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6 ways to recognize volunteers during a pandemic this National Volunteer Week

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown everyone a curveball of some kind this past year. And, National Volunteer Week is no exception. Many communities are struggling with how to pivot volunteer recognition and engagement for safety and social distancing purposes.

But! There are many ways communities can still recognize volunteers in their communities during National Volunteer Week and year-round while staying safe and adhering to current health measures in place.

To help you get inspired for National Volunteer Week 2021, we’ve compiled six ways communities celebrated in 2020 and other innovative ways you can recognize and celebrate volunteers this April.

1. Volunteer recognition items and gift baskets

In 2020, many communities created gift baskets with different kinds of volunteer recognition items and delivered them to volunteers’ homes to say thank you. Here are some things they included:

  • Discounts, coupons, or gift certificates to local stores to support the local economy.
  • Pamphlets, brochures or information guides that listed ways volunteers can help the community, including informal and formal volunteer opportunities.
  • Personalized or branded hand sanitizer and masks – things that volunteers can use in their day-to-day lives or would need for volunteering.

But, you can include anything in your gift basket you think your volunteers would appreciate!

2. Online storytelling and paid promotion

You can recognize volunteers by sharing the impact of their contribution to your organization and community. For example, organizations in 2020 promoted their volunteers by:

  • Telling volunteer impact stories on their social media and websites. Some even paid to promote their volunteer stories through social media too.
  • Broadcasting their volunteer stories on the local radio and newspapers. Many media outlets or advertisers offer discounts to nonprofits, so be sure to find savings where you can!
  • Creating a ‘thank-you’ video featuring prominent figures in your community, such as government officials like the mayor or town councillors.

3. Virtual gatherings and recognition

With in-person events being limited due to the pandemic, you can always opt for virtual gatherings or virtual forms of recognition. Here are some ways communities celebrated last year and what you can do this year:

  • Create a virtual online event by using platforms like Zoom or Google Meet to gather volunteers together. For your online event, you can distribute awards, play games, tell stories and more.
  • Call volunteers or create personalized emails and texts to thank volunteers for their service.
  • Create or find online learning opportunities to help volunteers learn or grow their skill-sets in between volunteer gigs.

4. Public displays in your community

You can show volunteers you appreciate them in a big way by creating public displays in your community. Some ideas for public displays include:

  • Dedicating a park bench to volunteers.
  • Creating and raising a flag to honour volunteers in your community.
  • Design and advertise a billboard for April. (Many advertisers offer discounted advertising for nonprofits!)
  • Start a mural and encourage community members to drop by and add to it. Whether it’s painting something or bringing a poster they made to add to the mural. You can keep it socially distanced and adhere to health measures in place.

5. Volunteer recognition program or contest

Open volunteer awards/nominations to the community and have residents send in volunteer stories. Start a contest and get residents to nominate volunteers in the community to win bigger prize packages.

Use your volunteer nomination process as an opportunity to collect volunteer stories to share publicly. This could include sharing stories online, in newspapers and the radio, or even posters or flyers around town. Just be sure to have an option for people to give consent for their story publicly.

6. Encourage your entire community to get involved

Get creative and get the entire community involved! For example:

  • Encourage residents to do random acts of kindness for a volunteer they know. Then get them to share their experience online. Create a specific hashtag for them to use so you can track the stories as they come in.
  • Create or find and print volunteer-themed colouring pages for children in your community.
  • Encourage residents to put signs in their windows that say, “I volunteer at [organization name].”

No matter how you decide to recognize volunteers in your community this National Volunteer Week, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try something your organization has never done before! And most importantly, stay safe and have fun!

Looking for financial support to celebrate your volunteers? Apply for National Volunteer Week Enhancement Funding! Applications close Monday, March 8th, 2021. Funding is provided by the Government of Alberta and distributed by Volunteer Alberta.

Adrienne Vansevenandt

Volunteer Alberta

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Strategic planning online: Lessons and recommendations for your nonprofit

Strategic planning is a significant part of determining where your organization is and where it needs to go. By developing a strategic plan, your organization can clarify and determine its priorities and what you need to achieve these priorities.

