Steps for Sharing Your Volunteerism History

Energize Website
October 2001

Look Back to Look Ahead Project

A wonderful way to recognize your volunteers and show the public the value of volunteering is to celebrate volunteers today by showcasing them as the current step in a continuum of volunteer action from the past and therefore  the next step to future service.  The concept can work for individual organizations and also for community-wide projects.. [You can also read the original inspiration for these pages in Susan's "Hot Topic" introducing this idea and see what colleagues said in reply.] 

Step 1: Rediscover History

Research the history of volunteer accomplishments in your setting: Who founded your organization and assured its continuation? (Hint: these will be the first volunteers.) What things have volunteers done through the years as the organization added paid staff and grew in other ways? Rescue, label and preserve materials now in musty closets--old volunteer recognition party invitations, badges, photos, and other memorabilia that make an archive worth maintaining. Audiotape older or long-term volunteers who still remember earlier days. 

See Ideas for Who to Involve in the Research Phase and Suggestions for a Slide Show later in this article.

If you want to relate your organization history to the history of volunteering in the United States. You can read By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers, New Century Edition

Step 2: Share What You Learned

Produce a report, scrapbook, lobby display, videotape, skit, YouTube video -- anything that will draw attention to the role volunteers have played in founding and expanding your organization. Concentrate on highlighting accomplishments and goals reached, not just on who did what. Make sure current volunteers are fully involved in the final product. See Ideas for How to Present Your History later in this article. 

Step 3: Envision the Future

Then convene a "where do we intend to go from here?" think tank. Invite a wide range of volunteers, employees, administrators, community members, volunteerism colleagues – anyone with a stake in your success – to discuss (and debate) why it is still important to involve volunteers in your work and what that involvement should be in the new century. This your chance to acknowledge, honor, and then break the mold of the past!

Step 4: Act Collectively

If every organization identifies its history and articulates its desired direction, you can then go "public." Each DOVIA or each community can designate a special day for sharing the results of each agency's examination process, collectively celebrating the historic impact of volunteers and committing to achieving future goals. Maybe there will be a public library or town hall exhibis. Maybe videotapes and books of old and new photographs will be produced. All this is news and the media will cover it.

Step 5: Tell the World

Energize is committed to capturing and sharing the work of colleagues who share their history. Read what others have done and share your projects. Find as many variations as you can and make it work for you. You are welcome to download, print out, and disseminate all the information we give you on the site. 

Why are we encouraging everyone to carry out this project? Here are a few of many good reasons: 

  • Comparatively simple and straightforward to accomplish.
  • Low cost, but with a tangible product at the end.
  • Doable by small and large organizations of all kinds.
  • Meaningful to the organizations that engage in it but can be linked to the results of similar projects in one community and in ever-widening circles.
  • A way to educate others about the value and contributions of volunteers. 
  • Ideal for involving volunteers themselves in the activity, so it's done with and not "for" volunteers (or, even worse, "to" them!).
  • Adaptable to any country and language. 

Ideas for Whom to Involve in the Research Phase and How to Find Your Roots

The ideas below will, of course, vary with how long your organization has been in existence. If it was started within the last thirty years or so, there's a good chance that you will be able to find people with first-hand information on--or at least memory of--the early days. The older the organization, the more you will have to rely on the written record to discover your history.


Seek out your organization's incorporation papers. These documents ought to be on file in the executive director's office, but may also be held by your attorney or accountant. Otherwise, contact the State Attorney General of the state in which your organization was incorporated. What you are after is the list of original "incorporators"--the people who filed the papers. These will be the first officers of the board--and probably all but certainly most will have been volunteers.

Again, depending on the date involved, try to track down these people. Think how much fun it will be to locate one or more of your official founders. When you do, tape record an oral history with them. Ask if they are still in possession of any memorabilia from the early days--especially photographs.

If the founders have died or are otherwise not reachable, see if you can trace any living descendants.

Agency Archives

Some organizations will have been meticulous about saving their historical records, others far from it. This is your chance to find out! Who has been the keeper of the records? The executive director? Have the secretaries of the board been bequeathed each year with boxes of papers upon assuming office? Is there a closet with boxes on the third floor that no one has opened for a decade?

You are looking for:

  • board meeting minutes that speak of major decision-making
  • press clippings about agency events
  • letters of various sorts that speak about projects in which volunteers were involved
  • old photographs

Obviously you should also hunt up past records on the volunteer program itself--those boxes in the back of YOUR closet!

Local Newspaper Morgue

Every newspaper maintains a file of every issue it publishes. Recent back issues are generally kept available, older issues are placed in what is generally called a "morgue." Today you can expect that newspapers older than a few years will be available on microfilm or microfiche--or have perhaps been scanned onto a computer.

Enlist the help of the editor or a reporter in your project, if possible. At a minimum, request that the person in charge of the newspaper's archives give you (and some willing volunteers) an orientation to how the collection is stored and retrieved. Then go to work finding references to your agency over the years--with special emphasis, of course, on volunteer accomplishment receiving publicity.


