Giving Back: Lollapaloozas for Volunteers

Wall Street Journal
April 27, 2007

Giving Back: Lollapaloozas for Volunteers

By Jon Weinbach

Not many charitable events can count on support from Scientologists, the Asian Pacific Women’s Center and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But this weekend in Los Angeles, all three groups — along with about 100 other organizations from all corners of Southern California’s racial, political and religious spectrum — will take part in Big Sunday, a citywide project that has become a kind of Lollapalooza for volunteering. The event has expanded exponentially since 1999, when Hollywood writer David Levinson and a few volunteers organized a small community-service event at his synagogue.

Originally called “Mitzvah Day,” for the Hebrew word meaning “good deed,” the event was rebranded Big Sunday in 2003 to attract more secular organizations and corporations, says Mr. Levinson, a former writer for the TV shows “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Chicago Hope.” By 2005, it drew about 8,000 volunteers and caught the attention of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had been championing his own service day for over a decade.

The result: Last year, Big Sunday became an official event of the Mayor’s Office, and participation mushroomed to about 32,000 participants working on nearly 300 projects. This year, for the first time, Big Sunday will start Saturday, and organizers say they expect about 50,000 volunteers to help with projects such as refurbishing a women’s shelter, building an irrigation system in a gang-infested neighborhood and organizing an animal-adoption fair at a local pound.

Big Sunday is one of a growing number of large-scale volunteer events around the country. Several take place on Martin Luther King Day, which Congress designated as an official “day of service” in 1994. (About 55,000 volunteers lent a hand to Philadelphia’s MLK Day event in January, double the number from 2001.) The Hands On Network, an Atlanta-based umbrella organization for volunteer groups, helps organize citywide events in Nashville, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Other cities have had success by targeting a specific cause, such as the environment or homelessness, and bundling projects on the same day, including Austin’s 22-year-old “Clean Sweep” event, which drew about 3,700 for 122 projects last weekend.

Organizers concede that interest in these big events likely spiked in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami, and that many attendees are hardly passionate philanthropists. Some volunteers may think they are off the hook to help out the other 364 days of the year.

“The key challenge is how do you sustain volunteer work when you don’t have a natural disaster or big event to galvanize people,” says Todd Bernstein, founder and director of Philadelphia’s MLK Day of Service. Adds Mr. Levinson: “Clearing land mines is different than serving breakfast to a grandmother in Beverly Hills.” Nonetheless, he says there’s no point in being snooty about volunteers’ intentions or commitment. “If someone comes one day a year, great, more power to them,” he says. “It’s better than zero.”

(Copyright © 2007 Dow Jones & Co.)

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“To All at Big Sunday, Now, more than ever, we need the goodwill that you share and the good works that you do”

- — L.B., Los Angeles