‘What’s up this weekend?’ I asked, reaching around my friend to the sugar packets while trying to stay out of the way of the long line of Friday-excited coffee purchasers behind me.
‘Volunteering. Hacking,’ she said.
She bent to pick up her backpack and her words got lost in the crowd of knees and briefcases.
‘What did you say?,’ I asked. ‘It sounded like DMV. You’re volunteering at the DMV?’
‘Yep,’ she said. ‘Some cool data projects that will inform the city’s bike planning down the line.’
We walked out of the cafe. ‘Volunteering for the DMV’, I said. ‘That’s weird.’
‘Yeah, maybe. But only if you think about it.’ She said, ‘It will help with the bike lanes, move traffic along faster, and, I don’t know, maybe eventually we’ll get Sunday Streets every Sunday.’
‘You’re a dreamer,’ I smiled.
‘Yeah, I know.’
The scenario above has been fabricated to suit my narrative needs. But only to the degree that I put myself in the picture. A conversation just like this has probably already happened somewhere in New York, Manor, Texas, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago or any of the 1500+ cities around the country. Folks are volunteering to make city services run better. They’re creating apps and mashing together data sets. Connecting community organizations that fight the proliferation of alcohol licenses with health departments that track substance abuse. They photograph graffiti so it can get cleaned up, ‘tag’ potholes so they can get filled, track damage to parks, and help map playground equipment for repair.
I think this is great. It redefines volunteering. It shows resourcefulness in how we use our private resources for public good. It creates new opportunities for municipal bodies and challenges nonprofits to engage with their communities. And it’s happening all over the place. At MIT two weeks ago at the #Tech4Engagement summit the folks doing this kind of work got together to share ideas, network, and brainstorm more ways to work this way. The Bloomberg Philanthropies just launched a challenge to spark even more of such efforts – check out the Mayor’s Challenge. It’s a matter of human connectors and existing institutions finding ways to make things better. Or, as I’ve been known to call it, using private resources for public good.
One hundred years ago in the US, this same kind of energy fueled the progressive movement which launched many of the organizational norms and structures which we now take as a given. I think these kinds of citizen-civic-community movements are doing that again – launching new forms of association, change, and improvement for this century. We’re doing nothing short of changing where and how good happens.
Lucy Bernholz is the author of the blog philanthropy2173, where this article first appeared.