  • feature stories covering news events
  • special sections that today might be called "Living," twenty years ago might have been called "Women's Section," or even earlier might have been called the "Society" pages--this is where many volunteer events, especially recognition ceremonies, would have appeared
  • weekly or monthly special inserts covering local happenings
  • any magazine section that might cover community events with photographs (like a big carnival for charity or a fundraising marathon)

If your geographic area contains more than one newspaper, you obviously have to do this research for each publication. And don't forget weekly neighborhood papers.

Local radio and even television stations might be willing to search their recorded program files for you, as well.

Past Volunteers

Hopefully your predecessors will have kept records on volunteers active in the past. Design a letter and/or a questionnaire that explains your historical search and enlists their help.

We've provided a sample questionnaire to get you started.

Current Volunteers

Current volunteers ought to be engaged in the entire process of discovering their historical roots. Enlist their help in speaking to anyone and everyone who might have some memories of the early days of your organization. Interview (and audiotape) any volunteers who have been on board since the beginning, or who have been around the longest.

Past Clients or Alumni

If you serve the public at large (such as a library, museum, school system, etc.), get the word out that you are seeking historical information. Anyone might turn out to have a great anecdote, or a relevant photo album or some item of memorabilia. And chances are they'd be delighted to share these with your research team.

If you have formal lists of past service recipients, program graduates, or other "alumni," consider whether it would be fruitful to do a questionnaire mailing to them similar to the one for past volunteers. If you publish a newsletter or have other regular ways of communicating with alumni, an article about "Look Back to Look Ahead" or at least an ad calling for memorabilia would seem relatively easy to do.

Social service agencies may feel less comfortable contacting past clients who received counseling, therapeutic care, or other services in times of need. Examine whether such reluctance is valid or a projection of discomfort on the part of staff. Perhaps past clients have good feelings about the help they received--particularly from volunteers--and would welcome the chance to tell you. Talk to paid staff, volunteers, and current clients to formulate a mutually-acceptable contact plan.


Depending on where your office or facility is located, it may prove fruitful to speak to people who live in close proximity, business owners in the neighborhood, local clergy, school officials--anyone who might know something about your organization's early development.

Mayor's or Other Public Official's Office

Another potential source of information, particularly if you provide services to the general public and interact with local political figures, is "City Hall" or whatever government office is likeliest to have come in contact with you. Are there any official proclamations recognizing your work? official photographs of grant or award presentations? minutes of city council/county commissioner meetings that mention your agency?

Local Library

Your local library can be a treasure trove of memorabilia. Enlist the help of the librarian who ought to know the types of materials in the collection. Some resources to consider: old newspaper files (particularly for newspapers no longer in publication); photograph collections; books written about the region by local authors which may have been privately published and donated to the local library; etc.

Other Nonprofits Older than Yours

It is possible that your organization began as part of another organization and was spun off, or that one or more local groups (perhaps civic clubs, churches, or other types of all-volunteer associations) were important in some way to the formation and funding of your first What Others Have Done. If you discover this, and if these organizations are still in existence, ask them for historical documentation, too.

Don't forget to contact your local Volunteer Center, if there is one, for whatever early records they may have of volunteer What Others Have Done in your agency.

National Headquarters

If you are an affiliate of a national or international organization, don't forget to contact your headquarters and see what's in their historical files!

Your Organization's Web Site

Since you never know who might be a cyber visitor, put out a call for historical information and memorabilia via your Web site. Remember to stress that you are looking for volunteer-related information.

Ideas for How to Present Your History -- and How to Get Public Recognition, Too

The following are only a few ideas to start your creative juices flowing. When you come up with your own great idea, please share it here so others can consider it, too!

All of the following ideas can be used by individual organizations or larger collaborations. Just change the scale of the productio

Produce a printed history

Depending on the length of the story, your budget, ability to get services like printing donated, and other factors such as the number you think you can distribute (or sell), you have lots of options:

  • real, honest-to-goodness book
  • any type of monograph, pamphlet, etc. (with today's high quality copiers, it's possible even to reproduce photographs inexpensively)
  • a series of posters for bulletin boards, window displays, hallways
  • devote your organization's annual report for 2001 to this research

Publicity Ideas:
Liberally distribute review copies to the media, with a press release; get bookstores to feature the book as a "local publication" (even the large chain bookstores will do this); get local celebrities to write introductory comments or give endorsements for the back cover.

Create an exhibit for the lobby of your building

For a community-wide history, how about an exhibit for the library or even for City Hall?

Publicity Ideas:
Throw a party to officially open the exhibit. Invite the mayor or other celebrities/performers to "cut the ribbon" or entertain--then send out press releases and follow up.

