Q&A: Passion for giving is what makes NYC great, says Gary Bagley
Gary Bagley, 53, is executive director of New York Cares, the city's leading volunteer clearinghouse, that coordinates more than 55,000 individual volunteers in 1,200 different NYC nonprofits and city agencies. He lives in Hudson Heights.
What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
I would like more New Yorkers to be more involved in their communities and in the voluntarism that has made this city great. We are more likely to pitch in when something dramatic happens -- like a hurricane, or 9/11 -- but there is always someone who has greater needs than we do. People helping people improves the fabric of a community and builds social capital. It's empowering not just for the person helped, but for the volunteer. One study showed that 60% of people who volunteer do so because they were specifically asked to, so this is my specific request: Please get started if you haven't already!
What are people most likely to want to do for free?
Many volunteers think first about meal services, such as working in a soup kitchen or food pantry. We help volunteers find those experiences, but we also show them how they can help deepen their commitment -- how they can help someone obtain citizenship, complete a GED, learn English, or get a job so the person doesn't need a soup kitchen. Others want to work in a community garden or a park, or paint something. People who like the hands on activities go for the feeling of immediate accomplishment. Reading to a child, you may not have an immediate gratification, but it's a continuing process that will result in that child getting better grades on a SAT, or maybe even a scholarship, and help break the cycle of poverty.
How do you make sure that volunteers don't do jobs that properly filled by workers receiving wages and benefits?
We never want a volunteer to replace a paid person. It's not appropriate. Volunteers should provide a supplement to services already provided by paid staff people. Most nonprofits and agencies want to have as many paid people as they can. But volunteers can expand the abilities of what a paid staff can do.
What's the best investment a New Yorker can make?
Invest in your neighborhood! Volunteer, or join your block association or community board. And if you feel you live in a community that doesn't need help, reach out to help another one that needs it. We are all in this together.
What does voluntarism tell you about the economy?
Different things. Right after the downturn in 2008, we had a six-week wait for our volunteer orientations and our projects were full to capacity. Now, we're leveling off. We're full, but we don't have the same level of back log. We've started daytime programming and have been seeing people with alternate work schedules filling their schedules with volunteer opportunities. One of the interesting things I've seen in the last three years is that people are volunteering because they sense their fellow New Yorkers are in more need. But the economy isn't the driving factor in volunteerism: I don't meet anyone whose first impulse isn't to help others.What's the greatest challenge of getting people to do something for free in New York?The hardest part of the job is to get volunteers from their neighborhoods to the neighborhoods of highest needs.What neighborhoods are those?A lot of the volunteers come from the Upper East and Upper West Side, Chelsea, Prospect Park and Brooklyn Heights, and from Astoria. People are more likely to volunteer when they feel their own needs are taken care of. Neighborhoods of need are the South Bronx, Bushwick and Southwestern Queens. Our goal is to make volunteering easy for busy New Yorkers. Their number one answer when asked why they want to volunteer is to make NYC a better place to live.Do you volunteer yourself?I do! This past year has been challenging with our move (to 65 Broadway) but I participated in a reading program we have in 19 schools. You show up at 7:30 a.m. and read for 45 minutes; then the kid has his breakfast and you can go to work. After that, I worked in senior centers as a team leader of sing alongs. I loved it. After our move on June 18, I'm looking to get back, but I'm still involved with our Days of Service and coat drives.What's your current must see?I loved Anything Goes and Memphis. I went to the New York Philharmonic and the orchestra was brilliant in this amazing program of Dvorak and Bartok.What does being a New Yorker mean to you?Being a part of the most exciting culture in the world.Any funny volunteering stories?I tell these stories all the time and now I can't think of any! But I can tell you we have had several marriages that have come from this: People meet and fall in love volunteering in NYC