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Nonprofit Experiences: It’s Personal

reuse centreOur experiences with nonprofits are varied: we may work or volunteer in the sector, or donate to our favourite organizations. Some of us find a sense of community through cultural and religious expression, or enjoy sports, arts, and entertainment through the sector. Our education is often provided by the sector. Perhaps most importantly, the sector offers support, health, wellness, and relief for those of us struggling or in need of care. Regardless, the nonprofit sector is central to many of our lives.

With so many means of interacting with the sector, it is hard to capture all of the ways nonprofit organizations impact and shape each of us on a personal level. For this reason, I wanted to share five nonprofit organizations that are important in my life:

  1. The Edmonton Humane Society is where my partner and I found our good friend (and housecat), Gulliver. I am so grateful for the work the volunteers and staff do to provide shelter, care, and love to animals in need. EHS also provided us with information, vet connections, and appropriate screening before we took our kitten home. My pet is my family and we wouldn’t have found him without this amazing organization!
  2. Volunteering is where I find community and purpose, and my favourite volunteer experience so far has been at CJSR, Edmonton’s campus and community radio station. Like other community radio stations across the country, CJSR is volunteer-made radio. For me, it is where I discovered a deep love for working on radio, developed a whole new skillset, and met many like-minded friends.
  3. As an avid crafter, the Reuse Centre has been an affordable and environmentally-friendly way for me to stockpile everything from fabric to old magazines. The Centre collects unused home, office, and craft materials, and for only five dollars, people are welcome to take as much as they want. The Centre offers me a great way to support my hobby, while keeping unused supplies out of the landfill and my money in my community.
  4. Following the death of a friend, The Support Network provided free Suicide Bereavement Support Services to those of us who knew her. The Support Network staff offered compassion, care, and information, as well as an opportunity to build community around tragedy. The Support Network services were a crucial part of a healthy healing process for me, as well as a starting point for new friendships.
  5. Santas Anonymous is my absolute favourite organization to donate to, because I have so much fun doing it. Usually I donate because I think it is important to put my money to good use; however, buying toys every Christmas for Santas Anonymous goes far beyond good intentions. The little kid inside me thinks picking out whatever I want at a toy store is pretty much the best thing ever!

These five organizations are only a few of the many nonprofits that are important in my life – after all, the nonprofit sector also includes my workplace (Volunteer Alberta!), my university, and the hospital where I was born. What organizations mean a lot to you? Please share in the comments!

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator



Olympic Spirit in the Nonprofit Sector

sochi2014Once again, Canada, along with the rest of the world, has been swept up in the Olympic Games. For spectators, the Games have taken over our televisions and pervaded our conversations. For Sochi, the Olympic excitement started years ago, with many countries bidding for the 2014 Winter Games in hopes that they would become the chosen venue. Similarly, the participating athletes have trained for years, often since they were children, with their eyes on the prize of becoming Olympians.

All this, despite the fact that hosting the Games comes with a huge price tag and a history of poor economic return. Participating as an athlete also offers little financial benefit, especially given the time and dedication required to qualify.

Without profit as the main driving force of the Games, the spirit of the Olympics in many ways feels similar to the spirit of the nonprofit sector.

In both, the moment is paramount. A single soup kitchen may be unable to solve world hunger, or even break the cycle of poverty for its clients, but there is some inherent value in feeding one hungry person one healthy meal. Similarly, standing on the top of the podium or hosting the Olympics may be a once in a lifetime experience, but it is worth it just for that moment. In both cases, that one moment becomes part of something bigger. And that moment is about community building.

Feeling joy in the success of strangers with whom we share only a loose connection is a familiar feeling in the nonprofit sector. We want our communities to thrive and our neighbours to have a good quality of life. We truly believe that each individual win is a win for us all. Similarly, we are elated when Canadians we have never met reach the podium, achieving a lifelong goal. We are also thrilled when the underdogs of our global community pull through on the world stage (after all, the Jamaican bobsled team has fans far beyond its country’s borders).

