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You Have to Spend Money to Make Change

Last week, my colleagues Rosanne Tollenaar, Jann Beeston and I attended CCVO’s second annual Connections Conference in Calgary. Many of the speakers at the conference, as well as the participants, spoke with frustration about a common misconception about the nonprofit/voluntary  sector:  that putting money towards administration and overhead costs somehow takes money away from the work nonprofits do, rather than make their work possible. Those in the sector know that this isn’t a new problem – organizations have long been trying to offer successful programs and services, while struggling to find money for the organizational infrastructure necessary to do so.

Sue Tomney, CEO of the YWCA of Calgary, a panelist at the conference, made a strong case for why funders should want to see administration fees in their contracts and grants to nonprofits by reframing this issue from funders’ perspectives. She described her dream funder as someone who insisted on 15% of a contract budget dedicated to administration and 10% assigned to advocacy work.

A realistic cost for administration shows the funder that the organization has the governance, policy, and financial oversight to properly manage a contract or grant. While this may sometimes be available in-kind through a board and volunteers, most organizations have costs associated with bookkeepers and financial controllers, leadership and management positions, and knowledgeable staff familiar with the specifics of internal policies and legal requirements. As well, a substantial administration budget line shows funders that staff at the organization are being paid and managed fairly, and that the organization has the appropriate people, infrastructure, and capacity to communicate with the funder, internally, and externally throughout the project. Without these things in place, a funder should be concerned about how their contract will be carried out.

Tomney included 10% advocacy as well on the basis that most funders want to make an impact on an issue or cause through their contracts and grants. For example, a funder choosing to support the YWCA on an initiative to help homeless women is likely concerned about homelessness, domestic violence, or mental illness. By requiring an organization to do advocacy work around these issues, the funder can ensure that the contract works toward eliminating the problem, rather than providing short term band-aid solutions. Eventually the funder won’t have to give money to the organization and instead will have invested in the solution(s).

Understanding Tomney’s perspective puts nonprofits in a better position to make our case to funders for why these costs are necessary. Hopefully it can open funders’ eyes to why we should all be on the same page when it comes to paying for the work required to improve our communities and change our world.

Here’s more reading on why it’s necessary to spend on administration.


Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator

4 Tips for Happy Volunteers – Part 2

Last post, we shared tips 1 and 2 for happy volunteers: know your volunteers’ reasons for volunteering with you, and practice good communication with your volunteers.  Here are two more tips for ensuring that your volunteers are enjoying their experience at your organization that will keep them coming back for more.

  1. Structure your volunteer opportunities so that they offer challenging and rewarding learning experiences. Mentor your volunteers throughout their stay, and offer additional training opportunities when possible. This might include First Aid training, the chance to sit in on a class your organization offers, or connecting your volunteers to great job shadowing opportunities. Never stick your volunteer solely on envelope licking duty without giving them the chance to work on something more engaging as well (unless they really like envelope licking). As your volunteers improve in their roles, give them a promotion by adding new challenges and responsibilities, and always make sure they have a chance to see the outcome of their efforts.
  2. Be appreciative. I have left the best tip for last! Some ideas for showing your volunteers your appreciation:
  • Say ‘thank you’ (honestly, it’s that simple)!
  • Hold a volunteer recognition event like a wrap-up party or an appreciation breakfast
  • Provide food and refreshments for your volunteers when they work a long shift
  • Show increasing trust in your volunteers (ex. give more senior volunteers a key to the office or more unsupervised opportunities)
  • Provide perks and incentives after a volunteer has worked with you for a certain amount of time (ex. provide a reference letter for volunteers after 6 months, or take your volunteer out for lunch on their one-year anniversary).

Even providing flexibility is a great way to show that you appreciate their work and that you respect them as a person and a colleague. Like, when a volunteer has a sick kid at home or is planning a trip. Allowing them that leeway will ensure they know you appreciate their contribution.

Check out the Learning Resource Guides in Volunteer Alberta’s Resource Centre (VARC) for more ideas and information on volunteer recruitment, retention, and recognition.

Please leave your own volunteer management tips in the comment section!

