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Volunteerism Goes Viral

David Levinson, founder of the Big Sunday day of service, found that people want to help–if someone will only tell them how.

When David Levinson organized the first Big Sunday for his Los Angeles synagogue in 1999, about 300 volunteers took part in 17 community projects, including building a house with Habitat for Humanity and cleaning up the coast with Heal the Bay.

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David Levinson

Fast-forward a few years: Over Big Sunday Weekend this past May, some 40,000 volunteers in 125 cities from California to Illinois to New York came out to paint classrooms, plant gardens, renovate local shelters and take part in thousands of other charitable projects.

Surveying photos on the walls of his utilitarian L.A. office, Levinson, 54, still finds himself slack-jawed at the evolution of his pet project into a national community service brand. “Big Sunday has just been failing upward for 15 years,” he says, sounding as usual both proud and self-deprecating. “There are so many situations that in one zillion years I never thought I’d be in: traipsing around a mosque, working with a Greek Orthodox priest, schlepping around Skid Row–and in all of these places, people are looking to me as the guy who knows his way around.”

This October, the first international Big Sunday event–also its first franchise extension–will take place at a church in Adelaide, Australia. The organizers of Big Sunday Adelaide, which is slated for October 12, expect to draw a sizeable volunteer crowd with the message their L.A. predecessor has honed over the years: Community service creates stronger communities.

“We’ve been trying to find what we can do in our city,” says Joshua Brett, lead pastor of Hope Church and organizer of Big Sunday Adelaide. “To come together with Big Sunday is like a hand in a glove–it totally fulfills our desire to build community here in Adelaide.”

With Big Sunday, Levinson stumbled onto a small-scale panacea, addressing two social needs simultaneously: Some people are looking for help, and others are itching to give it. Not only does Big Sunday excel at answering a community’s charitable demands, but it also offers a framework for helping people who want to serve find their niche–by telling them where they are needed, where their impact will be valued, where their time will be well spent. Give people the tools to help others, Levinson has discovered, and they will do it with gusto.


Big Sunday’s beginnings

Those polished ideals weren’t there from day one, admits Levinson, the organization’s founder and CEO. The mild-mannered sometime screenwriter says he ended up at the helm of a community service empire “totally by mistake.”

In 1997, Levinson was writing scripts for film and TV–“My specialty was movies that didn’t get made,” he jokes–and to let off steam, he started volunteering with a charity that moved homeless families into permanent housing. “It was good to do something tangible,” he recalls. “I could make the bed. I could carry the sofa into the house. I felt like I’d accomplished something rather than go to meetings about the same movie for the 10th year in a row.”

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Around that time, Levinson’s synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, decided that it wanted to host a “Mitzvah Day” of volunteering for the congregation. “David was a passionate, charismatic guy who cared about doing good in the world,” says Levinson’s rabbi, John Rosove. Although Levinson had never been an organizer and had only lately found his way to community service, Rosove put him in charge. “I figured he’d be a great leader,” the rabbi says.

Levinson began calling local social service agencies, asking what kind of help they needed. He and a handful of other organizers convened in his home living room to plan the all-day event, which turned out to be hugely successful. But Levinson thought the team could make an even bigger impact if they partnered with other volunteer groups, so the next year, he invited several nearby synagogues, churches and his three kids’ elementary school to take part. The number of participants jumped to 800.

Yet the big picture for Big Sunday didn’t crystallize until 2001, when Levinson called Covenant House, an organization that helps teenage runaways, to ask if they needed help with any projects. “The case worker said, ‘Our kids don’t need help; they want to give help,'” he recalls. It opened his eyes to the social value of volunteering, not only for people on the receiving end, but for those on the giving end, as well. He suddenly realized that there was a widespread hunger throughout the community to give back, if only people knew how. “It was at that moment that we went from a community service day to a community-building event,” Levinson says.

Eventually Big Sunday outgrew the synagogue, and Levinson spun it off as an independent nonprofit with no religious affiliation, moving into an office in Hollywood. In 2006, Big Sunday teamed up with L.A.’s then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to take the event city-wide, and a few years later, California’s then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger honored Levinson as the best nonprofit leader in the state. (“That was very nice for Big Sunday, but it was fantastic for my mother,” Levinson recalls with a laugh.) Since the program’s inception, volunteers have donated more than 1 million hours of service and millions of dollars’ worth of goods to support schools, animal shelters, food banks, libraries, environmental causes and social service agencies. The organization’s budget is now $1.2 million, comprised of in-kind gifts and $800,000 in cash raised from private and corporate donors including Home Depot, Disney, Paramount, and Kaiser Permanente.

Big Sunday’s projects have been diverse: They took veterans horseback riding. They went bowling with a group of developmentally disabled adults. They hosted a meet-and-greet for socially conscious singles. They brought a photographer to a low-income school to take family portraits. (If you’re worried about putting dinner on the table, you’re not shelling out for professional pictures, Levinson points out.) They run a monthly food drive, an annual book drive, and they give away truckloads of clothes and furniture each year.

“We have projects for every passion and talent–we do painting, cooking, building, gardening; we’ve done plumbing, legal aid, dental clinics; we’ve had hairdressers doing makeovers at a homeless shelter,” Levinson says. “The point is to have fun. If you don’t like to be around homeless people, help the elderly, or help veterans. Somebody else will help the homeless; don’t feel bad about it. If you don’t want to go to Skid Row, I get it–it’s dirty, it’s scary. Go to that nursing home instead.”