In 2020, Volunteer Alberta undertook the task of developing our new mission and vision statements and our strategic priorities for 2021-2023. COVID-19 presented our team with a new challenge of creating a strategic plan virtually and effectively since we could not gather in-person.

The following is a summary of how we got to our final draft of our new strategic priorities for the next three years, and what we learned along the way by developing a strategic plan online.

Planning out the process

Before you develop a strategic plan, you need to determine what you need to be successful. Questions and processes to consider include:

Who should be at the table?

Think of which key players need to be part of the planning sessions that will ultimately help you and your organization to be successful.

At Volunteer Alberta, we included staff, board members, Volunteer Alberta Members, relevant organizations in our network and funders in our conversations.

What tools should we use or do we need?

With the pandemic still ongoing, what tools does your organization have access to? Which tools are accessible for participating staff in the planning process? The tools that we found to help facilitate our process online included Zoom and Mural.

Zoom was handy for group activities where broader discussions needed to take place. In this instance, we used the breakout room feature to have smaller conversations and then came back together to report on what took place.

Mural allowed us to write, edit and provide feedback on a live document as a group. The application was helpful to encourage group participation and engagement while being able to see the same screen and real-time updates.

Where is your organization in the environmental landscape now?

It’s important to know where you are to decide where you need to go. Conducting an environmental scan is a crucial piece in your strategic planning process. Does your organization’s current mission and vision align with what’s happening in your sector or across sectors? Do your clients/service users value what you do?

Connecting with your stakeholders during this process is of the utmost importance. It allows you to get an accurate picture of your organization now and what you should focus on next to meet your stakeholders’ needs.

The tool we decided to use to conduct our environmental scan is called the Challenge Dialogue System (CDS). For more information on the process and our results, see our CDS Challenge Paper final report.

What we learned and recommendations for your organization

Since this was the first time we attempted strategic planning online, we learned a few things along the way that may help your organization:

Give board members and staff sufficient time to complete activities

Our CDS Challenge Paper required participants to read information ahead of time and answer questions accordingly as part of our environmental scan. Conducting an environmental scan takes time and thought. Be sure to communicate how much time these activities will take to allow staff and board members to adjust their workloads or make time accordingly.

Include more than your current stakeholders in your environmental scan

It’s important to survey people or organizations that are not currently part of your network. By interviewing people outside of your network, you can find out why they’re not engaged with your organization and what it would take for them to be part of the work you do. While we are happy with the outcomes from our environmental scan, we would include more potential or prospective stakeholders for a more fulsome result if we could do it again.

Spread out your planning sessions to mitigate participant burnout

When we met to develop our strategic plan, we held two and a half day sessions spanning 10 days, with the board and staff over Zoom. Many participants recommended breaking up the full-day sessions into shorter and more frequent sessions to keep conversations flowing, and participants engaged in the process.

Hire a facilitator to manage conversations and keep time

When we conducted our CDS and strategic planning sessions over zoom, we engaged third-party facilitators to help manage and direct conversations. Hiring facilitators allowed full participation of staff and board and helped ensure our discussions stayed on topic and on time during our sessions.

In the end, we learned that strategic planning does not have to be in-person! There are many tools and ways to convene your team online to develop a successful strategic plan, and we encourage you to try it out for yourself. You may be surprised by your outcomes!

Find out what our new strategic priorities are for 2021-2023!

Adrienne Vansevenandt 

Volunteer Alberta

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4 reasons why volunteer centres are integral to Alberta’s economic recovery

What is a ‘volunteer centre’? A personal and short story

At Volunteer Alberta, we connect Volunteer Centres with each other and with any resources they need to help make an impact in their communities. What is a volunteer centre you ask? Let me tell you!

In high school, we were required to complete 120 volunteer hours as part of our community service learning. At 15, I wasn’t really sure where to look for opportunities or what opportunities were geared toward youth in my community.  

Thankfully, I had the expertise of a local volunteer centreThey helped me find a volunteer position that I was passionate about, connected me with local volunteer managers, and found a position that worked with my school and extracurricular schedule.

