Twenty five years ago this month, a small group of friends wanted to help their community and ended up changing the world.
It all started in 1986, a tough time in New York City. Poverty and crime were at record highs. A group of college friends moved to the Big Apple to start their careers. They saw terrible inequities and wanted to help. They attended benefits and galas, where their money went to worthy causes, but it didn’t feel like enough. They wanted to DO something, but didn’t know where to go.
The friends got together and tried to volunteer at different types of organizations – schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, and more. After a few months, they compared notes. Not one person landed a volunteer gig. Some organizations only used volunteers from 9-5, which conflicted with work. Others required lengthy commitments that young working people with irregular schedules couldn’t make. Many groups didn’t have anyone to supervise untrained do-gooders.
The founders had a wide circle of friends who, like them, were eager to give back. Every nonprofit they met wished it had more resources. They realized there was a gap between people ready to help, and organizations that needed them. And so, New York Cares was born. The goal was to make it easy to volunteer on a flexible basis and provide people power to resource-strapped nonprofits. The group quickly zeroed in on a team-based model, enabling them to scale, providing safety for all, and adding a fun, social component.
The fledgling organization ran its first project at Christmas, 1986. They held an event where the price of entry was a donation of used clothing. About 250 people showed up, filling two vanloads with clothing they delivered to a local shelter. Additionally, 75 people signed up to volunteer. They revitalized abandoned buildings, read with children, and more.
New York Cares was officially incorporated in April, 1987. It moved to its first office on East 58th Street, and hired its first staff and Executive Director. The Coat Drive and Winter Wishes kicked off in 1989, with New York Cares Day coming soon after. Hundreds of nonprofits requested our help when they found out about the well managed volunteer resources available for free. In the early 90s, groups in other cities adopted our new approach to volunteering and the movement spread around the globe (today there are 380 organizations worldwide, connected through HandsOn Network).
All the while, the volunteers kept coming: first by word of mouth, later online. Hundreds of thousands of people have volunteered since 1987, and together we’ve helped millions of our neighbors in NYC. Our projects today tackle a broad range of critical needs 365 days a year, with a volunteer corps 54,000 strong and still growing. It’s hard to imagine a world without New York Cares. Luckily, we never have to.
We’ll be publishing a series of retrospective stories from now through the end of the year. If you’d like to share a memorable New York Cares moment, please email email@example.com. See our blog guidelines.