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Guest blog: Five ways nonprofits can impart soft skills to volunteers

A big part of retaining volunteers is finding new and innovative ways to engage them. By helping volunteers to develop soft skills, nonprofits can enrich volunteers’ experiences.

Soft skills such as the ability to gel well in a team, make sound and/or quick decisions and communicate effectively are important for any nonprofit volunteer to successfully contribute to your organization’s cause, initiatives and activities.

While some volunteers intrinsically possess these skills, others need to hone them. Luckily, these are abilities which can be taught. In this blog, we look at how your nonprofit can impart soft skills to their volunteers.

1. Hold training sessions and workshops

Volunteers, especially first-timers, may find it difficult to work in a new environment due to their lack of experience. A simple way to fix this is to periodically organize training sessions and workshops for volunteers to develop skills like effective communication, time-management, and decision making.

Through talks by senior members, games focusing on building teamwork, interactive discussions and role-playing situations, your nonprofit can help its volunteers improve their interpersonal skills while boosting their confidence. And the best part is everyone can learn while bonding with each other and having fun!

2. Let volunteers take ownership

While soft skills can be taught, there is no better teacher than experiential self-learning. Give volunteers opportunities to take charge of tasks, while gently guiding them along the way if required. It makes sense to give responsibility based on the volunteer’s experience and comfort level.

For instance, give new volunteers the opportunity to represent your nonprofit’s stall during one of your events; as they gain more experience, perhaps they could take up bigger tasks like organizing an entire event.

Letting volunteers take the initiative helps them hone their interpersonal skills while giving them a taste of real-life leadership and accountability; important skills you helped them learn by themselves!

3. Encourage teamwork

Team up volunteers of different age groups and backgrounds on tasks and watch the learning flow from within! When grouped together to achieve a common goal, volunteers inevitably end up learning from one another.

Doing so allows them to gain new perspectives, listen to diverse experiences, and feel a collective sense of thrill from overcoming obstacles together.

Pro-tip: Assign a mentor to each team to monitor work and defuse any conflicts if they arise.

4. Promote creativity

By performing creative tasks, volunteers can improve their problem-solving skills. Encourage volunteers to take up activities which require exercising the inventive side of their brain.

When volunteers get creative and learn a new skill-set or grow an existing skill-set, it becomes a stepping stone for them to become a skilled volunteer or apply their newly developed skills in other volunteer positions.

From designing posters for rallies and creating catchy event invites, to shooting and producing a ‘behind-the-scenes’ nonprofit video, the creative possibilities are endless!

Pro-tip: Whatever the activity happens to be, ensure that it’s in sync with your nonprofit’s voice and tone by sharing the necessary guidelines beforehand.

5. Organize get-togethers and similar events

Depending on the size of your nonprofit and the number of volunteers, there is a fair chance that not everyone has spoken to each other. Perhaps first-time volunteers didn’t get a chance to interact with senior staff or board members due to a lack of opportunity or a lack of confidence.

By organizing get-togethers, outdoor barbeques, or parties exclusively for staff, board members and volunteers, everyone loosens up and learns to bond with each other. Volunteers can interact with everybody in a relaxed setting, resulting in a cooperative environment which boosts their communication skills and confidence.

Pro-tip: These networking opportunities also help volunteers get to know your organization from the inside out, gain new perspectives and see how their efforts contribute to your organization’s cause and mission. And when they understand their impact, they are more likely to continue volunteering for your nonprofit.

Final thoughts

When nonprofits impart soft skills to their volunteers, it not only fosters volunteer engagement, but it also equips your volunteers to carry out your mission. In this sense, it is an investment back into your organization’s operational plan and strategic directions.

Nurturing soft skills in your volunteers also provides your volunteers the opportunity to transfer their skills to different volunteer positions in your organization, and even to their careers or everyday life.

Final pro-tip: Ask your volunteers what skills they want to develop or use to match them to the appropriate volunteer position and/or activity that suits their wants and needs. Feedback is important. Be sure to find out what your volunteers thought about the opportunities your nonprofit offered so your nonprofit can learn and adjust as needed.

