Training new volunteers: What’s LIFT’s secret?

By LIFT on February 24, 2015

Categories: Our Work


Here at LIFT-Boston we come face-to-face with poverty every day. We see it, we hear it, we feel it. With each new crop of volunteer advocates, the staff is confronted with the same question: how do you train people to work alongside community members, to confront and overcome poverty?

That’s certainly a complicated question. In the United States, poverty is a perpetually complex and frustrating topic, one both evaded and debated by many. It’s acknowledged, but it’s not always felt. And while it certainly is complex, poverty can no longer be talked about as seemingly unsolvable, and we cannot continue to casually refer to a “War on Poverty” without realizing that the language of war and enemies only creates bitterness and division.

At LIFT-Boston we don’t stop at discussion and we refuse to let the daunting nature of the issue prevent us from acting. In fact, every year we activate 50 motivated college students and community members, training them to be resourceful, compassionate advocates for the members with whom we meet. We hold one full day of training for both fall and spring semesters, and in addition advocates complete about two weeks of in-office training which includes shadowing member meetings.

You might be asking yourself, but how can LIFT really prepare volunteers to tackle poverty head on every time they step foot into the office?

Well, we can take them through our social services and community resource navigation simulation, LIFTopolis, have an honest discussion around stereotypes and biases, instruct around relationship-building with a member and we can even lead a role playing session to model a meeting.

We can explain our mission, our work and our results, reflect on our six core values – service, human potential, relationships, collaboration, diversity, sense of possibility – and what they mean to us, and we can share why we all LIFT and find commonalities among our motivations.

We can talk about LIFT’s program model and why we think listening is the best way to support our members. We can explain that through Constituent Voice we’re listening and designing solutions around what members tell us they need.

But the reality is, we cannot fully simulate nor teach poverty.

That is a valuable, irreplaceable lesson our advocates will learn from the community members in each meeting, not something they can glean in a training, a classroom or on the Internet. Learning from our members is crucial to the work we do at LIFT, and it’s an integral part of our plan for change.

We design and improve our training every year to better prepare our volunteers to interact with people who may have different stories from themselves, to make everyone feel welcome, to know the resources to use when searching for housing and jobs and pubic benefits and childcare and education and everything in between. And it works: “The training weekend was a lot of fun and I feel so much more prepared and informed!” and “It was a really great experience. Thank you,” are just a couple of comments from the volunteers at the last Boston training.

But not until the volunteer has that first meeting with a member can she/he start to grasp just how much it hurts to have your teenage daughter be turned away at the grocery store for using the EBT card with your picture on it, to have to spend another night on the street between snow banks, to be disrespected by fellow human beings when calling the local housing authority to try to figure out your status on the waiting list. It is not until the volunteers begin experiencing life alongside our members that they get a full dose of training in humility, respect, and motivation; motivation to continue partnering with members and to change the suffocating systems that try to keep them from moving beyond their circumstances.

Join us on our journey – whether it’s checking out our brand new website to find out more about the work we do at LIFT, volunteering with us, or donating to your local LIFT office. Join us on our journey to understand, to connect, and to LIFT.

Check out these pictures from our most recent volunteer training!