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Everybody Loves Lunch: Thoughts on Networking

We have all heard it- It’s not what you know, but who you know. But, who are these people, and how do you get to know them? For some it comes very easily and for others it’s a fate worse than public speaking, which, according to numerous studies, is more terrifying than death. Personally, I love networking. I love going out there and meeting new people, finding out what they are up do, what they are passionate about and trying to make connections between what I am doing, what they are doing and what others are doing. Networking has opened up some fantastic opportunities and given me some awesome stories.

Personally it’s an absolute necessity to be out networking as often as you can; though it’s tough, and it’s work, but we’ll get to that shortly. Whether in your city, town, province, or country, in the nonprofit sector or the business community, decisions are made by the people with power and the small groups that influence them. The personal and professional payoffs that come with being “in” with any of these groups is immeasurable, but worth it. I wholeheartedly believe that there are very real benefits to your organization putting your staff in a position to network.

Networking allows you to build a personal relationship with people outside of your usual social circle. I have become very good friends with people I met “through work”. So now, should I need to, I can call on these people for advice or, potentially, a favour (I do try to avoid that as best I can). Professionally, you never know who the people you meet know, and they can often put you in contact with the right person to make your project or initiative happen. I suppose that is the abridged version of how the Serving Communities Internship Program (SCiP) got started.

You also need to go into “networking” with an open mind, who knows what will come from it. However, in my experience it has always been worth it.

But how does one network?

First thing is getting in the door. Look around for public events and make time to be there. For me, the most successful networkers “live their brand” so to speak. It’s not about being a workaholic, but it’s about really believing in what you do, so you don’t mind spending your evenings “working”. Also, volunteer with groups that might be outside your usual sphere of influence. Chambers of Commerce, Boards, Committees or, for the more political, Election Campaigns are all great places to start.

While you are there, try not to be shy (which is easier said than done). Honestly, I find it helps to stand by the food or the bar, because people seem more talkative in those areas. That or, if there is open seating, just going up to a table, asking to sit there and then introducing yourself. Not every conversation will be fruitful, but there is rarely a negative that can come from it.

Also, business cards! They are like baseball cards for adults. I have learned people love trading them to each other. Collect as many as you can while at the event.

Another note about preparation for an event, catch up on the latest news. The worst part of networking is when things get awkward. So avoid that. Read up on sports, current events, weather, business, and yes even celebrity gossip (you never EVER know when knowledge about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorce will come in handy). It sounds labour intensive, however it’s not that bad, devote maybe an hour a day to learning about the world and you automatically become a better conversationalist;  as my grandpa used to say “know a little about a lot of things, and you’ll never be boring.”

Once you leave an event, take all the business cards you’ve collected and send them a note telling them it was great to meet them, that is unless you never want to talk to them again, which happens. If you had a particularly good conversation, or would like to connect further, do not hesitate to ask them for lunch.

Everybody loves lunch.

 

Steve Kwasny

Stakeholder Relations Coordinator

New Curriculum to Bundle Essential Learning Opportunities for Sector Leaders

Why is it that many organizations are still battling problems even though the solutions are available? Why is it that despite workshops, speakers, and seminars galore focused on solving issues, our sector leadership and funders are still frustrated in their efforts to motivate staff and volunteers to explore new solutions?

Many cynics refer to workshops as a day out of the office rather than an investment of a day into learning. I don’t believe this for a moment but I do believe that the sector as a whole is not reaping 100% of the benefits from participating in the hundreds of opportunities for learning available for our staff and volunteers in any given year.

Obviously something has to change. Volunteer Alberta is offering that change now.

One of the advantages of the experience gained from delivering years of learning opportunities throughout Alberta is insight as to what creates change. Volunteer Alberta’s new approach – bundling the traditional one hour or half day workshops about a specific issue into a formal, comprehensive, structured series of competency-based professional development seminars – is designed to increase the ability of sector leaders to create the required changes we need to continue to be competitive, effective, and focused on mission delivery. Offering one hour or half day single-issue learning does not move the sector to a greater understanding of what is needed to succeed and excel in mission-based organizations.

Volunteer Alberta’s new curriculum combined with our new approach to knowledge transfer is now ready to be implemented. The learning opportunities are clustered into three ‘clouds’:

•             Risk Management

•             People Engagement

•             Governance

The intensive curriculum is designed to identify the issues that learners are looking to resolve prior to the day-long seminars, provide expert-facilitated instruction and insights, and review the resolutions reached against the issues identified pre-seminar. This fall, Volunteer Alberta is offering day-long Risk Management seminars in seven locations throughout Alberta. Watch for more information in the August 21 Sector Connector.

