Is MLK Day Just Another Day Off?

On Monday, January 21, Americans will celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. This is a national holiday rooted in the country’s core MLK Day logoideals.

“Service is a powerful way for citizens, nonprofits, the private sector and government to work together to meet critical needs and advance King’s dream of opportunity for all,” states the Corporation for National and Community Service. “MLK Day is an opportunity for Americans to put the core American principles of citizenship and service into action.”

These core ideals go back to the birth of the country. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French historian and political writer, made a number of observations about America including:

The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.”

“I must say that I have seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare; and have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another.”

“If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare, and the circulation of the public is hindered, the neighbors immediately constitute a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power which remedies the inconvenience before anybody has thought of recurring to an authority superior to that of the persons immediately concerned.”

It is an American tradition that when we see a problem, we often will seek to solve it. We are not content to sit back, whine, and hope the government will take care of it for us. Certainly, government has its role. However, at the heart of the American democratic spirit is the notion of private citizen action to help one another and our society in general.

Volunteers do much good for our society. They also form an important force that allows our democracy to thrive. On MLK Day, hundreds of thousands of people will volunteer joining the millions who do so throughout the year. This call to service makes MLK Day unique among American national holidays.

43 percent of Americans volunteered in 2011, according to The World Giving Index 2011. The world average was 21 percent. Only four other nations ranked higher than the US for volunteerism in 2011 (Turkmenistan, Liberia, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan).

In the US, 42 percent of men and 44 percent of women volunteer. By age group, the percentage of the population that volunteered in 2011 breaks out as follows:

  • age 15-24, 38 percent
  • age 25-34, 48 percent
  • age 35-49, 40 percent
  • age 50+, 44 percent

When properly engaged, managed, and thanked, volunteers can be a powerful resource for nonprofit organizations that have much to do and limited budgets with which to get the jobs done. In addition, volunteers can be a generous source of monetary donations, even planned gifts.

One organization that has recently done a nice job of recognizing the important value of volunteers is the Friends of the Boyd. This is a nonprofit organization formed to save Philadelphia’s last remaining historic movie palace. In its email news update, the organization recognized the service of its volunteers and named its Volunteer of the Year 2012, Lisa Rosen, my amazing wife:

Friends of the Boyd are proud to designate LISA ROSEN as our VOLUNTEER OF THE YEAR 2012. Lisa was our Event Coordinator for several of our events. With unbridled energy and enthusiasm, she has volunteered for many of our tasks and suggested more. Serving on our Board, she visited many former movie palaces to see how they were reused. Even during this past year as she waged a vigorous (and looking successful!) fight against the Big C[ancer], no matter how under the weather she was, she kept volunteering to do more for the Boyd!

Since we organized, Friends of the Boyd have designated the following champions of our cause as Volunteer of the Year: Jayfar (2002), Shawn Evans (2003), Rob Bender (2004), Mike Bencik (2005), Michael Norris (2006), Charlene Nolten (2007), Adrian Fine (2008), Seth Levi (2009), Will Jordan (2010), and Fran Levi (2011). We are proud to add Lisa to the list!”

This MLK Day, resolve to volunteer on the National Day of Service or at another time during the year. Provide volunteer opportunities at your organization. Honor those who volunteer.

Volunteers accomplish much good. They make our neighborhoods, countries, and the world a better place. Be one. Thank at least one.

And, please tell me:

  • How do you volunteer?
  • How do you recognize the dedication of volunteers?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

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4 Comments to “Is MLK Day Just Another Day Off?”

  1. Michael, great article. i just want to add this quote from Dr. King that has inspired me over the years:

    “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

    – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    • Richard, thank you for the kind comment and sharing the inspiring quote from Dr. King. He’s certainly very quotable. Here’s another nice one:

      “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?'”
      – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  2. Great article Michael. The volunteer-service model has been done very well by a lot of super large organizations like American Red Cross and Americorps. But it’s definitely time for smaller and even startup nonprofits to focus on leveraging their volunteers and passionate supporters.

    I imagine though that it must be tough to do without a strong infrastructure or program to effectively manage volunteers.

    • Su, thank you for your comment. You made an interesting observation. For a nonprofit organization to effectively engage volunteers, it must have an infrastructure that supports the volunteer effort. A sound infrastructure will effectively recruit, train, and deploy volunteers. It will also ensure that the volunteer experience is positive for both the volunteer and the organization. Sadly, for some organization’s that most need volunteer support, that infrastructure is lacking. In such cases, I recommend that the organization begin to engage volunteers slowly and on a limited basis to ensure success.

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