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VolunteerCleanup.org connects South Florida citizens to protect beaches and waterways

An eco-conscious Miami couple went from clearing marine debris in their spare time to running Miami-Dade County’s go-to online event hub for beach cleanup projects.

By Jane St. John

metrics

  • 1K
  • cleanups
  • 205K
  • pounds of debris collected
  • 76K
  • volunteer hours

 

Three years ago, Dara Schoenwald and David Doebler were two Miamians who lived on the water and loved kayaking, paddleboarding, and exploring the coast they call home. What they didn’t love was the trash they regularly found floating in the bay and strewn along the shoreline. Since they both subscribed to the personal philosophy that anyone can be a changemaker, they started chipping away at the problem themselves, bringing bags on their kayak excursions so they could collect and dispose of debris as they went. One particular outing forced them to confront the scope of the issue and what it would take to make a real impact. “I’ll never forget the day my husband came home and his kayak was loaded up with trash,” Schoenwald says.

“I was looking at him off the balcony as he was coming home and I just had this insight: ‘We either need to get you a much bigger boat, or we need a lot more people to help us.’ We started organizing informally around that idea. We would organize group cleanups, ask our friends to join us, and every single time we went out, inevitably people would come up to us and say, ‘I want to help. How can I get involved?’ Otherwise people would say, ‘Oh, do you know Maria?’ Or, ‘Do you know these guys? They do that, too.’ We realized that there were a lot of people who really cared about this issue and were already doing something about it, but there was no single place to connect them all.”

Doebler and Schoenwald set about building VolunteerCleanup.org, the website that would allow them to create a central hub for local marine debris cleanup projects and raise awareness among a much larger audience than these efforts would have reached on their own. It was a free resource where anyone organizing a cleanup could post their event and reach out to a large database of volunteers, and volunteers could search by their zip codes to find a local cleanup they could join. Once site visitors sign up with their email address and zip code, they receive an emailed list every Monday of cleanups happening within fifteen miles of their area.

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During their first year, their following grew to a point where VolunteerCleanup.org could officially become a nonprofit, and the sophisticated infrastructure of their site opened the door to an irresistible opportunity—to take ownership of Miami’s local participation in International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) Day, a worldwide event that’s drawn millions of volunteers in thousands of cities on the third Saturday in September for the last thirty years. Since the Miami event’s prior organizers were operating out of spreadsheets and lacked a central registration system, they saw the value in handing the event over to VolunteerCleanup.org, a site where they could simply add their event and track signups from there. Upon launching the ICC event page and appending a simple email opt-in to the event confirmation communications, the VolunteerCleanup.org team saw their database grow by at least 1,000 new volunteers overnight.

After challenges and complications with the 2017 Miami event due to historically severe hurricanes, the 2018 International Coastal Cleanup day had the biggest turnout VolunteerCleanup.org has ever seen. A total of 2,979 volunteers chipped in, with a much higher than average turnout rate among those who RSVP’d. With that milestone event in the rearview mirror, the organization can now claim a total of 1,026 facilitated cleanups, 8,697 registered volunteers, and 76,576 hours from those volunteers removing an estimated 205,200 pounds of debris from the south Florida shoreline (at an average of 200 pounds per cleanup). Though the site typically features between two and four volunteer opportunities each weekend, one week there were ten cleanups throughout the county all taking place in a single day.

Though the population in their area is frequently in flux, they continue to see a reliable flow of volunteers because of the inclusive and timely nature of the work. For students, it’s a pleasant and active way to spend the day and amass service hours; for those new to environmental activism, it’s a gateway to a longer-term commitment.

“It’s very easy to just show up at a shoreline and clean up,” Schoenwald says. “We like to think of ourselves as a stepping stone for broader engagement on a whole range of environmental issues, and on this issue first. We always say, ‘Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.’ The act of participating in shoreline cleanups is an eye-opening experience and we believe it’s a catalyst for change. Once people have that experience, they’re more motivated to take actions in their own life, then engage other people.” 

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The next objective on VolunteerCleanup.org’s agenda is to use the data volunteers capture from each event to make their website and communications even smarter—like creating more in-depth data visualizations of volunteer turnout and debris collection, or developing an engine to recommend where and when to organize a cleanup based on when the last event took place at each proposed location. As Schoenwald sees it, it’s exactly the right time.

“Three years ago there wasn’t as much attention on this issue, so our time has come in terms of popular culture, what people are talking about,” she says. “The oceans and protecting them are more top of mind for more people. We’re now uniquely positioned to serving those people because of what we’ve built.”

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