During National Volunteer Week, we are highlighting the efforts of several key UWGP volunteers. We hope you enjoy their interviews and are inspired by their service to our community! Looking for a new opportunity to give back? Check out http://volunteer.unitedwaygp.org.
Ari Solotoff, Attorney, Bernstein Shur
When and how did you get involved in volunteering with United Way’s Brick & Beam Society?
I first became involved with United Way’s Brick & Beam Society about two years ago when Annie Drew of WEX asked me to consider joining Brick & Beam and the Impact Investing Committee in particular. The Impact Investing Committee is an effort to focus on gathering community leaders, volunteers, and young professionals together to think about how to maximize the impact of funds that are being contributed through the Brick & Beam Society. I became involved with that Committee and saw an opportunity to provide some very specific volunteer work in connection with one of the organizations receiving funds from Brick & Beam, CoCo Maine [Congolese Community of Maine].
For someone who is less familiar with Brick & Beam, and the recipients of their funds, can you share a little more about that organization and your role specifically in helping them?
The Brick & Beam Society is one of the most important leadership efforts within the young philanthropic community in Maine. It brings together not only individuals who are deeply committed to improving the lives of everyone in the community, but also gives them a very hands-on, engaging, and personal way to connect with the recipients of the programs that Brick & Beam supports. For example, there are opportunities to volunteer through book drives, by reading to kids, and by investing in and working directly with young people in our community, because that’s where Brick & Beam feels we can make the biggest difference in impacting the future trajectory of children and families, and ultimately our Portland and Maine communities.
Have you used any of your own professional skills while volunteering?
In my own case, the Impact Investing Committee allowed me to use my experience in the nonprofit sector as a former nonprofit administrator and now as a lawyer, in helping to provide pro bono legal assistance to an organization funded by Brick & Beam. CoCo Maine, as a Brick & Beam funding recipient, needed assistance and guidance with its nonprofit bylaws and with its application for tax-exempt status. They were no different from many other organizations that need to step back and think through structure, leadership, and taking care of all the paperwork that actually goes in to keeping a nonprofit healthy.
I was able to use my legal skills in a pro bono capacity to work directly with CoCo Maine’s leadership and governing Board, an amazing group of people who are highly dedicated to their organization. Recently, I visited with the entire Board to review and modify their organizational bylaws. This involved conversation about translating their local customs to ways of administering nonprofit organizations in the United States. The Coco Maine Board was deeply engaged in the discussion and wanted to learn more, not only to support their application for tax-exempt status, but also because of their genuine commitment to proceed with focus and integrity. From my perspective, it was a tremendous honor to work with the Coco Maine leadership and to think through how to structure the organization in a manner that will be familiar to them and also enable them to provide the greatest impact in the future, not just here in Portland but to the many other Congolese and immigrant communities throughout Maine.
Where are you in that process right now?
The Board of CoCo Maine has been working diligently to review and ultimately adopt their new bylaws that will ultimately allow them to apply for tax-exempt status. Another Brick & Beam Society member, Desmond Gilliard, has also provided tremendous support in helping Coco Maine navigate this process.
What motivates you to continue with the process and stay involved in that volunteering capacity?
I am motivated by the leadership of CoCo Maine and by the incredible commitment that the Board and members have demonstrated to our community. Like so many volunteer efforts, you start with one piece or one project, and it extends into a much longer conversation. This experience has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know the leaders of Coco Maine, which has been most gratifying and beneficial for all involved.
What have you learned from your volunteer experience?
There is an amazing amount of work happening day-to-day in so many parts of our community. We don’t always see it, but we benefit from the many cultural and educational programs that are produced at libraries, in our schools, or in other venues throughout Maine. It’s all contributing to this diversity within Portland and Maine, and that is what makes this such a special place. There are some extraordinary individuals doing unheralded work within their own communities, over and above what it takes to sustain themselves and their families. I have learned that we are all part of one community.
What impact do you feel you’re making as a volunteer?
I see impact like a pebble hitting a lake. When you throw a pebble in the lake, it has a ripple effect on the water. My hope is that the collective ripple effect of everyone that participates in Brick & Beam, or any of United Way’s volunteer programs, will have an amplifying effect on our community.
Do you have any advice for someone who may be just thinking about getting involved as a volunteer?
If you’re thinking of volunteering, I would encourage you to reflect on what you value, what interests you have, and what life experience you have that may be of interest to share with others. When you can align your volunteer interests with some of your personal interests, it helps to drive you forward. Volunteering is a reciprocal act in that the more that you do, the more that you and those around you benefit from it.
Do you have a story you’d like to share from your volunteering experience?
Meeting the CoCo Maine Board for the first time was moving in so many ways. I have worked with many nonprofit organizations. Yet, the Coco Maine Board was deeply engaged and fully prepared with questions; the level of discourse was pretty amazing. I thought to myself—if every Board could function the way that this Board is operating in this instance, the degree of nonprofit impact in our state would be tremendous. I was fully impressed by their commitment to the work and the organization. This will sustain the organization for years to come.
I recall one Board member in particular. She was so animated about the language and the work of thinking through the impact of changes on Coco Maine’s membership. Despite the language differences, you could see that she brought all of her energy and enthusiasm to the conversation. I see her as a model Board member, and I carry that with me when I think about the importance of candor in any conversation that one has when collaborating with a group of people.
Are there any final thoughts about volunteerism that you’d like to share?
One of the great things about Brick & Beam is that you can really scale your level of involvement, and in doing so, know that collectively Brick & Beam and United Way will harness that energy in a way that will make the biggest difference. Brick & Beam has been an excellent way to engage with colleagues in the community in a concerted and mutually beneficial way. We’re learning at the same time that we’re giving, and I think that’s the best form of volunteerism that one can hope for.