The three-day Big Sunday Weekend in May now takes place in eight states, and is still the organization’s marquee event, though holiday-centric projects in L.A. and around Southern California have also grown popular. On Halloween, for instance, Big Sunday’s staff trick out their warehouse-style office as a haunted house for disadvantaged children, and volunteers distribute candy from their cars in an event they call “trunk-or-treating.” At the annual Thanksgiving food drive, participants pack holiday meals for some 25 local nonprofits to distribute–all while enjoying breakfast and the music of a bluegrass band. Hundreds pack in for the annual holiday sing-along, where attendees light a menorah, decorate a tree and share a community meal featuring all types of holiday fare.

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“Our events are not just about how many supplies we can give away–it’s bringing people together in the name of helping other people,” Levinson says. “You’re not going to be incredibly busy for every minute. Part of it is sitting down and having breakfast with some of the other volunteers who want to meet somebody new, or older people who could use some company.”

The formula works. “David created something that engages people in an amazing way,” Rosove says. “He inspires people to want to help him.”

Big Sunday Weekend 2011Photo: Charles Schwartz, Courtesy of Big Sunday

Serving the future

On a muggy mid-August evening, about 150 locals crowded into Big Sunday’s headquarters for the organization’s fifth annual back-to-school drive. Downstairs, an assembly line of volunteers stuffed 300 backpacks with donated crayons, rulers, notebooks, and glue sticks, while upstairs dozens more sat at tables with markers and stencils, writing motivational cards to the low-income students who would receive the backpacks. Josephine Cobbs, who has been volunteering with Big Sunday for 12 years, said she finds the act rewarding. “You meet all sorts of nice people,” she noted, adding sparkly stickers to a card that read, “I believe I can fly.”

Aside from producing its own events, Big Sunday has also become something of a matchmaking service, connecting those looking to give aid with those who wish to receive it. A signature product called The Big List compiles information on donated items so that local nonprofits and schools can see what’s available and choose what they need. Its yearly Holiday List advertises philanthropic opportunities over the fall and winter, from serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless to sending Christmas toys to children in shelters. With a grant from Disney, this October Big Sunday will launch the PROBOList, promoting lawyers, accountants, graphic designers, yoga teachers, and other professionals who want to donate their services. In all, Big Sunday now engages more than 50,000 people per year.

A lot of that growth has been driven by word-of-mouth–especially among local corporations that hire Big Sunday to run community service events for their employees. “What will happen is we’ll work with Parsons Corporation based in Pasadena, and they’ll say, ‘Do you have something for our San Diego office and our Orange County office?'” Levinson says. “This year the Sacramento office said they would like to do something, too. Then other people say, ‘Now that you’re in Sacramento, I’d like to get my kid’s school involved.’ It’s very organic.”

William Morris Endeavor agency (WME) has run its own corporate day of service for years, but now that it’s merging with sports and fashion management company IMG, it brought Big Sunday on board to oversee this year’s event as it folds in thousands of new employees worldwide; happening later this month, festival will include about 130 offices in 30 countries, including locations in Australia, Singapore, London, Berlin and New York City.

The goal is to build a sense of company unity, says Sarah Adolphson, executive director of the William Morris Endeavor Foundation. “It’s a great opportunity for everyone to get to know each other in a meaningful way where it’s not just about business,” she says. “Philanthropy has that overarching ‘let’s bring everybody together’ type of feel. It’s not divvied up by seniority–if you want to work with animals that day, you’re going to work alongside people who care about animals, whether it’s the CEO or someone from the mailroom.”

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That broad accessibility was what appealed to Brett, the pastor in Adelaide, when he stumbled across Big Sunday’s website and read about its mission. “I remember saying to myself, ‘I want to do this one day,'” he recalls.

This past May, Brett and two other church members visited L.A. to watch Levinson run Big Sunday Weekend. They studied the organization’s business model, licensed the name and set up Big Sunday Adelaide as an independent nonprofit with an eye toward holding an annual festival starting this fall. “There was a real sense of connection” between the Australia and Los Angeles teams, Brett says. “We were so impressed with what they do and the genuineness of who they are as people–David and his whole team. We love the heart behind it.”

Yet exporting an established brand overseas has its challenges. Big Sunday is an unknown name in Adelaide, so getting project partners to sign on was tough at first, Brett says. Plus, after seeing what a big deal Big Sunday has become in L.A., it has been harder to think small: “When we came over in May, we saw Big Sunday 16 events down the track. The challenge is, how do we start off and not get seduced by what they are already doing? We’ve had to recognize that they also started small, and try not to do too much in our first year. We need to make sure that what we do year-one, we do really well, so people will want to be part of it again.”

Projects planned for the inaugural event include building lockers and refurbishing a garden at a local homeless mission, holding high tea at a hospice for dementia patients and their families, and making “pamper packs” of essential toiletries for local sex workers (a legal profession in Adelaide). Overall, organizers are aiming to host five major projects and draw at least 150 volunteers from Hope Church and other faith and community groups.

Levinson has been providing logistical and moral support via Skype. “They’re delightful people and they totally get what we’re about,” he says. “We’re not going to solve all the problems of the world in one weekend. If you have five people there helping and happy, that’s fine–so long as people feel good about what they’re doing. If they feel good about it, they will come back.”

He should know–he was once the ultimate reluctant volunteer. While watching one particularly high-minded ad for volunteerism, splashed with images of Gandhi and Mother Teresa, he had an epiphany that would later fuel the Big Sunday movement: Charity shouldn’t be a lofty endeavor. “I’m this tired, middle-aged guy and they want me to be like Mother Teresa? What are they smoking?” he recalls with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Let’s make this a little more real.’ There’s somewhere between Mother Teresa and me–let’s find a happy medium.”

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