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Building a Loyal Cadre of Free Labor

In the world of nonprofit agencies, which often have more good intentions than administrative know-how, L.A. Shanti stands out. Founded in 1983 as the city’s first agency to provide direct services to people with AIDS and HIV, L.A. Shanti has steadily increased its many support and education programs with a large and loyal corps of volunteers. Staffed by just 20 employees and 1,000 volunteers who do everything from answer phones to provide space for support groups, the organization is extremely cost-efficient; last year, says spokesman Paul Lerner, Shanti was able to provide $100 worth of direct services for every $41 donated. Those services include medical support, public relations and office goods.

Part of Shanti’s volunteer-driven success lies with its aggressive outreach campaign, thorough volunteer training conducted by counseling professionals and a willingness to offer flexible hours (“We can take advantage of ANY gift of time,” declares executive director Sue Crumpton). Many Shanti volunteers are themselves HIV-positive; they tend to be past participants in the agency’s weekend seminars, called Positive Living For Us, who liked the experience and decided to get permanently involved with Shanti. In addition to profiting from positive word-of-mouth advertising, L.A. Shanti also draws volunteers from the free publicity offered by newspaper listings, event calendars and public service spots on cable television. Roughly a third of Shanti’s volunteer corps are individual or group counselors, positions that entail draining, emotionally harrowing work. But the satisfaction of helping others through very tough times seems to be reward enough.

Most volunteers, from the counselors to those who donate professional services, stay for years. “They really enjoy this,” says Lerner. “A graphic artist may design cereal boxes all day, but when they agree to do a design for us, it’s totally different.”

HOW THE VOLUNTEER PROCESS WORKS:

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1. Potential volunteers attend one of L.A. Shanti’s regular orientation sessions held at its Hollywood headquarters. A panel of current volunteers speak about their experiences with the organization, and how they found their own particular niche.

2. Candidates submit applications and are interviewed by L.A. Shanti staff and other volunteers. Crumpton says it is crucial that volunteers understand the “shanti model,” which says that people must set aside judgment and personal prejudice to before they can offer compassion. (Shanti is a Sanskrit word that means “inner peace through understanding.”)

3. Counseling candidates go through three days of training with staff and counseling professionals. Training includes a medical overview of AIDS and HIV, introduction to Shanti policies and counselee role-playing on such issues as dying and loss of control. This is not easy stuff to confront, says Crumpton, and about 10% of potential volunteers drop out at this point.

4. Volunteers are assigned according to their time constraints and personal preferences. Thanks to the range of programs offered, counselors can work once a week, once a month or by phone.

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EXPERT WITNESS

David James Wright, 38, has been an L.A. Shanti volunteer counselor and coordinator for 11 years. Wright has lost two lovers to AIDS, and last year was diagnosed with the disease himself. As devastating as all of this has been, Wright says it would be much worse without the support and satisfaction he has gotten from Shanti. “I believe anyone can be a counselor here,” says Wright. “We all have an innate need to help other people, impact their lives in some way. You just have to be willing to look at your own fears, and put them aside. I really respect all the volunteers here.”

TO GET INVOLVED: Call 213 962 8197.

Researched by ERIN J. AUBRY / For The Times

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