Here are four reasons why volunteer centres should be included in and why they are integral to Alberta’s economic recovery:

Nonprofits, community organizations and volunteers are important players in a thriving community fabric 

Volunteers are the heart of our community. Whether formal or informal, they share their time and passion to build a better world. For the spirit of volunteerism to thrive, we need organizations working to: 

  • Promote, facilitate, celebrate and support volunteerism and civic engagement as a key component of a civil society. 
  • Build nonprofit capacity to effectively recruit, train, and manage volunteers.  
  • Facilitate links between nonprofit, private and government sectors to jointly address critical social, economic and environmental issues.  

“(Being) Canadian is like being part of a big family. By having an enormous volunteer culture, we are bettering Canada one step at a time and making it one of the best places to call home!”Harry, Volunteer stories for a Canada 150 profile 

Volunteer centres are essential community hubs 

Volunteer centres and Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) in communities across Alberta play an essential role in building nonprofit sector capacity by facilitating the exchange of skills, opportunities and knowledge between volunteer-seekers and nonprofit organizations.  

We support effective volunteer engagement and build nonprofit sector capacity for volunteer managers, board, paid staff and volunteers through programs like: 

  • Support, consultation and training related to volunteer screening, recruitment and engagement. 
  • Volunteer managers meetings that bring together volunteer managers to connect, collaborate and learn from one another.   
  • Board leadership and support, consultation and training for strategic planning, revenue diversification, change management and more. 
  • Community-wide celebrations supporting, applauding and thanking community volunteers for their contributions to civil society in April each year. 

Less supports for Alberta nonprofits to onboard volunteers means less human resources to achieve their missions 

Since the pandemic, the nonprofit voluntary sector has had to adapt volunteer positions, shift to virtual programming, find new ways to continue engaging volunteers, and adapt the way we screen and onboard volunteers with reduced funds and staffing.  

Without essential programs and frontline or emergency response services lead by volunteer centres and FCSS, 65% of Alberta’s nonprofits would lose critical supports to recruit, engage, and screen volunteers. And if Alberta’s nonprofits lose the ability to onboard volunteers, many will lose valuable human resources that help them to achieve their missions. 

If volunteer centres lose support, there’d be unintended consequences for Albertans  

In other words, Albertans would be deprived of vital services they depend on and need like mental health supports, family and domestic violence resources and supports, housing supports, supports for seniors, youth engagement and recreation just to name a few. And, the need for these types of services will not be slowing down any time soon as we all navigate the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 health crisis.  

By championing and supporting the work of volunteer centres and FCSS, you are supporting an effective and efficient model for delivering essential services and programs to nonprofits in our communities, volunteers and Albertans 

How you can help

Add your name to Volunteer Alberta’s open letter to the Government of Alberta 

Sign your name or share our open letter to the Government of Alberta and support your local volunteer centre or FCSS with their advocacy efforts. 

Donate to Volunteer Alberta to support our work with volunteer centres

Think the work we do is important? Consider donating to Volunteer Alberta and supporting the work of the provincial volunteer centre network, our programs and services. 

Daniela Seiferling

Volunteer Alberta

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Volunteering during COVID-19: Experiences from the network 

As volunteers, our first instinct is to focus on how we can help. We want to be good neighbours and support our community through a crisis, but it is a bit more difficult now as we’re working to flatten the curve. In this blog, Daniela Seiferling from Volunteer Alberta and Ilya Ushakov from ECVO share examples of how to stay involved while stopping the spread of COVID-19. 

What is your engagement style, and how do you like to stay involved? 

DS: I like to give back to my community without the pressures of formal engagement. I tend to look for opportunities that match my schedule, don’t require a long-term commitment, and can be done in my own time.   

IU: I love getting to know the many initiatives around me as if I do not have time to commit to one. I like to broadly share it with people I know and help be an ambassador for several organizations. I enjoy helping where I can and indulge in spontaneous volunteering often. 

What advice do you have for people looking to volunteer during COVID-19? 

