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Washtenaw United: 'National Days of Action' calls on Washtenaw County community to give back

UWWC Corporate Giving Manager Ben Thompson
United Way of Washtenaw County
UWWC Corporate Giving Manager Ben Thompson


Ben Thompson is a Corporate Giving Manager at United Way of Washtenaw County.  In his role, he works with corporations across Washtenaw County to raise funds for the community, connects young professionals through the Emerging Philanthropists, and manages United Way’s volunteering initiatives. Previously, Ben managed the Lansing SAVE program, a postsecondary savings account program for the Lansing School District. Ben is excited to make United Way’s vision real by bringing community members from across Washtenaw County together to give, advocate, volunteer, and explore equity.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we want to talk a bit about volunteerism. I'm David Fair, and for some, it's giving back. For others, it's paying forward. But, in the end, to volunteer your time and effort and contribute to a greater community goodwill, it can really make a difference. A week from today marks the start of the National Days of Action. The United Way and all of its branches around the country create localized volunteer opportunities. And that includes right here in our community. Our guest this morning is Ben Thompson. And Ben is corporate giving manager for the United Way of Washtenaw County. And, Ben, thank you for volunteering your time and joining me today.

Ben Thompson: Of course. Thanks so much for having me, David.

David Fair: Well, among your professional functions is to manage the United Way's volunteering initiatives. As you cross paths with some of the good folks who do give their time to improve the area's quality of life, do you ever ask what made you decide to volunteer?

Ben Thompson: Yes, of course. We make sure to check in with our volunteers because, one, it gives us some feedback on how we're doing. But also, it gives us time to be able to hear from them because sharing stories is the way that you get more people involved. So, by engaging with them, hearing their feedback, hearing their stories, we're able to be more impactful with our service.

David Fair: With the advancing nature of technology and, certainly, since the stay-at-home days of the pandemic, we all, at some point or another, tend to live more siloed lives. What role does the sense of connection bring to successful volunteer programs?

Ben Thompson: Yes, of course. So, just as you said, the COVID-19 pandemic has really impacted all parts of our lives. But the sense of connection that we feel amongst each other has really been going down since, I would say, even 2013. There are national studies that record a decrease in the amount of civic engagement that people have, connectedness that they feel to others. And so, volunteering is a great way to be able to build that connection, build the social bonds, trust in civic pride that you feel with your neighbors and with your broader community.

David Fair: Well, over the years, you've done your fair share of volunteering. Was there a time where you felt particularly connected to the mission, to the people serving with you, and to the people to whom you were working to serve?

Ben Thompson: Yeah. So, actually, I go back to some of my experience as an AmeriCorps Vista. That is a job, but it is volunteer service. You're spending a full year working with, you know, they talk about experiential poverty wages. And you are volunteering your time at those low wages to work with folks coming from different levels. And so, I was working with our community agencies, community neighborhood organizations, in Lansing, Michigan, and it was so much fun being able to hear the stories of people, their backgrounds, why they wanted to connect to their neighbors and help them connect even deeper, finding grant opportunities to be able to do, you know, community parks, turn vacant land into something great for that community. And it really impacted me and put me in this direction at United Way of Washtenaw County.

David Fair: We're talking volunteerism and the opportunity to give back and pay forward with the United Way of Washtenaw County's Ben Thompson on WEMU's Washtenaw United. While the 2023 National Days of Action begin Monday, June 12th, and run through Friday, June 16th, here in Washtenaw County, there are a number of opportunities, and one of them is for a program we've actually featured here on Washtenaw United before. It's called House N2 Home. What about this program, Ben, made it a focus of this year's Days of Action?

Ben Thompson: Yeah. So, House N2 Home is one of our, as you say, one of our agencies that we're working with for National Days of Action. They are an agency that helps connect our neighbors to resources. They might not have had a home before. And so, they need all the stuff that comes along with it. So, volunteers this year are going to be helping to complete some tiny projects, including sorting donations, loading and unloading moving vans and preparing items to move into the client's home. We see this as a really great opportunity for people to see what it's like for a first-time homeowner who may not have all the stuff that they need to move into that home.

David Fair: And when you do those kinds of manual labor and tasks but get to see the real impacts that it has, it makes a difference in the way we think about serving in volunteer capacities, doesn't it?

Ben Thompson: Yes, of course. So, the way that we see it is that you by, you know, working alongside neighbors, being able to experience the life that other people live, you're able to have built that empathy muscle that you need to be able to move forward with the social and racial justice that that our community needs.

