Photo: July 2007, Kami Griffiths holds up a USB drive while teaching a digital skills class at the Hayes Valley Learning Center in San Francisco.
“If you’re interested in starting a nonprofit, volunteer for one first,” says CTN’s co-founder and executive director Kami Griffiths.
Kami began volunteering at a young age — from delivering cookies to retirement homes with her local 4-H group, to working with her father on literacy issues, to serving as a camp counselor. Coupled with her desire to help others, these early experiences set a foundation for a lifetime of service. When she graduated from college and started a corporate graphic design job in Minneapolis, Kami quickly felt that something was missing. “My job in no way made me feel like I was making the world a better place. That’s when I realized that I needed to start doing volunteerism again.”
Though she had done some pro bono graphic design work and disparate service projects, Kami longed for the community and connection that volunteering often provides. “Nothing beats working with another human,” she reflects. “I wanted to actually help people build their skills. I like the response of, ‘oh I get it.’ When somebody has that aha moment, it genuinely makes me happy.”
Kami’s passion for working with and understanding other humans motivated her to broaden her worldview. Hailing from a small town of just 700 people, Kami knew there was more to the world and felt eager to encounter new perspectives. After leaving the Minneapolis area for Boston, she eventually moved to San Francisco. There, Kami began volunteering with a human rights nonprofit that led to a paid position with the organization. “It was my first foray into activism and social justice,” Kami reflects. “I never really understood that individuals could make a real difference … like it’s not a joke. I worked with people who actually made things happen themselves. It was inspiring.”
In both that position and her next job in New York, Kami’s volunteering directly led to employment. After just three months of volunteering with New York City’s Parks Department, they offered her a paid position as a computer instructor for their Parks Opportunity Program. She also took over their volunteer program, which had previously been disorganized and inefficient. “If you put a volunteer in a position too many times where they feel like they’re failing, they’ll quit,” says Kami. “Through the experience of working as a volunteer, I saw the need for proper training, onboarding, and support for volunteers.”
As she found her way back to San Francisco to work for the nonprofit TechSoup, Kami brought along her passion for helping others learn digital skills. When she discovered an underutilized and outdated computer lab in her neighborhood, she jumped at the chance to start a small volunteer program. She acquired donated computers, advertised classes, and prepared a small cohort of volunteers. While the excitement was there, the program didn’t turn out as she had expected: “What I learned the hard way was just because you have a computer center and volunteers don’t mean that people will show up and want to learn. What really needed to happen was a more holistic approach where you say, ‘hey, community, what do you need?‘”
Fast forward a couple of years, Kami fully committed to the work of training others to use the internet when she established Community Tech Network (previously a small project of TechSoup) as its own nonprofit. Though it had been a long and winding road to get here, each of Kami’s previous experiences — missteps and successes alike — shaped the organization we are today.
One important lesson learned? Implementing a dynamic and engaging volunteer program is no easy task, especially when it involves humans: “Humans helping humans is not like cleaning up a beach or painting a fence or any sort of manual labor. A human who needs or wants help has to show up, be there, and have the things that they need. I find this work that we are doing fairly challenging compared to other volunteer projects. You don’t have a thousand volunteers show up to get a task done. To get a thousand volunteers training with another person, it’s a big job.”
At the same time, a good volunteer experience can be incredibly rewarding: “These opportunities allow you to meet people you would never otherwise interact with. If you don’t ever interact with someone very different than you, how could you possibly understand what someone is going through? Having the opportunity to interact with someone very different can create more empathy for others situations.”
We are grateful to have a leader with plenty of experience in and passion for volunteering. CTN’s volunteers are crucial to our work, and we are committed to setting them up for success. Consider volunteering with us today!