DS: The most important thing you can do is stay at home. I recommend looking for volunteer opportunities that you can do from home. Like sewing masks, making cards for frontline health workers, or donating items to your local food banks. 

If you want to play a more active role, start by asking your family, friends, and neighbours, what types of supports they may need. Keep in contact with your loved ones to reduce the risk of loneliness and isolation by setting up virtual game nights, crafting a newsletter, sharing stories or dropping off care packages.  

We’re all in this together, so remember to be patient and kind to one another! 

IU: Safety comes first. It’s great to be passionate passionate about essential services and community supports. Still, your first priority is to protect yourself and truly understand the health measures. Now, I’m not telling you to not volunteer, you absolutely should, just make sure you do it safely. If the oxygen mask drops while you’re flying, you always have to put your own first before assisting others.  

Once you are ready to assist others, you can find opportunities that work for you and comply with physical distancing. Remember to stay on top of government announcements, listen to volunteer supervisors and fully understand the health measures. 

Can you tell us about your experience with micro-volunteering or remote volunteering before COVID-19? During COVID-19? 

DS: I’m an introvert. My role involves a lot of meetings and relationship building, so I like to recharge at home after a long day. Before the pandemic, I tended to gravitate to activities that were short-term and remote: 

Fun fact: most people born after the year 2000 are unable to read handwriting; it’s a dying art. I volunteer remotely with several museums to transcribe handwritten documents for exhibits and archives. 

I also have a tradition of annual weeks of giving around Christmas. For six weeks, I choose different charities and find ways to informally support my community and the causes I am most passionate about. 

With COVID-19, my response became more neighbourhood focused. As soon as the measures for social distancing were put in place, I reached out to my immediate neighbours to see how I could help. We live in a neighbourhood with a high population of seniors, and some are more vulnerable than others. If they need me to pick up groceries or other essentials, they leave a list in my mailbox and e-transfer money.  

IU: I love opportunities that are based around the community, make me feel a part of something bigger, and where I can make a difference. I haven’t volunteered much remotely or with micro-volunteering, but I’m excited to discover new opportunities: 

  • Baking for friends and family. 
  • Knitting for organizations that provide essential services.  

It’s been incredible to see Edmonton be innovative with the idea of micro-volunteering and remote volunteering by: 

  • Organizing online classes.
  • Making masks for essential service workers. 
  • Creating colouring pages for working parents.
  • Hosting virtual or community birthday parties for friends, family & neighbours. 

What would you say has been the most significant impact for you? 

DS: Connecting with my neighbours. Before COVID-19, they were friendly faces I’d occasionally wave to from my backyard or say a quick “hi” to in passing. We’ve built lines of communication and a great deal of trust over the last few weeks. The relationship has shifted from pressing and transactional to laidback and personal. We leave notes in mailboxes or “thinking of you” cards to brighten the day. 

We plan on hosting a block party or BBQ after social restrictions are lifted to keep up the relationships.  

IU: Learning what organizations are doing during this time, it’s incredible to see so many nonprofits adapt to the circumstances and make the best of a rough situation. Our nonprofit sector is remarkable!  

Although many organizations have suspended their volunteer programs, others have adapted, and found ways to support their clients while ensuring proper safety and hygiene practices. It’s lovely to see the community being creative and looking out for one another. It’s also been fantastic to see neighbours offering to help and being so supportive throughout this time. 

How do you find volunteer opportunities?

DS: For remote volunteering, I signed up for VolunteerConnector because it’s easy to filter opportunities by cause category, commitment level, and remote opportunities. 

For micro-volunteering, I often look at local charities and see if they have lists for needed items, donation drives, or fundraising initiatives.  

IU: VolunteerConnector is my go-to. However, if there is an organization I genuinely care about, I reach out to them to see if they have any volunteer postings.  

I love governance, so helping out with board activities or sitting on nonprofit boards has always been a pleasure. Now, there are even COVID-19 and Virtual Volunteering pages on VolunteerConnector, so it’s much easier to find relevant opportunities and help out where I can.  

