Lessons Learned from Vitalize 2014

vitalizeEach year, Volunteer Alberta holds our Annual General Meeting during Vitalize, Alberta’s provincial voluntary sector conference. This year, the conference was held in Calgary at the Telus Convention Centre, so the whole office made the trip down. Sam, Annand, Rosanne and Jann represented VA as session speakers and a few others were able to register for the conference.

It was my first Vitalize, and I was able to listen to a variety of excellent speakers. I learned about starting a social enterprise, navigating cross-cultural communication, engaging volunteers and supporters, becoming a successful leader, and understanding the current trends in the nonprofit/voluntary sector. Though the topics were varied, all of the presentations shared common themes and strategies for increasing the success of individual organizations and the sector as a whole.

Whether the session was geared towards delegates looking to start an organization or those wanting to better engage those around them, I found that the advice was largely the same:

1)      Find the meaning

2)      Live your mission

3)      Know your audience

4)      Change the medium, not the message

Find the meaning

When creating or revamping your mission statement, the first thing often considered is what you want to do, and how. But the most important question to ask yourself is why.

What is the gap you’re trying to address? What will this work mean to the community? What is the driving force behind your actions? Any successful organization or business has a set of values informing its activities or products. It’s important to focus on why you’re passionate about what you’re doing and why it matters before focusing on the process or outcomes.

Live your mission

Once you have a mission that reflects your passion and communicates the meaning of your work to the public, you have to practice what you preach. It’s one thing to state what you stand for, but quite another to communicate it through your actions.

Does your branding and communications strategy align with your mission? Do the programs, services or products you offer reflect your values?

Know your audience

When looking for volunteers, it’s important to figure out who is likely to identify with your cause; people are much more likely to volunteer for an organization to which they feel connected. If you have a clear, passionate message and you align your actions as an organization with that message, you’re off to a good start. Once you accomplish these steps, you can find like-minded individuals to work alongside you.

If you take a moment to consider the audience when attending public events or taking out advertisements, you can put your time and effort into avenues that will reach the right people. The same goes for funders – if you look for organizations whose values are closely aligned with your own, you have a higher chance of success.

Change the medium, not the message

Times have changed and it can be more difficult than ever to keep up. The strategies that once worked well for organizations may not be as effective, and it might seem like you need to do a complete revamp in order to stay current.

But while you may need to change, you don’t want to lose sight of your purpose. Your values are the heart of your organization, and if you believe in them, you can be assured that others believe in them as well. Be open to exploring new pathways to your organization and finding new ways to communicate your message. This could mean an updated website or a larger social media presence, but it could also mean exploring new partnerships and collaborations. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you know someone who is doing something well, talk to them about it – at the very least, at the end of the conversation, they’ll have you in mind.

Overall, I learned that passion, consistency, clarity and flexibility are integral to organizational success. As a relative newcomer to the sector, it was nice to hear that the most important things, like knowing your mission, are also the most effective tools for success. I took in a lot of information over the course of the three days, and am looking forward to putting it into practice. And yes, I do feel Vitalized!

Rachel Pereira, Program/Administrative Assistant

Bigger is not always better.

The biggest conference in the world on volunteerism is held in America (where else?!). This summer the Points of Light Foundation hosted the annual National Conference on Volunteering and Service, an annual gathering of direct service volunteerism leaders and experts. This year’s event was in Chicago and three Volunteer Alberta staff members were fortunate enough to attend. My main goal in attending was to compare Alberta’s Vitalize conference to this National Conference on Volunteering and Service in an effort to see what would increase Vitalize’s relevancy and impact on Alberta’s nonprofit/voluntary sector.

A few things I noticed:

•             First off, they are very different conferences. Points Of Light offers several streams of learning from Corporate Connections to Military Families to AmeriCorps, as it recognizes that the vast diversity of the American nonprofit sector requires a more streamlined approach to be relevant.

•             One thing I was not a fan of at Points of Light was the lack of opportunities to network and make personal connections. The lack of ‘sit down’ meals or orchestrated networking events at POL reinforces what has made Vitalize a significant network event in Alberta – the evening dinner and entertainment and the lunchtime keynotes.

•             I noticed as well there was a great continuum of speaker expertise at. One speaker unfortunately lost her entire audience halfway through her session because of poor delivery style and lack of knowledge, especially relative to a room of nationally recognized experts. In my opinion, Vitalize’s speaker expertise finds itself on a much narrower spectrum hovering around the good to excellent range.

•             Maybe because it is an election year in the United States, the keynote session speakers were an even balance of former Democratic and Republican Presidents as well as both current presidential nominees appearing in pre-taped messages. The overly political theme was a bit overbearing, although as someone who follows American politicos, it was interesting to see the reaction from the crowd (definitely pro-Democrat and this was in Chicago, President Obama’s home turf). Vitalize’s opening remarks by the Minister of Culture were measured and appropriate to the setting; after the Minister finished speaking it was onto the sector speakers. Vitalize speakers always provide excellent perspective, but it definitely lacks the kind of star-power brought by POL.

•             Two similarities I noticed were that social service organizations make up the vast majority of participants at both conferences, and trade shows seems to be tapering off in terms of quality and quantity at both conferences.

Some recommendations moving forward would be to:

  • Recognize the value of networking at Vitalize and institutionalize that value in the programming and evaluation;
  • Develop three streams of learning for Vitalize;
  • Discontinue the separate model of youth programming and rethink the value of emerging leaders engaging with those of us who have been around the block in the sector (did not want to use the word ‘old’!);
  • Engage other ministries to negate the approach that this stellar conference is only appealing to Culture funded organizations. It makes absolutely no sense not to have the Education, Health, Recreation, Parks and Tourism and Justice/Solicitor General funded nonprofits at Vitalize.

A closing comment – I know of no other province that invests in a conference like Vitalize. I am darn glad I live here in Alberta!

Karen Lynch
Executive Director