“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead
Anyone can think about serving their community, but putting service ideas into action is when real change happens. Jeff Franco of City Year Washington, DC joined us at the U.S. State Department to discuss his views and offer advice on community action through a Facebook Live video chat.
Franco, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, moved to Washington 20 years ago to further his studies and eventually found his place at City Year DC. In his role as vice president and executive director, Franco advocates for youth involvement in the education of children in underserved communities. Participants aged 17–24 take a year to volunteer in schools as friends and mentors in order to close the gap between what students need and what schools are able to provide. Not only is City Year’s work beneficial to the students and school districts receiving the assistance, but also to the volunteers, who strengthen their social awareness and build leadership skills during their rigorous year of service.
Being Authentic Leaders
Responding to a request from the online audience for advice to young leaders in community service, Franco talked about the importance of being authentic in your work, especially so in leadership and community service positions. Finding an intersection between your passion and the needs of the world is absolutely necessary to be successful. He described a leader’s work as a “beautiful struggle,” pointing out the hard work and dedication that is needed to be rewarded with the change you want to see in the world. He went on to emphasize the importance of an authentic leader to provide continuous inspiration to volunteers.
Young volunteers have a special aptitude for being authentic leaders. According to Franco, most people have a desire to serve, but youth especially have the energy necessary to act on that desire. City Year’s role is to harness that energy and organize it into a channel for education services.
Interacting with the Community
One obstacle you will need to overcome is how to get involved in a new community. Different cultures may exist or the community members may not always be welcome to your mission at first. It’s important to understand the different cultures throughout the community and listen to what their needs are. Franco advises volunteers trying to start in a new environment to take the time to understand the problems the community faces first and ask them what they need from the organization. This shows that the group cares about the community and is there to serve. One mistake City Year made was trying to implement goals in different schools without listening to the requirements of each school system. This clash of ideas strained the relationship between the two groups but also helped City Year learn how to improve their system for starting in a new place.
Passion for service is a wonderful thing, but Franco points out the need for “humble swag.” This concept illustrates the balance needed between sharing your organization’s accomplishments and having a genuine interest in helping others. Your desire to make the community better should outweigh the need for recognition, but it is important to further your organization’s good work by promoting events and ways to get involved.
There are many obstacles that people can face, especially when trying to start a new nonprofit organization. Not everyone may be receptive to the work you are trying to do, and failure along the way can set you back. Franco said that if there are people who do not agree with your mission, try listening to them and understanding their needs. There may be room for compromise. He also emphasized that failure is important because it can help you and the organization improve. Always remember to return to humility and the basics of why you want to serve the community, then listen to the critiques and the voices in your community and use those to improve your service techniques and strategies.
“Failure is a beautiful thing in the long run, as long as you get back up.” -Jeff Franco
Learning from mistakes and failures is essential to improving your nonprofit. City Year uses surveys to learn from each service opportunity as well as self-critique from employees and volunteers about what went well and what could be improved upon. This is essential in providing the best service to your community. Constant evaluation will move your organization forward.
“Where do we go from here?” Franco advises young leaders to use the resources available, such as free tools like social media and building coalitions within your network of people who believe in your goals. Take advantage of young people who have the desire to make a difference in their communities. Above all else, you must stay committed to your goal. You must have the desire and commitment to create change, because it will be a struggle, but it is a beautiful struggle.