Volunteers – Building Capacity – Sharing the Journey

Posted: 2 May 2018

Author: Val Rathjen, Community Learning Network

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Comments: 2

Recommendations: 1


Did you know that 12.7 million Canadians volunteer their time and energy each year? How fortunate we are to live in a country where people give so generously of their time, and recognize the need to invest in their communities. Canadians contribute roughly two billion hours of volunteer time per year – that works out to an average of 168 hours each (Volunteer Canada i. p., 2011). Amazing!

April 15-21 was National Volunteer Week and Wainwright Adult Learning held a Volunteer Appreciation luncheon honouring the people who have stepped forward to support their local CALP with their time and talents. These individuals are making a huge difference in the lives of learners and their community. As the staff shared about their event and the volunteers they were honouring, it hit me just how incredible this celebration was. Only a year or two ago the only volunteers working with this organization were on the Board. Fast forward 2 years and here they were celebrating 19 fabulous volunteers!

I had a chance to talk to Claudinei Saunders-Cruz, Program Director, about how they attracted new board members, tutors and volunteers in general. The list included many familiar approaches but also a couple of ideas that I hadn’t heard before.

  • Word of mouth – It is crucial that CALP staff plug into their communities. Volunteers can be found in line at the CO-OP, while watching a hockey game, or as you pick up your kids from school. Your current volunteers and learners can also spread the word about the organization. We know that people volunteer in organizations that are making a difference in people’s lives and strengthening the fabric of their communities. CALPs do both of these, and we need to highlight this every chance we get.

  • Facebook – Social media is the new “party line” (I’m dating myself with that analogy). Make sure you highlight your volunteer opportunities through social media. But don’t limit it to just your Facebook page. In Wainwright they connected with partners in the community to spread the word. One community organization’s Facebook page has a following of 3000+. After they shared the CALP information, Claudinei had 2 calls from people looking for places to plug in and give back.

  • Posters – This may be old school, but it can still work. Find the places that people sit and wait, or the local town bulletin board that is the hub of upcoming events. Remember, it’s important to change your poster regularly. Keep it fresh.

  • Local service groups & churches – Approaching these groups can lead to partnerships and additional volunteers. You may have done this years ago, but perhaps it’s time to touch base again.

  • Volunteer ads on the local job search site - In Wainwright there is a section of the online job board that is specifically for volunteer opportunities. What a great way to get the word out, and to engage an audience that could really benefit from the chance to strengthen their resume through volunteering.

  • Board Member Application form on your website – This was a new one for me, and what a great idea! Wainwright Adult Learning provides an overview of the expectations for serving on the board, as well as a simple application that people can fill out if they are interested. Check out the Wainwright Adult Learning Site. Here’s the link to their application: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1xrwZK1xcfjLTQ-6GA1uAO1iudhWfaFvNtXLdXg6aSQ8/viewform?edit_requested=true

This has proven to be a successful way to reach people whose main source of information comes from the internet. A Volunteer Canada study showed that youth, aged 15-24, “respond to innovative online communications and recruitment techniques.” (Volunteer Canada i. p., 2011). Why not provide the information and opportunity online – you never know who you might reach.

Volunteer Canada has an interesting document called, Bridging the Gap, Enriching the Volunteer Experience to build a better future for our communities, which you can download from https://volunteer.ca/vdemo/researchandresources_docs/Bridging%20the%20Gap%20Summary.pdf .

This document addresses what Canadians are looking for in volunteering, and also how organizations are engaging volunteers. It identifies some trends that are important for us to keep in mind when working with volunteers.

The primary gaps identified in the study were: (Volunteer Canada i. p., 2011)

  • Many people are looking for group activities BUT few organizations have the capacity to offer them.
    • The study showed that parents were looking for opportunities where they could volunteer as a family. They saw volunteering as a way of spending quality time with their kids while also modeling the importance of giving back to your community.
  • Many people come with professional skills BUT many professionals are looking for volunteer tasks that involve something different from their work life.
    • Ok, true confession – I’ve been guilty of trying to recruit an accountant or bookkeeper to be the treasurer on a board. While there is wisdom in recruiting people with specific skills, it is valuable to recognize that they may be looking to volunteer in areas other than their occupation.
  • Organizations are expected to clearly define the roles and boundaries of volunteers BUT many volunteers want the flexibility to initiate what they have to offer.
    • Take the time to provide clear expectations, but leave room for the volunteers to pose creative suggestions or ideas.
  • Many organizations still want long-term commitment BUT many more volunteers are looking for shorter-term opportunities.
    • Consider what options you could provide that don’t leave folks fearing that they have signed up for life. Remember, short term opportunities may lead to long term commitment.
  • Many organizations focus on what they need BUT besides helping others, many volunteers come with their own goals to be met.
    • This is an example of adult learning principles brought to life. As organizations we need to recognize that our volunteers may also be on a learning journey. This may be something you want to acknowledge and celebrate as a way of building capacity within your volunteers and honouring their commitment to your organization.

Tips for engaging volunteers: (Volunteer Canada i. p., 2011)

  • Build meaningful relationships with your volunteers
  • Create a safe and inclusive working environment with consistent HR strategies that apply to both staff and volunteers alike
  • Be flexible and accommodating
  • Be sensitive to gender, culture, language and age – Provide opportunity and engage everyone in your community with respect
  • Provide greater online engagement – leveraging the power of the internet and social media technologies are imperative as these are the primary means to search for and promote volunteer opportunities in today increasingly wired world.
  • Develop a customized, balanced approach to engagement - Ensuring a quality volunteer experience is essential.

I have heard from many organizations, that they take advantage of every chance they get to recruit new volunteers. One group that can sometimes be overlooked is the CALPs learners, both past and present. These individuals have already identified that they have learning needs that the CALP is meeting. A satisfied learner appreciates the value a CALP brings to a community. Why not consider them when you are looking for new volunteers. Having a learner on your board could bring valuable insight into the needs of your community. Giving a learner the chance to mentor or tutor someone else can speak to the growth you see in their lives and highlight that we all have talents and abilities to bring to the table.

Another secret weapon a CALP can use is - a learner story! Stories are powerful. They help people identify on a personal level and see the impact that their time and skills could make on another person’s life. We all want to make a difference and to be part of meaningful pursuits, and this is where Adult Learning organizations can shine brightest. Encourage learners to celebrate and share the journey they are on! Lac La Biche Community Learning encourages their learners to volunteer at events and activities that the CALP organizes for the community. This has provided newcomers with a chance to integrate and learn more about their new community. It has built awareness and fostered the importance of giving back. Learners have also been able share their journey and experiences with others.

I recognize that there are not a lot of “new” ideas here. In the end all we can do is share the opportunity and hope that others will catch our passion. I would suggest that recruitment is something that everyone in the organization should be a part of. Board members, current volunteers and learners can all be promoting the work of the CALP. We all have different circles of influence and the more people promoting the CALP the better!

One last thing: never forget to honour and appreciate the volunteers you currently have. Joining Wainwright Adult Learning’s Volunteer Appreciation event highlighted the importance of saying “thank you”. We can sometimes assume that people know how much we appreciate them, but the truth is that everyone needs to hear it from time to time. So, send your board members a card, invite your volunteers out for lunch, invest in training to build their skills, appreciate and honour them. Advanced Education recognizes the important role volunteers play in our programs and have allowed CALPs to designate grant funds to support the development and appreciation of these fine folks.

Volunteer Appreciation week may have come and gone, but today is a great day to thank the people that make your programs stick. Reach out and thank a volunteer today!

Val Rathjen
CLN Regional Support Staff
East-Central Alberta

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