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Guest Blog: Volunteerism has changed – but have nonprofits changed with it?

“Volunteering is on the decline.”
“Young people are disengaged.”
“People are abandoning community.”

I heard versions of these same concerns while delivering workshops last week in three very different communities.

While on the surface many would believe these are valid issues, personally I’m not buying it.

I’m not buying it because everywhere I go, in addition to these concerns, I’m also hearing that people are hungry for a sense of community and for being connected to one another. And, despite not always being involved, they very much do want to give back to their communities.

Could it be that it isn’t people who are abandoning community, but rather, communities abandoning people?

As my good friend Ian Hill puts it, volunteering has changed but communities and nonprofit organizations haven’t always changed with them.

He’s so very right.

Hill points out that volunteering is in our DNA because it used to be obligatory and essential.

When people first settled in Canada, if they didn’t volunteer to help one another clear the land and build their homes and barns, they simply wouldn’t have survived.  If they hadn’t banded together and shared their respective resources, they wouldn’t have been able to respond to the need for roads, churches, schools, parks, and other community services.

In essence, people worked together to implement a collective vision for their community, worked side by side to complete the required activities, and shared the resulting victories. Along the way, they built relationships, trust, and ultimately — a sense of community.

Following World Wars I and II as we strove to become more civilized — or at least what we saw as being civilized — we outsourced the work, hiring other people to deliver the services and build the roads, churches, schools, and parks that used to be done by volunteers.

When it became clear that volunteering could no longer be dictated as being essential to survival, people were often shamed or “guilted” into serving their community. For instance, many of my parents’ generation were raised to feel it was part of their moral obligation to give back to their community.

Today, it seems we’ve lost the experience born of both the dictated, shared experiences of sweat equity volunteering, and of being guilted into volunteering.

Ultimately that means we’ve lost the trusted relationships cultivated by volunteering, as well as the understanding and importance of both community and community building.

The fallout of this is that we have become a pretty cynical bunch.

Since we no longer have dictated shared experiences and volunteering is no longer seen as obligatory, we’ve ended up living in communities where although we might have connections with those who share the same interests, we don’t have trusted relationships and a sense of belonging. Instead, we are asking, “Why should I be involved in my community?” and are challenging community groups to prove to us that their initiative is worth our time, talent, and treasure.

If we aren’t convinced the volunteering is worthwhile, we may be seen as being apathetic or disengaged when it is likely more about the fact that we don’t know and trust one another.

Unfortunately, the majority of community groups have failed to adjust to this reality and still believe they can dictate the experience rather than having it dictated by the user. Too often this means that while community groups have a cohort of mature volunteers, they aren’t being augmented with new recruits.

So what do we do?

Everyone who wants to engage someone as a volunteer needs to begin by investing time and energy into  building relationships — face to face, one cup of coffee at a time.  The intent is to focus on discovering and putting to work what Hill calls, the “irrational passion” within each of us, and to give the potential volunteer the choice for how it can be applied.

The world is full of educated, experienced, talented people who care about their communities, and are willing and wanting to contribute.

Citizens young and old are seeking meaningful, relevant, time-specific projects that will allow them to dictate the experience and be paid — not with money but with meaning.

 

Brenda Herchmer,

CEO of Campus for Communities of the Future
Owner of Grassroots Enterprises

 

If you are interested in contributing to the VA blog as a Guest Blogger, please contact Tim at thenderson@volunteeralberta.ab.ca

Vital Signs Reports on the Quality of Life in ‘The Gas City’

Another year has gone by and the Community Foundation of Southeastern Alberta has reported on the quality of life in Medicine Hat and surrounding areas. The Vital Signs report and its findings were presented at the Medicine Vital Signs Lunch Event. At this year’s luncheon, Twitter played a central role in the conversation surrounding the report. The panel, made up of Medicine Hat’s social media gurus, helped lead the discussion and point out some interesting facts. The following are facts and figures from the report:

  • According to the lifestyle and recreation data, Medicine Hat spends less per capita on recreation than other municipalities in the area, which might help explain our high obesity rate of 24.2%. Medicine Hat also experiences a high rate of individuals over the age of 12 who identify themselves as smokers. These numbers are puzzling given that many clubs in Medicine Hat, like the Kinsman, offer free skating in the winter and free swimming in the summer. Across the city, you can find numerous parks, water parks and walking paths available to the public! KidsSport is another wonderful option to help keep children active, regardless of parental income. I will leave it to health professionals to explain why our community is so unhealthy overall!
  • Feel like you need a Mexican get-away to enjoy the sunshine? You may be surprised to find that Medicine Hat is among the sunniest places to live in Canada.We rank second for sunniest days, but also score in the top 5 for hottest summers, driest climate, and most days without rain! People have been known to shovel snow in t-shirts because the sun is blazing during the winter months.
  • Over the years, average income between men and women has differed greatly and this year is no exception; there is a $29,000 gap. Men are surpassing women in wages across the province, and often, even when women are doing the same jobs as men. This is something that has always bothered me.
  • Ending homelessness has been the focus of many organizations in Medicine Hat since 2009. In the first year, 270 individuals and 150 children were re-housed, or diverted away from homelessness. In the second year, 114 individuals and 40 children were lifted out of homelessness! The community members and organizations dedicated to this cause deserve an endless round of applause.

