by Sarai Rice 

Q: Our congregation is thinking about getting involved with a food bank or a homeless shelter. What are some ways that we can be most helpful, and what are some of the things we need to find out before committing?  

A: As an Alban consultant who also manages a network of food pantries, I can tell you that both shelters and food pantries desperately need volunteers—the last three years have seen monumental increases in need for food and shelter. Every shelter and pantry site has its own unique needs and activities. Find out what special needs yours have by talking with the staff. Typical volunteer activities can include:

  • Food drives, food sorting, gardening in order to donate to pantries and shelters, and filling backpacks with food for school children
  • Teaching nutrition and cooking classes, rescuing prepared food from restaurants and caterers, and preparing for shelters or community meal sites
  • Teaching computer classes • Serving food at community meal sites
  • Allowing homeless people to stay overnight in congregational facilities
  • Mentoring families in transitional housing
  • Fundraising
  • Helping shelters and pantries use Facebook and Twitter effectively
  • Volunteering at pantry sites or driving trucks to pick up and deliver food


I’ve had many opportunities to observe both sides of the volunteer equation over the years—both the congregations who want to be of service and the organizations who need their help. What I’ve observed is that most congregations genuinely want to serve in the way that Christ served, and most organizations genuinely want to do good and important work. However, there are always a few individuals who may not be ideal volunteers, just as there are always a few organizations that don’t follow best practices in program management. If your congregation truly wants to embody Jesus Christ in this way, the following questions can help you learn more about the organizations, the volunteer opportunities, and yourselves:

Detailed questions about how the agency is governed:

  • Does the organization have a rotating board of directors to whom it is receipt of its services by its clients? (For example, is its facility open at hours that accommodate clients’ varying schedules?)
  • Does it make every effort to meet its clients health needs? (For example, does the food it provides, either in the form of shelter meals or food pantry boxes, support the long-term health of the client?) accountable, who are open to your questions, and that regularly gets fresh ideas from new members?
  • Does the board have policies about conflict of interest, confidentiality, donations, use of endowment funds, a code of ethics, records retention, whistleblower protection, capital expenditures, audits, financial controls, , investments, risk management, gift acceptance, endorsements, notice of termination and grievance, lobbying, and the like?
  • Does the board understand that fundraising and strategic thinking?
  • Does the organization file an IRS Form 990 and conduct an annual audit?
  • Are the organization’s board members able to speak knowledgeably and enthusiastically about its work?
  • Does the organization seek the opinions of its clients and include clients in its membership?


Detailed questions about how the agency does its work: 

  • If the organization is faith-based, does it require its clients to pray or in some other way align themselves with its religious perspective in order to receive assistance?
  • What percentage of the organization’s revenue is used for direct services as opposed to administrative and fundraising costs?
  • Does the organization do a good job of communicating both the stories and the statistics that make the case for its services?
  • Does the organization have a good reputation in the community?
  • Does the organization have a good reputation with local governmental agencies?
  • Does the organization have a good reputation with other human services providers?
  • Does the organization collaborate with other organizations in order to serve clients more efficiently and effectively?
  • Does the organization make every effort to remove barriers to the 


And finally, some soul-searching questions about your own motivation and intent: 

  • Are you and your congregation genuinely interested in meeting the basic human needs of struggling individuals and families or is there any way in which you are attempting to meet your own need for affirmation or meaning?
  • As you prepare to volunteer, are you willing to do what the organization needs you to do when they need you to do it or do you expect them to accommodate your schedule and interests?
  • Are you willing to follow the organization’s rules? (For example, rules with regard to the appropriate age of volunteers and the need for chaperones)
  • Are you willing to volunteer in neighborhoods where you may not feel completely safe?
  • Are you willing to work with people who frighten you?
  • Are you willing to be rejected or ignored?
  • Are you willing to be yelled at by someone who thinks you aren’t doing a good job, even if you are?
  • Are you willing to forgive someone who doesn’t appreciate you and all the good you want to do?
  • Are you willing to listen if an agency says to you, “We need dollars more than we need volunteers?”


Once you have answers to these kinds of questions, you should have no problem finding organizations that are respectfully and effectively doing the kind of work that you feel called to do.

Sarai Rice is a field consultant with the Alban Institute and ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Besides serving as a local congregation pastor and as Interim Executive Presbyter in two different states, she has taught Preaching and Old and New Testament in seminary and has directed ecumenical and interfaith non-profit organizations. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

Congregations Magazine, 2012-06-15
2012 Issue 2, Number 2