Guest blog author bio: Shaunak Wanikar is part of the Marketing team at CallHub, a cloud telephony company which connects campaigns with their supporters through its voice and SMS software. He helps deliver compelling content which bridges knowledge gaps for nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, advocacy groups, and businesses. An engineering graduate, Shaunak is passionate about seeing the world improve through the medium of technology. Movies, football, and books keep him sane.

Volunteer Airdrie LEAD Graduation Group 1

Member Spotlight: Volunteer Airdrie breaks down barriers to volunteerism in their community

Finding solutions that suit your community may not be easy. But, when you approach solving complex issues with a mindset of abundance versus scarcity, multiple solutions tend to present themselves.

This is how Volunteer Airdrie approached redesigning their programs and services within the past few years. By looking at what opportunities were available and identifying gaps in their community, Volunteer Airdrie realized they needed to shift their focus to serving Airdrie residents.

“We really started focusing on where can we fit in and came to the conclusion that a lot of residents struggle to find the right volunteer opportunity quickly and efficiently,” says Dave Maffitt, Chair of Volunteer Airdrie’s Board of Directors. “So, we redesigned our focus to help our residents to break down barriers.”

Creating a user-friendly way to find volunteer opportunities

One way Volunteer Airdrie is helping residents break down barriers to volunteering is through the development of the Better Impact MVP Software; a free online tool that allows residents to create a profile on the website based on their age, availability, interests, qualifications and much more.

“The system allows Airdrie residents to do searches based on those criteria. For youth, somebody under 18, the system isn’t going to show them volunteer opportunities that are restricted to adults,” says Dave. “It’s growing rapidly and it’s starting to get additional members on a daily basis.”

Engaging youth in Airdrie’s nonprofit community with LEAD

In their community, Volunteer Airdrie is also breaking down barriers for youth engagement through the Leadership Empowerment and Achieving a Difference (LEAD) program. LEAD is a ten-week program that is free of charge for youth grades 7-12 with ten in-class sessions and 20 hours of community service or volunteering.

In LEAD’s in-class sessions, young people learn about topics like problem-solving, organizing and planning, teamwork, conflict management skills and personal wellbeing to help them develop youth leadership skills to use while volunteering or out in their community in other ways.

“Kids often get exposure to a number of different opportunities and causes, and start to get an appreciation for the needs in Airdrie and some of the causes that are may be more meaningful to them,” says Dave. “In the long term, it attracts them to come back and continue to volunteer with that organization after they have finished LEAD. It’s been a big, big success!”

Overcoming volunteer age restrictions for youth

Despite nonprofits’ minimum age requirement policies, Volunteer Airdrie has also been able to match young teens with group volunteer opportunities successfully at local nonprofits by providing appropriate adult supervision.

“So, that’s where we step in because we can open a lot of doors for these youth, especially the 12-14 year age group,” says Dave. “It’s really difficult for them to find meaningful volunteer opportunities since most nonprofit organizations have policies in minimum age requirements that are in that 15-16 year range.”

Volunteer Airdrie will continue their youth engagement initiative by opening a youth volunteer centre next year. They hope the centre creates a caring environment for kids that provides them with community service opportunities that are meaningful to them.

Located in Airdrie, Alberta, Volunteer Airdrie is the recognized volunteer centre for the City of Airdrie and the immediate surrounding area of Rocky View County, Alberta. Volunteer Airdrie’s mission is to empower Airdrie residents to invest in themselves and their community through volunteerism.

Adrienne Vansevenandt

Volunteer Alberta

Special thanks to our summer intern, Navi Bhullar, for sourcing and helping to storyboard this Member Spotlight.

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Preventing and addressing gaps when engaging skilled volunteers

What does Volunteer Alberta mean by skilled volunteerism?

At Volunteer Alberta, we often speak of and promote skilled volunteerism and the value skilled volunteers can bring to nonprofit organizations. But what do we mean by “highly skilled volunteers”?

