Across the globe, volunteers use their time, talent and resources to tackle tough challenges and build stronger, more vibrant communities. With our global network of more than 200 affiliates, Points of Light will celebrate International Volunteer Day on December 5, recognizing volunteers in communities around the world who answer the call to serve, every day and especially in times of need.
As part of this celebration, we are spotlighting a few of our affiliate leaders to share the story of their work and how their volunteers are making a difference locally. In Seattle, Ben Reuler – executive director of our affiliate Seattle Works – is committed to helping millennials who are new to the city build community through volunteering. After nearly a decade as a direct service provider at a teen shelter and as a home visitor, Ben returned to school to earn his graduate degree in social work. He became a licensed social worker and moved into nonprofit management, serving six years as executive director of LIFT-Chicago, an innovative organization helping families lift themselves out of poverty, before joining Seattle Works in 2015.
We spoke with Ben to learn more about what inspires him, how Seattle Works is shaping the future of volunteering locally, and why he is excited about “trust-based volunteerism.”
As the executive director of Seattle Works, what inspires and drives you?
I am inspired by the potential of our city. Seattle has a rich culture of philanthropy, volunteerism and compassion. At the same time, Seattle is changing very, very rapidly and I am driven by the role that Seattle Works is playing in helping to shape the future of this region. Seattle Works is in the business of creating love matches between people, companies, causes and organizations; Sitting at the center of this Venn diagram and helping to mold our city drives me every day.
How did you get started in the volunteer space, and what brought you to Seattle Works?
My parents indoctrinated in me that volunteerism is a responsibility. In high school, I was the “volunteer guy.” In college, I was the “volunteer guy.” All of these experiences drew me to the field of social work and imbedded in me a desire to serve my community in a professional capacity. Seattle Works drew me in because of its mission to connect volunteers, develop leaders and build community. But it was really the people at this organization who sealed the deal for me – a truly remarkable staff and board of directors. For example, after bearing witness to how the board led such a thoughtful executive director hiring process, I was like “I want to work with these peeps!”
The theme of International Volunteer Day this year is “Volunteers Act First. Here. Everywhere.” In your community, how do volunteers act first?
We often talk about volunteerism as project based. What I want to highlight is the role that nonprofit boards play in acting first. Board members are the unsung heroes of our communities. Every nonprofit in our region has a board of directors; it is these dedicated volunteer leaders who are helping act first by strategizing, fundraising, approving budgets, advocating and advancing each of our organizations’ missions in so many ways. Board members enable the rest of us to act.
How do you draw volunteers’ attention to real problems in their communities and equip them to be changemakers themselves?
Seattle is booming with millennials; they are flocking here in droves. They often come to Seattle with no networks, no roots, and end up fighting the Seattle Freeze (look it up!). They crave connection, and have an unwavering motivation to do good – yet they need help plugging in. That’s where Seattle Works comes in. One of our core values is that we have fun, and we focus on community-building amongst volunteers. Whether people connect with us via their employer for a volunteer project, or through an 8-hour leadership training about nonprofit board service, we meet volunteers where they are and provide an opportunity to connect. And at every volunteer project, the volunteers get to hear from the experts at the nonprofits, parks, and schools about why this work matters, and how it connects to larger issues facing our community. This context is crucial.
What advice do you give to individuals who want to get involved, but don’t think they can make a difference?
It’s a privilege to think that we can’t make a difference. There is simply too much need and inequity in our communities for anyone to have the luxury of letting themselves off the hook by thinking they cannot make a difference – we all have a responsibility to at least try. My advice is to do something, anything. Take a step, any step, have an open mind, get after it, and be okay with failure, just learn from it.
What has been the biggest benefit of being part of Points of Light’s affiliate network?
To know that Seattle Works is a point of light in an international movement to connect volunteers and unlock the potential of individuals and communities.
What emerging trend in volunteerism are you most excited about?
“Trust-based volunteerism.” Just like there’s a trend toward trust-based philanthropy, I am very excited by the trend of trust-based volunteerism. This means that we must trust local communities and local nonprofit organizations to identify what their needs are, and to inform how the rest of us can help. This should always be a non-negotiable when volunteering – listen, listen, listen to the experts on the front lines, and follow their lead.