 

Karen Lynch

Executive Director

Volunteer Management from the Volunteers Perspective

 

Courtesy David Suzuki Foundation

I was recently volunteering at the Freewill Players’ annual Shakespeare in the Park festival, where I gained some great insight into volunteer management. During my second shift, I was talking to one of the other volunteers and she told me, “It’s awesome to volunteer here! You are never bored, and you get to help make people happy and have a great time! It’s not like volunteering at other places. I mean, at [organization name] – that’s meaningful and important work, yeah, but it’s not nearly as fun.”

This really hit home for me – both in my work in helping promote Volunteer Alberta’s programs that help Managers of Volunteers, and my own volunteer work where I manage an e-zine, Sound and Noise, including its group of volunteers. As a life-long volunteer, I know meaningful work doesn’t have to be boring. So what did the Freewill Players do right to get that reaction from its volunteers?

1.       Break tasks into self-directed roles – Did you know post-secondary graduates are one of the groups most likely to volunteer? Volunteers are smart! There’s no need to micro-manage them. The Freewill Players ensured we understood how our role fit into the success of the festival, and gave us enough authority that we gained ownership of our role. Moreover, we didn’t need someone looking over our shoulders, telling us what to do every step of the way.

 

2.       Let volunteers see the impact they make – Hearing festival patrons say, “thanks so much!” at the end of the night was really gratifying, and it didn’t cost the Freewill Players a cent! 93% of volunteers say they volunteer to make a contribution to the community – so, why not show them that contribution? Even though it’s easier at an event where they interact with the public or clients, you can demonstrate the impact your volunteers make no matter what role they’re in! This could be as simple as sharing “thank-you” notes from stakeholders or client success stories with your volunteers regularly.

 

3.       Respect volunteer’s time– In creating the volunteer roles, Freewill Players listed the times each volunteer was expected to be at the festival for. The roles carried enough responsibilities  that there was never a dull moment during your shift, yet you didn’t feel overwhelmed. Moreover, if the organizers saw a volunteer without a task, they knew exactly which other areas needed help, ensuring no volunteers were bored or under-utilized. I was also pleasantly surprised at the orientation. The volunteers were sent a detailed volunteer handbook before the orientation, and it was kept short and sweet. A quick introduction to the organizing team members – so we could identify them during our shifts – and an overview of general information which every volunteer needed to know. There’s nothing worse (especially for busy people) than an orientation where volunteers get unnecessary information or spend time doing things that don’t add to the overall experience.

While volunteering at Shakespeare in the Park, I felt as though I was being engaged as a valued contributor, not just “free labour”. The three actions listed above – which any nonprofit/voluntary organization can do – made my experience with the Freewill Players fulfilling. I’ll be back next year!

Jenna Marynowski

Marketing and Communications Manager

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

The 2012 National Conference on Volunteering and Service Turning Point has untold impact for our organization.

The Points of Light Foundation in the USA has great capacity to bring together amazing speakers and panels to share their knowledge. So I had high expectations for the event. They did not disappoint. From political (current and former) to high-level leaders of successful businesses and nonprofits, the demonstration of the value they place on volunteerism is inspiring. As always, the opportunity to compare the US and Canadian/Albertan nonprofit/voluntary sectors is fascinating.

Session topics included engaging online communities, a new generation of service, volunteer management tips and tools, driving economies through action, using online campaigns to grow, and the importance of citizenship.

Some of the key learnings and reminders for me:

  •  Determining methods to remind staff about connecting to and incorporating our mission and vision in everything we do.
  • Developing plans for online communications by defining the scale, being engagement focused, maintaining interest through cross-platforms, finding trend watchers and comparing our conversation prism.
  • Building actions – “supporters should trip over action opportunities”.
  • The strongest message is someone else telling your story. Storytelling is vital.
  • People are more likely to say yes after you’ve said thank you.
  • Using tools to map gaps, pull together information and source wants and needs.
  • Looking at all areas of impact on sector as a whole, down to internal impact on and of staff/volunteers/board.
  • Ensure buy in at various levels of organizational goals – both strategic and operational. How to remain flexible and help organization manage change.
  • Clearer definitions for volunteers. Encourage advocating by managers of volunteers to upper management with stories and numbers.
  • Partnerships with private sector with clear accountability, raising expectations of the quality of work. Assessing risk of partnerships, determine win-win situations to encourage collaboration. Focus on outcomes beyond simple collaboration. We want to be part of a successful effort.
  • Asset development of the individual and community. Determining nonprofit readiness.
  • Reinforcing some things, like the value of lifelong learning, being open to creative thinking and ideas, and never missing an opportunity to share.

Thank you to The Muttart Foundation for the bursary to allow me to attend this year’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service. I have applied some of my learnings already and am looking forward to the opportunity to develop some of these ideas further.

Cindy Walter

Director of Operations

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