Highly skilled volunteers include any volunteer that offers specific skills, knowledge, or expertise in an area where not all volunteers could help out. Highly skilled volunteer roles go above and beyond more basic tasks like photocopying, filing, sorting, delivering, registering kids, soliciting small donations, or handing out refreshments. Instead, a highly skilled volunteer might offer pro bono legal advice, create the annual financial reports, conduct client research, or design a new logo for your program.

Nonprofit organizations often engage highly skilled volunteers on their Board of Directors or to help provide services that would otherwise be too expensive. Highly skilled volunteers can also ease the burden on paid staff who often take on many roles due to limited budgets.

While skilled volunteerism is a great way to build capacity into your organization, we must not overlook the potential gaps that may arise when we engage skilled volunteers.

Imagine Canada’s blog, ‘Re-thinking the way we share skilled expertise: the pro bono paradox’

I recently came across an interesting blog from Imagine Canada regarding the paradox of pro bono skilled volunteerism. That is, what gaps can skilled volunteerism create and how do we prevent and/or address them?

Here are some highlights and key insights from the blog:

“In many cases though, the application of pro bono skills can be a double-edged sword. If strong project management plans are not designed ahead of time (and in collaboration) with the nonprofit and the skilled volunteer, the experience runs the risk of creating more challenges than good…

Here are two things to think about that will support a better planning paradigm, and allow nonprofit leadership teams to focus on the longer term outcomes required.

1. Shift our mindset away from transactional volunteerism to longer term strategic bench strength

We should shift the focus away from transactional experiences used as a stop gap measure to an operational issue at the nonprofit, to designing the mechanics of the pro bono experience ahead of time and defining the ways each volunteer can help to empower a nonprofit leadership team to come from a place of strength when articulating what is actually required in the long term strategy (vs. the gift of what a volunteer sees as necessary today).

Much like designing an effective job description, nonprofit leadership teams and the volunteer can set up skilled experiences in ways that deliver a strong return on impact, integrity and investment for all involved. We must be thoughtful and learn how to map key competencies and capabilities required for the nonprofit’s organizational success, and how to say ‘no’ when necessary without impacting the interest of the volunteer to continue to be engaged.

2. Put the focus on skill development and cross-sector learning opportunities

We should also explore how a pro bono experience can be designed in ways that help to uncover new skills a volunteer might have (beyond what they do at the office day to day) and look at issues from as many angles as possible. In Volunteer Canada’s recent study Bridging the Gap, a survey of employer supported volunteers indicated that they were motivated by experiences working with nonprofits that helped them develop new skills, and some indicated they did not want to volunteer doing the same job as they do for work.

Thinking this way can help to get everyone excited about “what’s next” and ongoing engagement vs. having a one-off pro bono based experience where the recommendations become a dusty report on a shelf or the to-do list.”

Read the full Imagine Canada blog.

Check out our Highly Skilled Volunteers page for resources!

Adrienne Vansevenandt

Volunteer Alberta

 

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The beginning of NextGen’s City Jam: A skilled volunteer story

Rebecca Swanson started her volunteering journey back in high school and has since volunteered for over 20 years. Swanson’s involvement in volunteerism first began when her friends started to volunteer as a way to spend more time with people she knew.

However, what motivated her to volunteer after high school was the idea of supporting organizations she believed in and branching out within her community. Swanson began volunteering at organizations and charities such as: The Theatre Network, World Fit for Children, Metro Cinema Society and Edmonton’s NextGen.

One skilled volunteer and the beginning of City Jam

At Edmonton’s NextGen, Rebecca volunteered as a Strategy and Operations Chair from January 2016 to July 2017, where she played a key role in the development of City Jam. The event is a night full of live music exclusively dedicated for volunteers who generously donate their time to their community.

While brainstorming for new ideas to engage volunteers, Rebecca recalled similar events in other centers that gave back to volunteers and highlighted great music.

