Volunteers: A local organization is working to encourage volunteerism among residents. Courtesy photos volunteers: A local organization is working to encourage volunteerism among residents.

With millions of dollars being poured into homeless services annually and the problem only getting worse, it’s easy for residents to throw in the towel and give up on change, but longtime Santa Monican Rick Stoff doesn’t think they should.

Instead, he wants them to focus on one small thing a month they can do to help out and then to ask their friends to do the same. This is the premise behind The Volunteer Collective, an organization he founded that has grown from a small email list to a registered nonprofit with an army of volunteers several thousand strong.

Stoff started the initiative in 2019 alongside close friend Richard Foos. At the time, Stoff had just retired from a 15 year position at local job training nonprofit Chrysalis and wanted a way to continue making a difference.

“As I got into retirement I still had so many friends who were hand wringing and seemed to care about what was going on with homelessness, but they didn’t know what to do and they weren’t doing anything,” said Stoff.

Stoff guessed that many other local residents were in the same position — willing to help, but unsure where to start.

He and Foos decide to take the guesswork out of the volunteer equation and began sending a monthly email listing one action that their friends could take, whether it was serving a substitute driver shift for Meals on Wheels, sending letters of support for a homeless housing initiative, or collecting and donating unwanted clothes.

“The premise that we had was if you ask directly, you ask one thing and you ask for it now, people are going to say yes,” said Stoff. “It’s the exact opposite of what, let’s say Volunteer Match does, which is they put 150 volunteer things in your neighborhood on a database; It couldn’t be more passive.”

Their hypothesis proved correct and the pair was shocked by the level of response their calls to action received. An ask to prepare lunch bags garnered over 4,000 meals and a request to donate shoes led to the collection of 5,000 pairs over the course of a week.

“I’m convinced we’re the only organization that’s finding people, asking people, cajoling people to volunteer, versus just presenting volunteer opportunities and that’s what’s missing out there,” said Stoff.

The Volunteer Collective started off with around 1,000 emails, but as friends referred other friends the organization grew a following of around 8,000 individuals. A few months ago they successfully registered as a 501c3 nonprofit and Stoff is now seeking to raise money and hire staff members.

The organization is also looking to foster long-term volunteer partnerships so that the nonprofits they work with can depend on a stable source of volunteers. The Volunteer Collective team will keep up with their periodic calls to action, but also pick one cause at a time to maintain a sustained focus on.

“We take this big funnel approach: we will try and throw everything out there one thing at a time to see who can be attracted to do one little thing,” said Stoff. “And, then as people go through the funnel, the more committed volunteers end up sticking around and helping the nonprofits even more.”

Stoff likens his post-retirement career to that of a cheerleader, waving his metaphorical pompoms to get Angelenos excited about getting involved. The enemy his volunteer team is fighting is “compassion fatigue,” which Stoff said can plague even the most kind-hearted of residents.

He acknowledges that problems like homelessness do not appear to be getting better, but he is sick of all the finger pointing and blame and believes that everybody needs to lend a hand in order to create real change.

“The long game here is that the more people who are involved, the more people who care, the more people who are active, the more pressure there is on the powers that be for a solution,” said Stoff.

People can learn more about the volunteer collective and sign up for the organization’s newsletter at www.volunteer-collective.org.