Although the definition of success for an Olympic athlete looks very different from that of a nonprofit, both strive to be better each time out. No athlete sets a record and expects that it will never be broken, and no nonprofit believes the sector’s work ends with the completion of their own current project. The shared spirit of our sector and of the Games is a deeply human one: permanent aspiration. And while we may run into challenges along the way to achieving our goals, the promise of a better future will continue to bring us together one win, one moment at a time.

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator


What DO Volunteers Want?

CCI-Lex Cultural Connections EDITED (2)Volunteer Canada just released their 2013 Volunteer Recognition Study, and I highly recommend it to anyone who works with volunteers! It’s an easy and enlightening read. Best of all, there some big surprises that will (hopefully) improve how the sector works with and recognizes our volunteers.

To give you a taste, here are some of the biggest gaps the study identified between what our organizations think our volunteers want and what they truly appreciate:

  1. In the study, volunteers said that their least preferred forms of recognition included formal gatherings (ex. banquets) and public acknowledgment (ex. radio ads or newspaper columns). These methods are common for many organizations, with 60% using banquets and formal gatherings, and 50% using public acknowledgement as their recognition strategies.Instead, volunteers indicated that they would prefer to be recognized through hearing about how their work has made a difference, and by being thanked in person on an ongoing, informal basis.
  2. Over 80% of organizations said a lack of money was the most common barrier to volunteer recognition. Since the study shows that volunteers prefer personal ‘thank-you’s and being shown the value of their work over a costly banquet or a public advertisement, funds need not get in the way of good recognition!
  3. Volunteers said that the volunteer activities they are least interested in are manual labour, crafts, cooking, and fundraising. According to the 2010 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (CSGVP), fundraising is the most common activity in which organizations engage volunteers.Instead, volunteers said that their preference is to work directly with people benefiting from their volunteering, or in opportunities where they can apply professional or technological skills.

These findings ring true in my own experiences as a volunteer. I really appreciate it when I am told I did a good job, or that a client made special mention of my work – it shows me that giving my time truly made a difference, which is the reason I volunteer in the first place. Conversely, I tend to avoid going to volunteer appreciation parties or awards ceremonies. My dislike for big social events is a personal preference (I’d much rather stay home with my cats!), but even the most outgoing and social volunteers are likely busy just like me.  It is very difficult to schedule an event that every volunteer can come to, and, if that is the only time made for recognition, then a lot of volunteers won’t receive any at all.

The good news is that while our sector may at times drop the ball on volunteer recognition, the changes recommended by the 2013 Volunteer Recognition Study are very attainable. We already know the value of our volunteers – now we just have remember to communicate that to them! Read the whole study for more straightforward tips and ideas on how to step up your organization’s volunteer recognition.

For more from Volunteer Canada on volunteer recognition, please visit their Guidelines and Helpful Hints for Volunteer Recognition. You can also visit Volunteer Alberta’s Resource Centre (VARC) for books and articles on the subject.

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator

New Thinking Tackles Old Problems

New thinkingOver the past few months, the board and staff of Volunteer Alberta have been working on a new strategic plan. This process has been both challenging and rewarding, as we have embraced the opportunity to redefine our goals and strategies for the coming years. For me, being new to strategic planning, the most interesting part of the whole process was how we started. To lay a strong foundation for the next months, we had Unstoppable Conversations work with us to get to the root of how we think and how we could think better.

Often when organizations identify problems that are holding them back, they come up with a list including resources, funding, technology, and people. For example, “there isn’t enough funding”, or “funding is too competitive”. These obstacles could actually be symptoms or results. Trying to change them without going further back to the activities that led to those results, and to the thinking that led to those activities, means nothing is going to change.