“City Jam was created as a way to highlight volunteerism, and to create something that hadn’t been done before in Edmonton,” says Rebecca Swanson.

The power of volunteerism and the nonprofit sector

Swanson believes volunteers make this world healthier and more vibrant. And, it is nonprofit organizations and charities that bring people together to support a cause they believe in and make their community a better place.

“The number of important initiatives that wouldn’t happen without millions of hours of volunteer time is mind-blowing if you actually step back and think about it,” says Rebecca.

Originally, NextGen City Jam was meant to be a one-time event, but the hard work volunteers put into the planning and preparation made it grow into the event it is today. Rebecca says she looks forward to seeing the event expand to meet the needs of Edmontonians.

City Jam thanks and celebrates volunteers

“I think celebrating volunteers and giving them a chance to celebrate the work they have done in a fun way is the key to this event,” says Swanson.

Swanson is proud of what City Jam has become and continues to cheer on the event. She believes that events similar to City Jam are a good example for other organizations when it comes to engaging new volunteers and thanking dedicated volunteers.

Edmonton’s NextGen consists of a group of volunteers who work together to provide a platform for new and engaging ideas to create a vibrant community. Do you want to participate in City Jam? Volunteer for a minimum of 10 hours at a local charity or nonprofit between June 1 and November 30, and then submit your hours to register to attend the concert on December 1.

Who’s performing in 2018? 

  • HEADLINER – TBA 
  • Scenic Route to Alaska
  • Royal Tusk
  • Cadence Weapon

 

Navi Bhullar

Volunteer Alberta Intern

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Welcoming newcomers: A volunteer story

How we can support and welcome newcomers

Supporting and welcoming newcomers to Canada grows our communities and makes our communities more vibrant, diverse and strong. But, the integration process for newcomers is not easy.

In 2016, Paula Speevak from Volunteer Canada wrote the following about nonprofits’ and volunteers’ roles in assisting Syrian refugees:

“Integration is a years-long process. The need for volunteers to help Syrian refugees connect with their new communities will continue – and that need goes beyond traditional settlement agencies.”

Between October 2015 and February 2018, nearly 52,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada, and Albertans have opened their homes and hearts to these refugees. This means we, as community members, have the opportunity to help where we can. Refugee families in our communities require ongoing support such as food services, health services and community programs including language services.

How one volunteer made a difference

Often, having a friendly neighbour they can turn to can make all the difference. Volunteer, Kirsten Madden is one of these Albertans who opened their home to a Syrian family and recently shared her experience with us.

What inspired you to look into volunteering with a refugee organization?

“Over the years, we felt that there had been a lot of discrimination against Muslims and people fleeing to Canada from Syria. We have always been strong advocates for acceptance, love and peace across the globe, and understand that there are bad things that happen in every culture. This inspired us to open our family and our home.

We don’t believe in us versus them, we believe in We. We hoped that if we paired up with a family from Syria, we could learn more than what was just in our hearts, and hopefully be able to inspire others to realize that people are just people. Not to view others through our differences, but to recognize our humanity and that we are more alike than different.”

What was your volunteer experience like? How did it impact yours and your family’s life?

“It has been the most amazing experience. We don’t consider it volunteering anymore. In fact, we stopped submitting volunteer hours a long time ago. We consider them family.

We have learned about their home-life, culture, their food, their language, their struggles, beliefs etc., and visa versa from us to them. Our children have become friends.

For us it makes us feel like we have travelled to Syria in some small way. We have shared their pain when they have talked about the bullies that have destroyed their home, and we have shared their relief when they describe that they feel safe in Canada.”

How would you recommend other volunteers get involved in something they are interested in?

“Just do it! It will enrich your life, and open your heart and eyes.”

 

The inclusion of all people of different races and cultures enriches our communities, broadens our horizons and deepens our understanding of one another. If you are interested in engaging and supporting newcomers in your community, but don’t know how to get started, we recommend checking out our Supporting Newcomers page.

Adrienne Vansevenandt 

Volunteer Alberta    

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