Staying at home and practicing physical distancing doesn’t mean we need to stop volunteering, we just need to do it differently. Remote and micro-volunteer opportunities offer ways to be involved without putting the most vulnerable, and ourselves, at risk. 

Want to find or post a volunteer opportunity? Visit VolunteerConnector!

Are you a volunteer engagement specialist looking for ideas on how to create remote or micro-volunteering opportunities? Refer to part 1 and part 2 of our blog series!

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Why I embraced virtual programming: How I learned and connected with peers online during Youth @ the Table

In a time where virtual volunteering is the new norm, young people looking for opportunities to give back or connect may wonder what being part of a virtual community is like. How do you keep people engaged online? What about tech issues?

In its pilot year, Youth @ the Table convened eight youth from regional communities on Zoom each month, forming Y@TT’s Virtual team. In this guest blog, Alexis Holmgren, a virtual team alumna, shares her perspectives and insights on meeting remotely.

Why I Joined Youth @ the Table

What excited me the most about Y@TT was the opportunity to partner with a nonprofit board. I was eager to learn more about how nonprofits run and what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in boardrooms. I previously had experience serving on councils and committees, and I wanted to expand on this experience.

I was drawn to apply, additionally, by my ingrained love for volunteering and desire to make a difference. As an advocate for diversity and inclusion, I was thrilled that a program existed to prioritize youth and youth voices at the decision-making tables of Alberta’s nonprofit sector.

Being on a virtual team

When I found out that I would be on a virtual team, I was excited overall, but a few challenges came to mind. I expected that there would be technical challenges, requiring some patience and a lot of flexibility. I was worried that I couldn’t connect with my peers and learn from them if we weren’t all in the same room together physically. I also wasn’t sure how the meetings would be structured virtually.

However, I was excited that being on a virtual team meant that I could connect with people from across the province over a much wider distance than my own city. I was also excited because as a person with multiple health challenges and disabilities, the program was much more easily accessible to me since I could log on from my bedroom.

An insight to engaging remotely

The virtual meetings were excellent and exceeded all my expectations. I felt that even with the significant distance between us, we were able to connect on a meaningful level and build relationships. I also learned new pieces of technology in the process like Google Jamboard. More importantly, I learned extensively from the experiences of my peers.

There were times where people couldn’t hear me, my internet would cut out, there would be background noise from someone not muting their microphone, or a pet or family member would walk in. Still, we worked through it and shared some laughs and bonded all the while.

A lasting impact

Even though the program was virtual, I found it highly meaningful and impactful. I am proud to have contributed to the Good Practices Guide that will change the future of how youth are engaged on boards and hopefully further the presence of youth on boards.

I looked forward to the virtual meetings every month and I always felt my views were valued. I gained more confidence in sharing my ideas, experiences, and perspective with those who may have different viewpoints from mine. I also learned a considerable amount about nonprofit boards and how they operate, which is a significant reason why I was interested in the program in the first place. Y@TT gave me an invaluable opportunity to learn and grow as an individual.

The advice I would give to youth who want to participate but are worried about the virtual experience is to give the program a chance. The program is absolutely worth it, virtually or in-person. I would say to be patient and flexible but also know that everyone is there to support you. In fact, many of your peers and the facilitators face similar challenges to those you face. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support if you need it.

Are you ready to take the plunge and be a part of this year’s Youth @ the Table cohort? Apply now! Applications close June 29, 2020.

Author Bio:

Alexis Holmgren is 19 years old and comes from Red Deer Alberta. Alexis is a dedicated volunteer and holds many accomplishments. As a lifelong Girl Guide, she’s served as part of the National Inclusion Action Group and a Youth Accessibility Leader. Currently, she serves as a Trainer Candidate and Link Member. She is also especially proud of her time as a member of the RCMP National Youth Advisory Committee. Outside of volunteering, Alexis is currently studying to become a genetic counsellor to help others like herself who have rare, genetic disorders. In her spare time, she is a published writer, a traveller filled with constant wanderlust, a knitter, and a scrapbooker.

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