Taking care of business

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The executive director of the city’s largest volunteer organization on the ‘joyful endeavor’ that is his work


  • As executive director of New York Cares, Gary Bagley oversees an organization that fills 200,000 volunteer positions each year. Photo: New York Cares

  • Gary Bagley is executive director of New York Cares, which serves more than 500,000 city residents annually. Photo: Lyn Hughes

Gary Bagley revels on the impact his organization has on the lives of New Yorkers. As executive director of New York Cares, the largest volunteer institution in the city, filling over 200,000 volunteer positions in the city annually, he is always focused on where there’s need anywhere in New York City. “Every month, 11,000 people get off their couch or up from behind their desk and show up somewhere in the five boroughs,” he said.

The Washington Heights resident highlights the organization’s volunteers for their dedication on projects like sorting donations at their annual holiday coat drive, aiding in disaster relief, serving at soup kitchens, and assisting students with homework. Still, there’s always more to be done, Bagley said “When I feel good about the work we’re doing at a certain school, I can’t help but think about the school two blocks away that doesn’t have access to our volunteers,” he said.

In any one year, New York Cares serves more than a half a million city residents and helps 1,275 nonprofits and schools. With numbers such as those, it’s not surprising that when asked what one of the best parts of his job is, he said it’s knowing all the neighborhoods, schools and individuals that the institution and its volunteers have touched.

What is the key to operating the largest volunteer organization in New York?

New York Cares’ founders were meeting a pressing need in the city, which is that volunteers want to have access to high quality, high impact experiences. And, nonprofits and schools generally want to benefit from that. But for a lot of reasons, the two were not able to get together well. One of the things that we do at New York Cares is focus is on ease of access. So for volunteers, they go to one 45-minute orientation, then they have access to about 1,700 projects every month. Now, in terms of accessibility for nonprofits and schools, we provide a number of programs that are known to be good for volunteers and clients of the organization. Whether that’s STEM programming for elementary school kids, SAT prep program for high school kids, helping adults get back in the workforce, painting and gardening, we have 30 years of developing programs that we can offer to our schools and nonprofits.

There are 1,300 team leaders who are crucial to your operations running so smoothly.

The real reason we’re able to do this much is that we provide those volunteers with a person on-site, who is called the volunteer team leader. This person is a volunteer from our database, meaning unpaid. They volunteered with us, then interview and apply to become a team leader, and then go to a training session. When you’re a volunteer and show up on the day of your project, there’s a New York Cares team leader there who will actually help manage the experience. And the reason that’s so important is that’s the key capacity that most schools and nonprofits lack, that on-site management. We hear all the horror stories, like “They forgot I was coming.” Or even more important, if it’s a homeless shelter or a public school, things may happen that are more urgent than the fact that you’re showing up to read to a child that day. So this allows us to provide consistency for the volunteer and for the nonprofit partner or school.

What is the demographic of your volunteers?

Seventy percent of our volunteers are between the ages of 18 and 34, which is really cool, because that’s not the typical demographic of most volunteers. They want to learn more about community issues and want the ability to give back more mindfully. We were founded by a group of volunteers who were working. And so their biggest barrier to volunteering was that they had jobs. So we’ve always focused on making sure that there’s this ease of access and therefore, a lot of our programs take place outside the traditional nine to five workday. Although we certainly have a good share of daytime programming. We’re also finding when people move to New York City, volunteering is way to get to know New York. It’s a great way to meet like-minded New Yorkers in a really positive setting.

Tell us a story of a person whose life has been changed by your organization.

I think we first connected with her eight years ago, a wonderful woman named Tonya Ingram. Tonya grew up in our programs. She was working with a local social services agency in the Bronx and in the fifth grade, went on one of our Read to Me programs. And New York Cares volunteers were the reason she got her first library card. And she stayed connected to us, and eventually, years later, when she was preparing for her SATs, the organization that she was working with also brought in a New York Cares SAT prep program. And so Tonya, who is very bright, then did very well on her SATs. And one of her volunteers, who had gone to NYU, asked her if she was applying there and Tonya said, “I don’t know NYU.” And they took her on a trip there, and she ended getting I think a full scholarship. And she’s remained connected to us. She’s turned into a wonderful, talented poet. There’s a virtuous circle in volunteerism, which is that folks who have been given a lot and helped, then feel compelled to help others.

There is also a disaster relief component. You were there for Hurricane Sandy.

As horrible as Superstorm Sandy was, there was a moment for New York Cares where we were truly at the hub of people who wanted to help and a place where there was great need. And the skill in deploying people where they can really be helpful when there are so many unknowns, is very challenging. I do list the follow-up to Hurricane Sandy as possibly the most exciting period of time in my career. Our donors stepped up and we raised over three-and-half-million dollars just dedicated toward disaster response. In the first six months, we deployed 25,000 individuals to help and really challenged ourselves. There was not a strong nonprofit infrastructure in the Rockaways, coastal Brooklyn or Staten Island at the time. We had to test our systems, learn how to work directly with homeowners, bring a lot of resource into that area and really make a full dedication to that work. I’ve never done so much on so little sleep in my life. But I will tell you, in the course of 30 days, we staffed up and built a disaster response team of nine or 10 people and some of them have gone on to careers in disaster recovery work because it really spoke to them.

New York Cares is also known for its holiday coat drive. What are some stats from this past winter’s?

I’m proud to say we collected and distributed over 104,000 coats to New Yorkers in need. And this is truly a citywide effort. We partner with the NYPD; people can donate at any police precinct in the five boroughs. We collect at transportation hubs. We have 1,300 groups that collect, whether it’s individuals who run a collection at their company, real estate firms in the lobby of their buildings, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, synagogues, churches, mosques. It’s such a spirit of folks collecting. And it’s powered by volunteers who are bringing the coats in, getting them sorted. We work with our nonprofit partners who need them to, as soon as they’re ready, get them right back out to the communities they serve. It’s an amazing logistical journey. I drop my coat in a box in a police precinct and it somehow ends up in another borough on a person’s back, and sometimes in as short as two weeks and at the busiest time, within four weeks.

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