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator

4 Tips for Happy Volunteers – Part 1

If you have ever worked at a nonprofit, I’m sure you already know the value of volunteers. After all, none of our organizations could run without them!  Every nonprofit organization has a volunteer board, and in Alberta, 58% of nonprofit organizations operate with no paid staff at all. But, just because we see volunteers doing indispensable work in our organizations doesn’t mean that we always recognize how important it is to take care of our volunteers.

Think of your volunteers as unpaid staff. Now think of any jobs you have held where you wouldn’t have lasted long if you weren’t being paid (I’m thinking of you, paper route.). So how can you ensure your volunteers are enjoying a positive experience that will keep them coming back for more?

1. First off, know why your volunteers do come out. This is different for each volunteer and some volunteers may have more than one motivation. Some common reasons volunteers get involved:

  • It’s a way to make a difference about something you care about.
  • It’s an opportunity to give back, pay it forward, or help others. This might fulfil a moral obligation, or give you warm, fuzzy feelings (satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness, pride, etc.).
  • It builds your resume and offers great work experience.
  • It can improve your language skills and help you get acquainted with a new culture.
  • It can offer new knowledge and skills.
  • It’s a chance to try something new or different.
  • It can include great perks like food, tickets, parties, and swag.
  • Volunteering is fun (and not volunteering is boring)!
  • It’s a great way to meet new people and become part of a community.

Once you know why your volunteer is involved, you can help tailor their experience to better meet their goals. For example, if they are there because they want to try something new, find out what they do at their job or in their free time, and choose something a little bit different for them to work on.

Regardless of their main reason for showing up, volunteers tend to stay in a position that offers them a chance to make friends and join a community. Make an effort to bring your volunteers together with meetings or volunteer recognition events. Ensure your volunteers work with, or near, others so they have a chance to chat with someone (other than themselves). Make sure there is some kind of interpersonal connection for those working more independently, and don’t forget to create your own connections and friendships with your volunteers! It will make your job more enjoyable as well.

2. Practice good communication with your volunteers so that they feel informed and included. Any time a volunteer starts a new task, give them some information and instruction. This might involve a walk-through or role-playing a situation, or asking them to look over a handbook. Make sure you include clear goals for your volunteers, and show them how these goals fit with the overall goals of your organization. Check in throughout each project and debrief at the end of a task.  This means making time for one-on-one meetings, formal or informal, so that your volunteers have a chance to ask questions, share concerns, and provide feedback.

Check out the Learning Resource Guides in Volunteer Alberta’s Resource Centre (VARC) for more ideas and information on volunteer recruitment, retention, and recognition, and visit us later this week for tips 3 and 4!

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator

Youth Engagement – You Already Know How!

Last week I had the privilege of sitting on the Vitalize 2012 Conference youth engagement panel, ‘Volunteerism: The Next Generation’ moderated by my colleague Steven Kwasny. I joined 16-year old co-founder of 8th Rung Jocelyn Davis, Volunteer Calgary’s Community & Service Learning Coordinator, Ralamy Kneeshaw, and Banff Volunteer Centre Executive Director (and all-around youth engagement guru) Katherine Topolniski, on the panel for a fun and interactive afternoon session.

Two of the themes I found particularly interesting that emerged over the course of the conversation seem on the surface to be contradictory: we need to start treating youth more similarly to ‘non-youth’, and, at the same time, we need to start treating youth differently.

Just like with everyone else, youth engagement only works well when good recruitment, retention, and recognition practices are in place. And, just like everyone else, if these processes aren’t in place (and even if they are) sometimes youth won’t show up, or won’t stay on long term. As Ralamy reminded those at the session, you have likely had an absentee board member or a problem with high volunteer turn-over – even when it isn’t youth that you are engaging! Blaming either of these problems on age is a failed opportunity to improve your volunteer program and increase youth engagement at your organization.

At the same time though, it is important to recognize that ‘youth’ is a relevant category insofar as it tends to describe shared experiences. For example, many young people have a schedule quite different from other age groups: they have school 8:30-4:30 if they are still in grade school, or they have school all the time if they are attending post-secondary. In other words, a 15-year-old is never going to be able to attend your lunch meeting, and a university student will have a hard time committing themselves to an organization that can’t work around their exam schedule.

