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Screening learning lab, a new learning offering, may uncover leading volunteer screening practices for the sector

There is a misconception that volunteer screening is only about screening people out as a form of risk mitigation. And to a certain extent, volunteer screening is meant to accomplish this; but, screening is also about screening people in, finding the right fit for any type of volunteer role. However, volunteer screening – and screening people in, is not without its challenges.

Tackling challenges with a volunteer screening learning lab

In the fall of 2018, the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (ECVO), Boys and Girls Club Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton (BGCBIGS), and Volunteer Alberta completed a collaborative initiative on volunteer screening.

Together, they designed the first-ever volunteer screening learning lab; a new learning offering with the design of a social innovation lab and a traditional workshop that combines learning content connected to the issue of screening.

Instead of delivering a simple PowerPoint or webinar, the learning lab is a more holistic approach that combined learning with practical application based on participants’ organizational challenges and needs.

ECVO, BGCBIGS of Edmonton and Volunteer Alberta designed the lab to help nonprofits tackle common external challenges when it comes to volunteer screening. Some of the challenges include (but are not limited to):

  • the inclusion of individuals with criminal records
  • the inclusion of individuals with disabilities
  • the inclusion of new Canadians
  • episodic and crisis volunteering
  • limited time, high volunteer turnover rates
  • increasing demand for skilled volunteer roles

Over the course of three months, four full-day screening lab sessions ran with nonprofits participating from Edmonton and area.

Building adaptive leadership and capacity with the screening lab

While the screening lab wasn’t necessarily about how to become a good leader, it reinforced strong leadership practices and capacities. The lab allowed participants to play with and explore effective strategies for their work, as well as accept constructive criticism and implement changes.

Adaptive capacity and adaptive leadership approaches mean anyone at any part in the organization can carry out change. “The screening lab was about increasing their leadership capacity to lead change in their organization relative to where they are and what the subject is,” said Annand Ollivierre, Networks & Engagement Director at Volunteer Alberta.

“The lab allowed them to evaluate their own biases – which I believe is an important part of leadership,” said Annand.

The screening lab provides an opportunity for nonprofits to become leaders in effective screening practices. This helps to build capacity for the sector when newly equipped nonprofits can share their knowledge with other organizations. At least, this is the hope with the learning lab.

What’s next for the screening lab?

Currently, ECVO, BGCBIGS of Edmonton and Volunteer Alberta are in the debrief and evaluation phase. Specifically, we are evaluating whether we should conduct another lab and when. Additionally, we will be putting together a lab report and exploring how the results could be shared with others in our sector.

It has also prompted Volunteer Alberta to look at their learning offerings, but more specifically, what is it that nonprofits want to learn? Based on initial findings, participants’ needs for more solutions for volunteer recruitment, retention and engagement may spark the next iteration of the learning lab.

At some point in the future, Volunteer Alberta may help to expand this learning offering across the province. While we do not know what this looks like yet, members can be sure that they will be the first to know about potential learning lab opportunities for their communities.

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Volunteer Screening: Finding the Right Fit Makes All the Difference

This blog was first published on the Community and Adult Learning Program website on November 28, 2017.


Volunteer screening is key to your organization’s success – it provides better volunteer matches, improves safety and quality of programs, and reduces risks and liabilities. Screening is about making informed, reasonable judgements about people based on information gathered from a variety of sources. It begins before onboarding a volunteer and continues throughout their involvement with your organization.

The Volunteer Screening Program (VSP) supports non-profits to implement effective volunteer screening practices. The program has two primary components:

  1. Education & Training
  2. Financial Support

EDUCATION & TRAINING

Data gathered from our workshops and presentations showed us that the biggest challenge faced by organizations is access to resources and best practices related to volunteer screening. Organizations want to maximize their volunteer engagement strategies and support a deeper understanding of participation, privacy, and protection at all levels – volunteer managers, leadership, and board.

Organizations also shared they want to hear from their peers. It’s important to have a space to share organizational best practices, discuss challenges faced by the community, and learn from the experts (e.g. police services or insurance agencies). Exploring organizational mindsets around volunteer screening and employing best practices from peers and experts can lead to new solutions and possibilities!

For these reasons, VSP offers lots of free online resources including templates, tools, and workbooks, as well as interactive learning opportunities such as webinars and in-person learning forums.

Access these education and training opportunities and support volunteer screening best practices at your non-profit.


FINANCIAL SUPPORT

VSP provides funding to eligible organizations to support development in the areas of volunteer screening as well as funding for eligible organizations to support costs associated with Vulnerable Sector Checks (VSCs).

The Volunteer Screening Development Grant is designed to help support organizations in developing effective screening practices and processes. The grant provides $2,000 to support non-profits facing resource and capacity challenges in the area of volunteer screening.

The Vulnerable Sector Check Fee Waiver alleviates costs associated with VSCs. The waiver is available for organizations operating in participating communities. Eligible organizations must work with vulnerable populations and engage volunteers in approved positions of trust and authority in order to access the fee waiver.

Find more information on financial assistance.

Daniela Seiferling
Volunteer Alberta

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Volunteer Screening: The Best Fit Makes a Big Difference

Volunteer Alberta, along with the Government of Alberta, recently launched our Volunteer Screening Program, which includes education, resources, and funding to enhance Alberta nonprofits’ screening policies and procedures.