David Fair: If not for volunteerism, Ben, if not for the generosity of the community, small but impactful programs like House N2 Home would likely have a hard time getting by. Just as human beings, we tend to gravitate toward the known, the comfortable, the things we're more aware of and have already been exposed to. We are giving of our time and our resources. So, we also like to gain a sense of personal reward in knowing the work we've done made a difference. So, why, in your estimation, can we get those benefits by volunteering for a program like House N2 Home that we may not be as familiar with as some of the bigger and more popular programs?

Ben Thompson: Yeah, so House N2 Home is working directly with our community members. What's great about organizations, like HouseN2 Home, is that you're able to see the things that are being donated. You're being able to work with people that are going to be experiencing the benefits of your work. It's something that you can do, and you can see the direct impact. So, that's something that we want to encourage people throughout the county to be able to experience is to find something that shows the direct impact that builds that connection to that community.

David Fair: You know, a lot of folks in the community like to get out of doors. And another point of interest on the volunteer front this year lands in the area of nature and the environment. What might I learn by choosing to volunteer this year with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Department?

Ben Thompson: Yeah. So, the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation actually has two opportunities this year for National Days of Action. One is going to be at Baker Woods, and then the other one's going to be at the Miller Smith Preserve. So, during those opportunities, the volunteers are kind of taught about summer invasive plants that endanger the local, ephemeral wildflowers. So, they're able to find what these are and then be able to go out off trail in your favorite natural area to be able to protect the natural beauty of our landscapes.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with the United Way of Washtenaw County's Ben Thompson continues on 89-1 WEMU. And as part of the National Days of Action, there are also opportunities to help increase literacy through Washtenaw Literacy by being a tutor. And if you'd like, you can help paint the offices of Washtenaw County Big Brothers and Big Sisters. For those interested in participating in any of the endeavors, Ben, how best can they get involved?

Ben Thompson: Yeah, so we have all of our National Days of Action opportunities listed on Volunteer Washtenaw dot org. All they need to do is go there. There's a button to click for National Days of Action, and they'll be able to see a full list.

David Fair: Now, when putting together volunteer programs and opportunities each year as this event comes around, do you do so looking through the lens of social and racial equity?

Ben Thompson: Yes. Social and racial equity is at the core of all of my work. We know that our community has needs. We know that our nonprofits have needs. Money can only go so far, and time is a critical resource that we need to invest in our community. In years past, we've had a National Day of Action, and that has only been a single day. And we heard from some of our nonprofits, some of our volunteers, that one of the most important things that they need is they need flexibility. So, we heard that feedback. We were able to incorporate it into our programming, and we turned National Day of Action into National Days of Action. Now, nonprofits from across the county are hosting volunteer opportunities for a full week instead of a single day, and volunteers have the opportunity to sign up for opportunities, again, that are available for them throughout that entire week. We want this to be as open and equitable as possible.

David Fair: When we get to the end of National Days of Action, how are you going to reflect upon the various programs and assess the effectiveness and impact?

Ben Thompson: Yeah. So, the the way that we assess effectiveness and impact is, one, we like to see numbers, right? The hundreds of people that get involved, the numbers of volunteer hours, but we also make sure that we take photos throughout, we're able to share those on social media, and then we circle back to our nonprofits. How did it go? What was the impact of what they did? What community members are they going to be able to be impacted throughout their work? And we ask our nonprofit partners, also at the beginning of each project, you know, to give some context to their work as well, so that the volunteer knows what they're doing and who they're impacting as well. So, we try and frame this as a whole experience from the beginning of the volunteering experience to the end through social media, through newsletters, and so on.

David Fair: Ben, I'd like to thank you so much for the time today and sharing the information. Much appreciated.

Ben Thompson: Yeah. You're welcome, David. Thanks for having me on.

David Fair: That is Ben Thompson. He is corporate giving manager at the United Way of Washtenaw County, working toward the start of the National Days of Action that begins a week from today on June 12. To find out more about your volunteer opportunities and the difference you can make, visit Volunteer Washtenaw dot org, or stop by our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you linked up to where you need and want to go. Washtenaw United is a weekly conversation series, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89-1 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


UWWC Volunteer Center

United Way of Washtenaw County National Days of Action


The United Way Days of Action is the United Way of Washtenaw County’s largest one-week volunteering event. This event is hosted by United Way of Washtenaw County's Volunteer Center.

The National Days of Action (NDOA) connects agencies that have projects that need to be done to volunteers who want to give back. This year, the National Days of Action happen between June 12-16.

For Those who want to volunteer, sign up for a NDOA volunteering project by visiting volunteerwashtenaw.org.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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