Youth might have a curfew or need parental permission, they might rely on public transit or rides from relatives, and many of them, students and older youth in particular, are low-income, have entry-level positions, poor job security, and are in debt or have lots of expenses like tuition. Recognizing these needs and challenges will help to inform more successful ways of recruiting, retaining, and recognizing youth volunteers.

Some specific tips and recommendations that came out of the session include:

  • Ask youth how they would like to be engaged at your organization. This is good practice in any volunteer’s orientation, but take it a step further and organize a focus group including youth you have already engaged, as well as youth that aren’t yet involved. Find out what their needs are and, more importantly, where their passions and skills lie, and how to tap into both.
  • Remember that ‘youth’ is not a homogenous category. Be prepared to engage everyone from youth with disabilities, to immigrant youth, to outgoing youth, to youth who hate public speaking, to youth who never show up on time, to youth who love spreadsheets (I am one of them!).
  • Relationship-building is a fantastic technique for retaining any volunteer. Don’t isolate youth from the rest of your team, and make the effort to encourage friendships. As I mentioned during the panel, the reason I have stayed on for extended periods at certain organizations is always because I love who I work with, even more than I love what I am doing.
  • Get started by using existing youth groups, like sports teams, church groups, or classes. The relationships are already there. An audience member told us about a playground in his community that was built by a football team who already had a built-in volunteer manager: the coach.
  • Put youth on equal footing in your organization. They might not have all the skills or knowledge as older team members, but that’s because they haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn them, not because they aren’t able to do a good job once the tools are provided. Their ideas are no less likely to work than someone else’s; in fact they might be exactly what your organization needs to reach people in the 21st century.

In short, we recommend approaching youth as people who have excellent motivations for getting involved in the nonprofit/voluntary sector, and a few minor obstacles standing in the way of them doing that. Just like the rest of your volunteers.

Now, go help them get involved!


Sam Kriviak

Program Coordinator

UN Report Paints New Picture of Volunteerism

“It is essential to understand and appreciate volunteerism in terms of the focus which it places on people centred approaches, on partnerships, on motivations beyond money, and on openness to the exchange of ideas and information.  Above all, volunteerism is about the relationships it can create and sustain among citizens of a country. It generates a sense of social cohesion and helps to create resilience [which] are often the mainstay of a decent life for which all people strive. Volunteerism is an act of human solidarity, of empowerment and of active citizenship.”

This is one of the closing remarks of the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, an informative and enthusiastic testament to the value of volunteering in all corners of the world. The report is the United Nation’s first on volunteering and marks the 10th anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers.

While the focus of the report is on how volunteerism contributes to peace and development globally, the insights it shares are certainly applicable right here in Alberta. The report defines ‘development’ as much more than economic growth, instead it sees development as “expanding the choices available to people so that they may lead lives that they value”. This definition challenges us to think about volunteering differently, to see it as even more powerful than many of us in the voluntary sector believe.

The Volunteerism Report dismisses the idea that volunteerism is a one-way street where the volunteer gives and someone else benefits. Instead advocating an understanding of volunteering as a reciprocal relationship where volunteering works to benefit the volunteer and their community simultaneously.

With this in mind, the report provides a wide range of examples of how those engaging volunteers around the world are changing their techniques to achieve their goals.  Rather than only sending volunteers from developed countries to developing countries, international volunteering programs are involving people from developing countries as volunteers themselves. Volunteers living in poverty remind us that while a lack of income may restrict their opportunities, they also have knowledge, skills, labour, and networks. Through volunteering, they are able to improve their own lives while sharing these assets with their communities. These are lessons that we can apply here in our own province.

A quick glance at the 2010 Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering, and Participating (CSGVP) statistics, released last month, shows the pronounced effect volunteering has on our communities. For volunteers, the benefits of getting involved are numerous; volunteering offers people an opportunity to change the society they live in, for example, through political lobbying and activism. Volunteering provides individuals with skills and values they can bring with them into the workforce, or to continue to use a lifetime of knowledge. There is a correlation between volunteering and improved mood, life satisfaction, self-respect, and increased physical health. Alberta is great because of our volunteers, but volunteers may just be the biggest winners of all.

Join us in celebrating volunteerism in Canada and all the good that it represents during National Volunteer Week, April 15th–21st.

If you’d like to find out more about world-wide volunteerism, you can read the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report here.

Sam Kriviak
Program Coordinator

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