In this post, Jennifer shares the impact great volunteer screening has had for her family:


I am a mom of two wonderful kids. A teenage boy and an almost teenage girl. Both are very busy with extra-curricular activities and I am always aware of my children’s safety. From car seats to coaches, I have always wanted the best for my kids.

My son plays hockey, along with many other sports, but hockey is his favourite. Although hockey is not Canada’s official sport, in our family, we like to think of it as Canada’s favourite sport. It’s part of our collective DNA. Year after year, I trust the hockey association he plays for will do their due diligence when they are selecting coaching staff for our team.

Every volunteer coach my son has had is excited to share their passion for the game with the children, in every sport he plays. And really, what better way to do so than coaching! As a hockey mom, I am grateful there are so many wonderful parents (mostly dad’s) who are willing and able to make time in their busy lives to support our team by volunteering to be on the bench and in the dressing room.

I know before coaches enter the dressing room or take their spot on the players’ bench, the organization we belong to ensures a few boxes on the screening list have been checked off. When I look at the 10-step to Screening, I am proud to say the hockey association follows many of the 10-step:

  • The hockey association has volunteer screening policies clearly written and posted on their website.
  • Although they don’t have volunteer descriptions for their coaching staff, I feel that hockey coach doesn’t require too much of a description.
  • Coaches have to submit their application if they are interested in coaching.
  • Successful volunteer coach applicants complete the Respect In Sport Coaches Course, and complete a police check application form which the organization submits on their behalf.

Joining a hockey team, or any sport for that matter, gives our children so much more than the rules of the game. It gives them a chance to be a part of a team, learn to win together, and learn to lose with grace. It teaches them commitment, dedication, discipline, and respect. Sports give them life-long friends, and a place to go whether it’s the gym, the ice, or the field. Volunteer coaches, our coaches, provide the guidance our players need both on and off the ice.

Our players deserve coaches who are passionate and knowledgeable about hockey, but we also look for coaches who will graciously lead their team, modelling good sportsmanship on the bench for both wins and losses. Volunteer Screening allows for our sports organizations to ensure they right volunteers are involved in molding our children into good athletes and good sports!

Jennifer Esler
Volunteer Alberta

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Guest Blog: Volunteers as Staff: Where Labels and Titles Collide

volunteer staffIn 2010 alone, 47% of Canadians volunteered 2 billion hours, the equivalent of 1.1 million full-time work positions. Volunteers, who freely offer their services, have become an essential component of our communities and the modern workforce. In the nonprofit sector, we know all too well the benefit volunteers bring to our organizations. For many of us, they are indeed a necessity. But having volunteers work for our organizations can and does expose us to potential risks.

With the important part volunteers play, should we as agencies recruit, screen, and manage them, as we would staff? Or do they require something different?

This may sound like a daunting question. How would we even begin to tackle this? My initial strategy was to ask as many people as possible, so I asked volunteers, managers, and those in-between, this very question. I found there were just as many points of view as there were individuals who held them:

• Some agencies I spoke with (such as Distress Centre Calgary) identified having worked towards an integrated Human Resources model. Their rational was that many volunteers provide a front line service and need similar training, time, support, and supervision as employees. “Volunteers do not get the financial benefits. However, the volunteer is here to do a job, shows up, and does it to the best of their ability. Volunteers represent the agency just as much as staff, and expectations around service seem the same for both volunteers and staff”.

• A few volunteers stated they enjoy being on an equal footing with staff. This made them feel respected and important; a peer in the organization. Others felt a sense of safety being separate from paid workers, feeling almost exempt from punishment over mistakes or errors in procedure. “I feel volunteers are lower in the hierarchy overall, and that there’s less responsibility on the volunteer when being directed in my role.”

• A surprising number of respondents worried of a volunteer/staff “synergy.” When asked to clarify, these individuals said the treatment of some nonprofit staff leaves something to be desired and worry about comparisons being made between the kinds of support given to volunteers and to staff. “Essentially, volunteers are held in a place of esteem while staff is often not. All too often staff does not get the same support to the same degree.”

• Others found an already organic union blurring of the lines between staff and volunteers. “I volunteered for a program essentially run by volunteers. With some volunteer roles, you are doing the same tasks as a staff anyways.”

With such a wide range of experiences and opinions, what’s a nonprofit to do? Do we work actively towards formalizing the volunteer position? Do we establish rigid screening and feedback processes? Or do we play it by ear depending on the volunteer role and/or specific individual? Much to my chagrin, it looks like there is no definitive answer.

However, there are a plethora of references and materials out there for agencies wanting to take a stab at formalizing the volunteer role. They make a strong case that it’s in our best interest, as nonprofit organizations, to put volunteers and staff on a similar plane. Authors such as Judith Wilson, Michelle Gislason, and Linda Graff highlight that as the risk for the agency or the volunteer increases, so does the need for formalized processes. Conveniently, you can find these and many other resources on the Volunteer Alberta Resource Centre, or why not ask other nonprofits (such as Distress Centre Calgary) what is working for them.

Chloé McBean, Contact Centre Volunteer Team Lead
Distress Centre Calgary

 

 

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