Sometimes, instead of trying to change our thinking (the root of everything we do) organizations work backwards – we let our results inform our activities rather than the other way around. For example, an organization might apply for any grant, even for projects only vaguely related to their mission, in order to solve the problem of a lack of funding. The new result? They are still lack the funding to meet their objectives, and they are spending a lot of staff time chasing money to do these additional projects, further depleting their human resources. Meanwhile, they have never stopped to ask what beliefs or thinking led them to pursue these activities in the first place.

thinking activities results

Kevin Gangel and Vik Maraj of Unstoppable Conversations teach organizations to look for their hidden constraints in their thinking so that they can begin to change their results and better achieve their outcomes. Some examples of the type of thinking that might lead an organization to use a lot of staff hours applying for every small funding source include:

  • “We don’t think funders value what we really do “
  • “We have always done it this way”
  • “There isn’t enough money to go around to the whole sector, so we need to compete for it”

That is some pretty bleak thinking. But we can change it. Some examples of new thinking that could replace these negative beliefs include:

  • “We have valuable impact and we can communicate that value to our donors, funders, and new potential supporters”
  • “We believe in working together with other organizations to meet our shared goals”

With new thinking like this, activities and results can start to change. Suddenly an organization isn’t asking for every grant they hear about it; instead, they are shopping around in new places for funders that share their vision and who are a good fit for their core programs. They now have staff time to do it, because they aren’t using all of their human capacity on additional grant applications or side projects!

Or maybe the organization tackles their issue of competing for funding by applying for collaborative funding with another organization, or only applying for funding after ensuring they aren’t duplicating existing services.

What other thinking could we change? What else is holding organizations back? Take a look at your thinking, rather than your results, and you might just find a new and better way to achieve your goals!

Sam Kriviak, Project Coordinator

Unpaid Internships – Doing it Right

_DSC0142Unpaid internships have become a hot topic recently. In the United States, unpaid interns are suing big companies that have offered subpar opportunities with little educational or experiential value. In Canada, students and politicians are pushing for clearer legal standards for unpaid internships to avoid similarly exploitative experiences.

So where does the Serving Communities Internship Program (SCiP) fit into this debate? SCiP, a program offered by Volunteer Alberta in partnership with the Government of Alberta, connects nonprofit/voluntary organizations with post-secondary students across the province. While interns participating in SCiP do receive a $1000 bursary from the Government of Alberta after completing their SCiP internship, the positions themselves are unpaid.

The bursary is the first thing that sets SCiP apart from other internship programs. Critics of unpaid internships have argued that they offer an unfair advantage to students who can afford to take time away from work or school and are inaccessible to students who need to maintain an income. By offering interns $1000 for completing an internship, SCiP provides enabling dollars that allow students to take time for this learning opportunity. As well, all SCiP internships are part-time and designed to be flexible around school and work commitments.

SCiP internships are also vetted by our staff to ensure we only offer meaningful, skill-based opportunities. Past internships have included designing websites, building a bicycle fleet, facilitating workshops, creating new logos, and coordinating volunteers. We do not approve internships comprised solely of licking envelopes, photocopying, or filing. Not only do interns benefit from these guidelines, but nonprofits also enjoy the outcomes of these high level projects and the real impact they have on their missions in the province. The mutual benefit of SCiP extends past the immediate internships. Interns gain valuable experience that they can add to their resumes and draw on as they move forward with their studies and with their careers. Nonprofit/voluntary organizations gain human capacity as well as an opportunity to demonstrate to the future of nonprofit leadership how rewarding working and volunteering in the sector is.

Aside from the focus on accessibility and shared value, perhaps the biggest difference between SCiP internships and the unpaid internships currently garnering media attention is that SCiP internships are only offered to Alberta nonprofits helping Albertans. There are no shareholders making money off of SCiP interns’ work; instead, the interns are building and supporting their own communities. Furthermore, many of the nonprofits offering SCiP internships are directly involved in addressing issues like poverty, unemployment, exploitation and adult education – the very issues that those concerned with unpaid internships are also looking to tackle.

SCiP has just completed a very successful second year with over 700 internships filled in over 35 communities across the province since September 2012. The third year of SCiP begins on August 1st, 2013. For more information, or to sign up for the program, please visit www.joinscip.ca.

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator

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