One woman`s thought led to positive, lasting impact in Atlanta

By: GABRIELLA JARAMILLO

ATLANTA — All things created are first created with just a thought. Eventually, that thought leads to action, and then that action makes a creation. That`s exactly what happened with the fast-growing Hands On Atlanta.

Hands On Atlanta was founded 28 years ago and has grown from a group of 12 volunteers to a group of thousands of volunteers. Today the organization conducts thousands of projects and helps hundreds of nonprofits in the Atlanta community. Without this organization, many of Atlanta`s needs would be unmet.

Small Beginning

Elise Eplan, a co-founder and advisory council member of Hands On Atlanta, was the first person to think that thought. The thought came after she heard about her graduate school friend`s organization called New York Cares, which Eplan said at the time was concerned with getting young professionals involved with worthwhile volunteer activities.

“When I moved back to Atlanta after graduate school, [that concept seemed] like a good fit for Atlanta [because there] wasn’t really anything like that [in Atlanta],” Eplan said.

So Eplan got a group of 12 together including herself in 1989, and the group just started volunteering. Atlanta Community Food Bank and Open Hand were two of the group`s first big projects.

“We decided to be very intentional,” said Deva Hirsch, another co-founder of Hands On Atlanta. “We thought – let`s meet with some nonprofits, see what they need, see how volunteers can help them, let`s get a few more of our friends [and] see if [our friends] would be interested in volunteering and let`s talk about how we can train people to be a good volunteer …”

The group also started identifying projects that seemed to line up with the interests of the people who they knew, were their age and had time but still needed flexibility. To maintain flexibility the group would only commit to weekly volunteer jobs as a group, that way the responsibility to come through for a job wasn`t just on one person but on the entire group.

“We [were] going to show them week after week that we [were going to] come through with our commitment,” Hirsch said.

Growth

Eventually, the group of 12 became a group of about 60. To help with some costs, the group reached out to family and friends for money and received a couple grants from Home Depot and Coca-Cola. Days Inn also helped the group by providing free space.

“We began to get more and more grants as we got bigger and bigger … So that began to make a difference,” Eplan said. “More people were willing to help us.”

That growth led Hands On Atlanta to hire Michelle Nunn as its executive director. Nunn was a recent college graduate at the time who was looking for a job and heard about the organization. She was already interested in nonprofits, so when the organization offered her a part-time position, she said yes.

“Our paths luckily crossed, and it was a great thing for [Hands On Atlanta] and hopefully for [Nunn] as well,” Eplan said.

By 1990 Nunn`s position as executive director became full-time, and about 700 volunteers were part of the organization. Nunn`s hard work continued to lead the organization to bigger things, such as the founding of Hands On Network and Hands On Network`s merging with Points of Light.

Now Hands On Atlanta`s growth has skyrocketed. In 2016 the organization had more than 13,000 volunteers, coordinated more than 4,000 projects and helped more than 400 nonprofit agencies.

“Back in 1989 we just couldn’t have envisioned that it would grow to be so big and so much a part of the Atlanta ecosystem, in terms of community service,” Eplan said. “So I think all of us who were there at the beginning are incredibly proud of what it [has] become.”

Regarding finances, Hands On Atlanta has also done extremely well. In fiscal 2016 the organization received almost $2 million in contributions and grants, plus $800,000 in program service revenue; spent about $2 million on salaries, benefits and other compensation; and spent about $1 million on other expenses. Since 2011, it has received more than $13 million in contributions and grants, according to IRS documents.

Mission and Values

Though at the end of the day, it`s not all about the numbers. Hands On Atlanta is truly more concerned with its mission, which its website says is to “tackle greater Atlanta`s most pressing needs by igniting a passion for service and creating life-long community volunteers.”        Jay Cranman, the CEO of Hands On Atlanta, said that he reads the organization`s mission statement every day and always sees something new in it.

“I`m really proud of the way in which we`re continuing to live that mission, specifically this idea of creating a passion for service and creating life-long community volunteers,” Cranman said. “Everything we do is really centered around that. You can look at every program that we run and every person, and they`re somehow connected strongly to that mission.”

Genora Crooke, the volunteer relations coordinator of Hands On Atlanta, said there a few things the organization does to ensure passionate and committed volunteers; such as giving a rewarding experience to all volunteers, contacting volunteers by survey and fixing any addressed concerns.

Along with the mission statement, Hands On Atlanta also upholds its values. Those values include respect and inclusion, civic engagement, a pursuit of excellence and community partnerships.

Reviews

Dad`s Garage, a nonprofit theater company, just started receiving help this year from Hands On Atlanta volunteers.

“September first was our first go date, and that being Labor Day weekend, normally that`s a very hard date to find volunteers for,” said Andrew Crigler, the patron services director of Dad`s Garage. “But because of Hands On Atlanta, [we] actually had full shifts of volunteers for all of our shows that weekend … And ever since then, all of our volunteer shifts are actually filling up, which is really really nice.”

Regarding transparency, Hands On Atlanta currently has a platinum rating, the highest rating, for its commitment to transparency from GuideStar, the world`s largest source of information on nonprofit organizations.

Big Impact

“We started with 12 people and this idea of how can they make volunteering easier for themselves and their peers,” Cranman said. “And 28 years later we`re now going to mobilize a neighborhood of 30,000 people this year to do service.”

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