Interview Series: Erika Arbogast, President of Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services

Erika Arbogast
Erika Arbogast

Erika Arbogast is the President of Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services, a 104-year-old private nonprofit organization in Pittsburgh. She also serves the community through her membership on the boards of many organizations including Pennsylvania Association for the Blind – where she is also Treasurer, Unique Source as Secretary of Board and Chair of the Governance committee, National Association for the Employment of People who are Blind, and VisionServe Alliance. Erika is also a volunteer at Magee Women’s Hospital.

Years in the Pittsburgh area: 36  All my life.

What was your first job?

I spent 4 years working with children with autism at The Wesley Institute.  I developed and implemented behavioral programs for them and worked with their schools, other therapists, and family members to insure consistency.

 How were you drawn to nonprofit work?

My family took in foster children when I was younger.  We had kids with disabilities and children who had been through some pretty rough circumstances.  I recognized from an early point in life that I had things pretty good and should be thankful for that.  I wanted to help others that weren’t as fortunate as I was.

What keeps you motivated?

Coming to a job that I love.  I enjoy my job tremendously and take it very seriously that other people depend on my leadership and decisions.  It is easy to stay motivated when you get to see the positive changes that your organization makes on other’s lives every day.

Additionally, the individuals that we serve, BVRS’s staff, and our donors and stakeholders keep me motivated. They are so passionate about the services that we provide and that helps to fuel my passion.


What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

If you don’t go after something that you want you will never have it.


What are you reading?  

With a 6-year-old and a very busy schedule, I usually only get to read on vacation.  I like to read books about the holocaust and political books.


Share a favorite time-saving/productivity hack:

Exercise.  I can’t tell you how many problems I have solved while working out.  Sometimes taking a break from your work to exercise actually helps you to find solutions and to be able to move on with other tasks.


What major issue or trend is currently affecting your corner of the nonprofit sector?   

Legislation that could affect our sector, specifically around taxation, charitable deduction changes, and financial concerns. Transportation also continues to be a major concern for the population that we serve so I am always thinking about this.


What is one goal that you hope to accomplish in 2015?

Helping our organization to become better known in the community through media campaigns, a location change, and through excitement around our Capital Campaign and new building (that we will be in by October 2015).


What is the best thing about the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh?

It is a close knit group that bands together when issues arise.  The foundation community is phenomenal here, and I have found that when you can document a need they will support it with funding.  They have their pulse on the community and are willing to allocate dollars where the need exists.

Nonprofits in Pittsburgh also seem very willing to work together to solve problems or to collaborate to improve processes or systems.


Does  Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services have any events coming up?

Person of Vision Event on May 19

Young Professionals Bucco Bash (Pirates game) May 20

Steelers Alumni Golf Outing July 27


Happy National Volunteer Week

This week is National Volunteer Week, a program that began in 1974 by Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service.  In 2013, 62.6 million volunteers averaged 32 hours of service each in the United States, with fundraising (25 percent) and the collection/distribution of food (24 percent) ranking as the most popular volunteer activities.

Besides benefiting the organizations and communities receiving these free services – that range from general labor, to tutoring and mentoring youth – volunteerism brings positive outcomes to those who serve. Research from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) indicated a link between volunteering and securing employment, finding that unemployed volunteers were 27 percent more likely to find work than their peers who do not volunteer.  A study by UnitedHealth Group and Optum Institute found that participants who volunteered in the last year reported better moods, better health and  lower stress levels.

Pennsylvania ranks 26th among the 50 states and Washington, DC with nearly 27 percent of residents volunteering in 2013 – providing over $7.5 billion in service. Just under 70 percent of residents are involved in “informal volunteering,” such as doing errands  for neighbors or watching children for a friend. In Pittsburgh during the same time period, 27.7 percent of residents volunteered, putting Pittsburgh in the top half (19th) of the largest 51 Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

Haven’t been able to volunteer this week but looking for an opportunity to get involved? Check out these links to review the volunteer needs at The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, The United Way of Allegheny County, The Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, and Catholic Charities.  A few months ago, Kidsburgh posted an article on places to volunteer as a family. It can be as easy as calling a favorite nonprofit or your local civic organization and asking if they need any help with spring cleanup or an upcoming event. Volunteering is GOOD for you!


Volunteering on the Decline – Unless it’s an Internship

Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that American volunteerism had declined to 25.4 percent, the lowest rate since such data were first collected in 2002. The drop in volunteering occurred across many groups including,

  • men and women (though overall, women still volunteer more than men)
  • whites and blacks (no change among Asian and Hispanic volunteers)
  • persons employed (full or part-time) and those not in the workforce
  • persons with a high school diploma or a college degree

The median amount of time a person volunteered in 2012-2013 was 50 hours, with 72 percent reporting that they volunteer for one organization.  Approximately 43 percent of respondents sought out the opportunity to volunteer, while just about 41 percent were asked to do so by another person.

The BLS brief defines volunteers as “persons who performed unpaid volunteer activities,” which could also encompass internships by high school and college students.  This younger group does not appear to be experiencing a decline their interest to donate time, in fact, a study by Millennial Branding and found that 77 percent of high school students were strongly motivated to volunteer, a rate even higher than their college counterparts (63 percent). The study suggests that high school youth recognize the educational (skill development) and pragmatic (networking) benefits associated with unpaid internships for organizations or companies that align with their career interests.

Have you noticed any changes in the volunteer pool at your nonprofit?




Another Reason to Thank Your Volunteers: Study Finds Service Worth Billions

Have you thanked your volunteers lately? Volunteer appreciation is a year-round practice, not just something to be indulged in at an annual “Thank You” breakfast or luncheon. The value of volunteers is extraordinary according to research released this month by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) which indicates volunteers offer a huge economic and social benefit to their communities. In 2010, 62.8 million adults in the United States volunteered 8.1 billion hours of service, valued at approximately $173 billion dollars.  I think that kind of value deserves an impromptu post on your nonprofit’s Facebook page, don’t you?

Some points of interest from the Volunteering in America data:

  • Overall, the national volunteer rate decreased from 26.8 percent in 2009 to 26.3 percent in 2010, yet the overall number of hours served remained steady at 8.1 billion hours.
  • More than one-quarter of volunteers (26.5 percent) engaged in some kind of fundraising for an organization. The second most popular form of volunteerism involved food collection or distribution (23.5 percent).
  • The rates of teenagers performing volunteer services have remained higher from 2002 to 2010 than they were in 1989.


A Look at Pennsylvania Data

From 2008 to 2010, Pennsylvania had 2.7 million volunteers contributing approximately 352.6 million hours of service valued at 7.5 billion dollars. Over 27 percent of the state’s residents volunteer, giving Pennsylvania a ranking of 28 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Of the state’s major cities, Philadelphia had the largest number of volunteers (over 1 million) and total volunteer hours (approximately 130 million) in 2010. However, between 2008 – 2010 Pittsburgh had a higher percentage of intensive volunteers (serving 100 hours or more) with 31.8 percent compared to Philadelphia’s 29.5 percent and data indicate a higher volunteer rate in urban areas in Pittsburgh than in Philadelphia (22.5 percent versus 12.4 percent). Additional data on volunteerism in Pennsylvania (and all other states) is available at the Volunteering in America website.