization that has a similar mission to that of HandsOn.

“I came back to Northeast Ohio and worked at another volunteer organization that was strictly doing volunteer referrals, passing out phone numbers and names,” he says.

“It’s important, but we found over the course of time working there that it wasn’t enough. Organizations rely on volunteers, people power, to help fulfill their mission. Often they don’t have the capacity within that volunteer management function to find, place, recruit, recognize and retain volunteers.”

Griffiths wanted to be more hands on, hence the name of his organization. He put together a founding board of directors, and with a young son, a second child on the way and a very patient wife, he got to work. The process begins with a needs assessment and site visit where Griffiths gathers information about what a potential partner is trying to achieve.

“We go in and test a project before it goes on our calendars,” he says. “We’ll vet it out and make sure we’ve got the right number of people, the right age minimum and the right tools and supplies. We have a written partnership agreement with every agency we work with whether it’s a one-time event or an ongoing partnership. It spells out expectations between each party.”

The next step is to train a volunteer leader who will take charge of the project.

“Volunteer leaders get an additional 2 ½ hours of training on volunteer management basics,” Griffiths says. “They shadow existing leaders or staff before they manage a project for the first time. Then we put together a tip sheet that spells out the execution of that project, the supplies, the directions, the parking — all the logistics from start to finish. We constantly evaluate it from the volunteer side, the volunteer leader side and the agency side. We think about it like any intensive relationship you have in your life.”

Empathetic, not sympathetic
Griffiths has made an effort to diversify his funding sources as a hedge against the ups and downs of the economy.

“We’ve seen independent volunteer centers like ours across the country that rely upon one source too much,” he says. “If that source is hurt by the economy or whatever factors — grants that go away, a more competitive marketplace, individual gifts going down — it jeopardizes the execution of the mission. We try to balance where funds come from.”

One of the biggest events of the year for HandsOn is the Homeless Stand Down, which takes place each January. It’s a one-day event that provides homeless individuals, families and veterans with a chance to escape the cold of winter and get a medical screening, have a hot meal, meet with a social service provider and even get a haircut.

“We take the responsibility of managing volunteers in a way that is empathetic and not sympathetic, that is thoughtful and respectful of the place and the people and provides the highest value possible,” Griffiths says.

How to reach: HandsOn Northeast Ohio, (216) 432-9390 or www.handsonneo.org