Scan the photos and documents and place them on your agency's Web site

Include text summarizing what you found. (Make sure this is linked to "How You Can Volunteer Today" since some cyber visitors may be attracted to apply.) Community-wide, recruit an organization to "host" the cyber history and have all participating agencies link to it in the same way (design an icon or button). Maybe the Volunteer Center's Web site would be a logical home for the material.

Publicity Ideas:
Announce the official posting with print and electronic press releases

Convert paper photos and documents into slides or a videotape.

Add modern shots. Photograph places like the tombstones of early founders, locations of previous office space, etc. Once you have the material in audio-visual format, consider making long and short versions. Then "book" the show everywhere you can:

  • public access cable television
  • community center
  • the library
  • senior centers
  • faith communities
  • classrooms
  • adult education programs
Publicity Ideas:
  • If you can recruit a media personality to narrate your video or tape, you have a good chance that his or her station will be interested in publicizing it!
  • See if you can excerpt 30 seconds or 1 minute and ask one of your local television stations to see if they'll run it as a public service.
  • Make a list of all the talk shows originating at local television, cable, and radio stations. Approach one at a time (start with the most popular) and see if they'll give you a whole half-hour to interview you and show longer excerpts. [Note: Do not approach all media stations at once. They tend to like exclusive stories and will not be happy if more than one station airs the same material. Press releases can go out to everyone, but individual requests for air time need to be treated uniquely.]

Transform the material dramatically and make a play out of it

This might be a skit or a full production. Audition volunteers and employees to play the parts and schedule performances as above. [Yes--you can use humor and still make your point!]

Publicity Ideas: 
First present the play in-house and judge audience reaction! If it is well-received, invite local movers and shakes and the press to later productions.

Create a curriculum for various grades

Stress the contributions volunteers have made to the community in the past and still do in the present.

Publicity Ideas:
Send a letter explaining the curriculum to all principals and teachers of social studies, community service, citizenship, and other appropriate subjects. Also send a letter to the PTAs, Sunday School administrators, and others with a n interest in youth education.

Produce a Local History of Volunteering Slideshow

(a community-wide project)

One comparatively simple and inexpensive way to demonstrate the impact that volunteers have had over time in your community is a slide show. While it may seem more modern to do a videotape, a slide show is much easier and has the advantage of flexibility-you can vary the length and the script to match the audience each time.

You can construct your slide show in a number of ways, such as:

  • A "Day in the Life" of your community, in which you send out lots of people with cameras to shoot any and all of the sites suggested below, later organizing the slides according to time of day and showing volunteering "morning to night."
  • Pick a route people often follow (from the Courthouse to the train station, or from the high school to the city park), or pick a route like "from the photographer's home to all her/his destinations that day." Then sequence the slides by location.
  • By historical period, showing shots of all the organizations dating back to the Civil War, then all those that started during Reconstruction, etc. If you are from outside North America, you can organize slides by Dynasty or Royal House!
  • By type of organization, clustering photos of youth-serving organizations over time, then those serving older people, then those with a health care focus, etc.

In all these cases, you can being by soliciting archival material from various organizations. Old newspaper clippings, paintings of former board members, and other such historic documentation can be photographed and used as slides.

Here are some pointers:

1. Know your objectives. Some might be:

  • To surprise people ("I didn't know volunteers were responsible for that!")
  • To challenge assumptions ("I just never thought volunteers would have done that.")
  • To teach history
  • To show the diversity of who engaged in volunteering ("You mean teenagers built that?" or "Gee, I guess African-Americans were active in their communities in ways I didn't realize.")
  • To bring volunteering down to a local, in-my-backyard level
  • To instill pride in people who volunteer-recognition!

2. Make a list of a variety of organizations you know were founded by volunteers and/or are still run by volunteers (or do some historical research to find out yourself). Consider the following categories:

  • Faith communities
  • Child welfare agencies and other social services/counseling agencies
  • Senior services
  • Services for the disabled
  • Museums and other cultural arts institutions

To picture these, you only need external shots of the physical landmark, ideally with the name of the structure/organization on sign. Your narration will explain why you're showing the building.

3. Consider What Others Have Done that involve lots of volunteers:

  • Parades
  • Anti-litter/adapt-a-highway patrols
  • Political demonstrations
  • Fundraisers such as bake sales, flea markets, etc.
  • Fundraisers such as elegant dinner dances, etc.
  • Walk-a-thons, etc.
  • Clearing vacant lots, doing household chores for the elderly.

To picture these, you'll have to be at the right place at the right time, or you can ask organizations if they have any file photos you can use--or take a picture of the "site" of the clean-up (or of a bunch of band instruments as a symbol) and explain it in your narrative.

4. Write an informative and fun script-and invite your audience(s)! Train a variety of people to be presenters of the show and schedule it as often as possible.

5. Give a set of slides and the script to the public library for general use. Give another set to the high school (history or social studies department?) or even a set to each school in your community, regardless of age of student.

6. If you have an available Web site, consider posting the slide show to the site so that others can use it, too.


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