Seth Franz, founder of Volunteering Untapped, knows that Federal Hill has a bit of a reputation as a partier’s paradise. Though he won’t deny that he and his friends enjoy going out, Franz is sick of hearing other people describe his neighborhood as filled with frat boys who crush beers on their heads every night.
Rather, Franz says, “I look around the bar and…I see your father’s attorney, your boss’s business broker guy, the financial guy who doing you company’s 401k…or whatever it is.” To get these people out making a better Baltimore, he founded Volunteering Untapped, an organization which volunteers at different nonprofits on the second Saturday of every month for a few hours, followed by an afternoon of drinking (he sure knows how to cater to his demographic).
It may seem like an odd juxtaposition between doing good and getting buzzed, but Franz has found it to be a natural combination. “It’s the same people who want to do both things,” he assures me. Now, the group’s mission to volunteer and have fun has attracted participants from not just Federal Hill, but the Canton and Fells Point neighborhoods as well.
Volunteering Untapped working with the Baltimore Tree Trust
By the time I went to check out the December Volunteering Untapped event at the Salvation Army in Hampden, the momentum had reached critical mass. People were sprinting around the room with Christmas lists from the Angel Tree project, burrowing through crates of toys to find gifts for children in need. People went all out with their Christmas garb: there was a grown man wearing red footie pajamas and Santa hats everywhere. Laughter, shouting, and Christmas tunes filled the air (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” blaring simultaneously was a particularly overwhelming moment). It was definitely an assault on the senses, but the overall impression was that these people were enjoying themselves.
Peggy Vick, the Director of Volunteer Services at this Salvation Army, remembered that she had been nervous nine months earlier, when she started planning for this event with Volunteering Untapped. Most of the volunteers that come through their doors are middle aged or seniors. Knowing that this group would be comprised of all young adults made her worry that the group would be small or disinterested. But, she was equally surprised and delighted to find herself overrun with engaged volunteers.
Remie Dagher and Mary James at the Salvation Army over Christmas
Two volunteers and friends Mary James and Remie Dagher said they heard about the event through the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. James, a veteran of the program since the spring, remarked that she liked that the group only met once a month, requiring a low commitment while exposing her to many different nonprofits throughout Baltimore.
After the group finished their work, they headed over to Union Craft Brewing’s bar to reward themselves with a couple of pints. Franz reflected that he hopes the organization gives its volunteers, “an impactful and transformational experience, disguised as a fun social activity.” He knows that though part of what makes people come out to volunteer is the promise of meeting other young professionals and then getting to drink with them, these aspects are secondary to their main mission: educating people about the volunteering opportunities in Baltimore.
Franz first got bit by the volunteering bug as a member of the Give Program, about four or five years ago. While a part of this program, he got to volunteer at many different nonprofits. He recalls having friends outside of the Give Program ask if they could join him in his service, but having to turn them down.
Franz felt terrible that there were apparently so many willing volunteers whose services were being rejected. He stresses that, “People want to volunteer and then you have these organizations that badly need it. I wanted to throw my support behind something like this, and when I found that it didn’t exist, I just did it.” One of the most important things to Franz was making volunteer service very easily available to anyone who wanted to volunteer. “We’ll give you coffee and donuts and Advil if your previous night was rough,” Franz. “We know the population that we’re dealing with.”
Volunteering Untapped certainly was not an overnight success. The organization’s inaugural event struggled to round up just ten people to fill Kennedy Krieger Institute’s activity room. But once word spread about the fun people were having volunteering and drinking together, the group grew dramatically. “It’s like we need a velvet rope and a bouncer to keep people out,” says Franz. “There’s been such a demand for it; it’s been very, very exciting.”
People have already begun asking Franz if he’d be willing to expand the success of Volunteering Untapped into other cities. Though he would love to see other cities benefit from this model, for now he’ll be focusing on Baltimore. He says. “I love Baltimore and Baltimore’s my shit. I’m from here and I want to see Baltimore get better.”
Working in real estate brokerage in Baltimore, Franz has been exposed to many different neighborhoods, and has seen firsthand the effects of poverty: “Not everyone in Federal Hill exactly lives the life that I do, a lot of people stay in their neighborhood and don’t really go other places…when I was in brokerage, I had a listing in West Baltimore. Every time I had to go to my listing…the same group of guys was hanging out on the same street corners. It’s no secret what they’re doing; of course, they don’t love that stoop, that’s just how a certain segment of the city operates. I think that being exposed to it all, and wanting a better Baltimore is what drove a lot of this.”
Despite the unsettling disparity of living conditions in different neighborhoods in the city, Franz feels hopeful about Baltimore’s future. “I love it that right now I feel young Baltimore coming up and taking over,” he says. “I feel that young Baltimore is not waiting for the next generation to step aside before they take leadership roles and then make an impact. We’re making an impact now. We’re tooling ourselves with the necessary skills so when we get there we’re ready to roll.”
Always smiling and ready to have a good time, Franz and his band of volunteers are doing what they can to help the city that they love the best way they know how: eagerly and with a beer close by.