http:///When Jerri Rosen launched Working Wardrobes — an Orange County, Calif., organization that provides workforce tools to men, women, young adults and veterans — she worked as a volunteer, a position she retained for many years. Today, a host of dedicated volunteers and skilled interns continue to be an integral part of what makes Working Wardrobes successful.
“Twenty-three years ago, we helped 67 women from safe shelters, and last year we supported 4,653 clients,” said Rosen, the organization’s founder and CEO. “The only way that happened with just 16 people on staff was with an army of 3,500 volunteers and qualified interns. Volunteering is a capacity-building opportunity for a small nonprofit like us, because we don’t have the resources to hire for certain positions.”
Working Wardrobes finds roles for its volunteers and interns based on their skill level and their motivation to volunteer, said Rosen.
For instance, the CEO said the organization draws 300 to 400 volunteers for each of its three major events, and that most return each year to lend a hand. “The keys to happy volunteers are good training, keeping them well-fed and promptly acknowledging them for their service,” said Rosen. “They are amazingly dedicated. I started the organization as a volunteer and grew it for 12 years as a volunteer, so our model is different. We know volunteers can help us do everything and we love them for it.”
Marlo Kirkham, community resources manager at Working Wardrobes, oversees the Volunteer, Intern and AmeriCorps VISTA programs for the organization. Approximately 20 interns per year spend six months onsite gaining hands-on experience and working toward academic credit through partnerships developed with state and private universities and colleges throughout the Orange County area, she said.
“They get to learn a lot about the nonprofit business,” Kirkham said, “and much like vocational training, each receives professional development opportunities to teach them about the world of work.”
The popularity of the Working Wardrobes intern program has grown through a variety of avenues, the community resources manager said. Universities contact the organization directly, students call to ask if they can help in order to fulfill required academic hours, and students and faculty members have recommended the program after being involved with Working Wardrobes events such as clothing drives, she said.
Volunteers and interns do much more than make coffee, Rosen said. They provide numerous capacity-building benefits to the organization and are recruited with a specific skills set in areas such as fund development, human resources, technology and public relations. They work one-on-one with event planners, within Working Wardrobes’ career development program, and act as personal shoppers with clients, among many other activities, she said.
Perhaps one of Working Wardrobes’ best examples of how volunteers build organizational capacity stemmed from the organization’s relationship with the Corporation for National and Community Service’s (CNCS’s) AmeriCorps VISTA program.
Rosen said her organization wrote a grant proposal to be considered as a recipient site for AmeriCorps VISTA members and that she was pleasantly surprised when Working Wardrobes was awarded three positions.
“It’s remarkable for an organization of our size to have three [AmeriCorps VISTA members] onsite,” Rosen said, “but veterans are a priority for the Corporation for National and Community Service and they were interested in the services that our VetNet program will offer. We wrote for two positions and we were also awarded the third.”
According to the CNCS, the AmeriCorps VISTA program provides community organizations and public agencies with full-time volunteers to help initiate and grow programs that build on organizations’ capacity and assist those in poverty-stricken areas.
AmeriCorps VISTA members at Working Wardrobes work 40 hours a week for a full year and are paid a stipend for their service, the CEO said. Currently, one VISTA is working as a youth development coordinator to help expand programs and identify funding streams; another serves as a marketing and fund development coordinator and manages organization's social media; and a third position, which is presently open, will work in Working Wardrobes’ VetNet program, providing transition and safety net services to veterans.
“These VISTA members serve for a full year and are then recognized by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation,” the CEO said.
But having so many volunteers and interns moving throughout an organization isn’t always nirvana, Rosen said. “We realized that they have very little office experience and that business etiquette is foreign to them, so we developed our own VISTA and Intern training program, which includes a full day of training with Marlo and our staff,” Rosen said.
The CEO said the trainees focus on enhancing presentation skills and personal image, and each completes a personality assessment called True Colors that teaches them about how they work with others. “We figured if we are in workforce development, we better do the same for our interns,” she said.
Another challenge that the organization has to address is that many of the volunteers and interns come to them with less-than-perfect communication and writing skills. “Obviously they are young and a maturation process takes place,” Rosen said. “We have a highly professional environment so there’s a lot of editing involved, but we feel if we send someone out of here with an internship at Working Wardrobes on their résumé, we want them to have learned something that they can take into the workforce.”
Finding the right match between the interns and the staff can also be a challenge, the CEO said, because some staff members just naturally do a better job than others. Each intern is assigned to work for one staff person, who manages the intern’s workload and makes sure assigned projects are completed, she said.
Rosen said more nonprofits should offer opportunities to interns if they have the organizational structure behind them to support such an endeavor. “There’s tremendous talent out there but it does have to be a win for both sides,” Rosen said. “Organizations get projects done, but we have a responsibility to make sure that we help mature the interns and provide quality opportunities for the participants to learn and grow. We’ve seen some remarkable progress. It’s not always 100 percent…it’s important that everybody make the right fit.”
Kirkham agreed. “We’ve had great success: former clients become interns, interns become staff, or they reach out when they are employed in the community and we start new partnerships from there, so it’s one of those things that keeps giving back,” she said.
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Jerri Rosen is the CEO/founder of Working Wardrobes, an organization that empowers men, women, young adults and veterans overcoming difficult challenges to confidently enter the workforce and achieve self-sufficiency. Marlo Kirkham is the community resources manager at Working Wardrobes, helping to provide career training, job-placement assistance and wardrobe services in an environment of dignity and respect. To learn more, visit www.workingwardrobes.org or go to www.facebook.com/home.php#!/WorkingWardrobes?fref=ts.