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