I could go on and on about the interesting facts and figures in this report! My blog would never end. Our city received no conclusive rating, but the Vital Signs report gets an A+ from me!

 

Amanda Liepert

Knowledge Exchange Coordinator (South Region)

There Are Penguins in Grande Prairie

Source: Antarctic Photo Library. United States Antarctic Program.

I recently took a quick trip to beautiful Grande Prairie, or “GP” as the locals say, to give the keynote address at the first Non-profit & Social Purpose Expo hosted and located at The Community Village.

The theme of the talk was The Power of Community. In the weeks leading up to the event, I spent my usual post-work walk home mulling over the approach I’d take. Would I talk about Martha Parker’s ideas around managers and directors of volunteers becoming “strategists in community engagement”? Or I would I speak about the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report and the common global values regarding volunteerism? Although both of those topics interest me (among others), the one idea that made the most sense to me was to talk about Emperor Penguins.

To be clear, I’ve never paid much notice to penguins, I have always considered them cute, quirky birds that dress well, but after seeing the movie March of the Penguins I had a new found respect for Aptenodytes forsteri. While reflecting on the movie I came to the conclusion that these penguins can teach us something about the power of community.

First, what are the similarities? Penguins and humans are both social animals, survive harsh winters and like to summer by the sea, are large and flightless, are mainly monogamous, and look good dressed up. How penguins endure, survive and thrive in their environment is where the lessons can be learned about the power of community. As a side note, when I refer to community I am talking specifically about a community of nonprofit/voluntary sector organizations that operate in the same community trying to improve said community. Without going into a lot of how penguins live (you can look it up on Wikipedia like I did) let’s just say Emperor penguins have chosen a tough path to survival and have chosen to band together during the toughest times.

So, what are the lessons the nonprofit/voluntary sector can learn from these birds:

1)      Survival depends on working together – Without each other, penguins would not be able to stay warm. Without other nonprofit organizations, no one would be able demonstrate their importance. It is a community of organizations that truly has the most impact.

2)      We are all trying to nurture something we care about – For penguins it is their eggs, and for organizations it is the cause, broader community, clients, volunteers, and employees we aim to nurture.

3)      Not everybody makes it– Despite our best efforts, sometimes environmental stresses and ever so slight missteps claim victims. No matter how difficult it is when a fellow organization fails or flounders, it is the larger community’s responsibility to show resolve and continue on to set the example of what is possible.

4)      It is worth the time, effort and energy it takes to work together as a community – In the end it’s about building a stronger community with more to offer and a brighter future, working together guarantees it.  Penguins hatch chicks, organizations get stronger networks working together to more effectively hatch positive community outcomes.

5)      When it feels cold and lonely that is the time to come together as a community – Penguins could chose to do it on their own rather than, literally, huddle together. Nonprofits should think the same way. When resources are low, and the future seems bleak, that is the exact time to look to your peers and find the opportunities to collaborate and find creative solution to common challenges.

There it is. Penguins demonstrate the power of community and, if nothing else, it is a strong image to remember. So, the next time you are feeling yourself out alone in the nonprofit world, think of the Emperor Penguins huddled together staying warm and surviving. It should at least inspire to reach out and connect to your nonprofit community.

 

Annand Ollivierre

Program Manager

Is that a Teddy Bear on a Harley?

The normal hubbub of Saturday traffic was interrupted by the sound of over 800 motorcycle enthusiasts riding through the streets of Medicine Hat. One would need to do a double take to identify the passengers of these bikes; giant teddy bears and other toys rode alongside these big-hearted bikers!

The Medicine Hat News Santa Claus Fund (SCF) believes EVERY child deserves to have a Merry Christmas, and 800 bikers donating their mound of toys is just the start! Food hampers are also given to families in need during the holiday season. SCF also partners with the Medicine Hat Ministerial Association and the St. Vincent de Paul Society throughout the year to provide aid for families, and individuals, in need. SCF, like Santa Claus, works all year long to help community members in need.

Like Santa Claus, SCF would not be able to deliver toys and hampers without the help of elves! Hundreds of volunteer bikers, and non-bikers alike, pulled together for this incredible event! If you weren’t on a bike, you were helping with food, registering volunteers, gathering toys, or selling raffle tickets! Events like this make me proud to be a part of an amazing and generous community.

Executive Director, Celina Symmonds, was touched by the community’s commitment to their families. As I stood and watched this event unfold, she handed out hug after hug to donors and volunteers – everyone’s heart grew a little bit bigger this weekend!

Even though the Toy Ride is over, there are still plenty of other opportunities to help out in the Medicine Hat community:

• Corona Auction
• Mountain of Wishes
• Countless business events through the city

SCF is always looking for gift wrappers, office volunteers, or to be Santa Claus himself and deliver toys to families. Please call 403-528-9900 to find out how you can help.

A special thanks needs to go out to the Biker Enthusiasts, SCF Board of Directors, students at Crescent Heights High School, and the many volunteers who helped this year!

Thanks for reading,

Amanda Leipert

Knowledge Exchange Coordinator (South Region)

St. Albert Appreciates Volunteers

National Volunteer Week was a huge success! There were many great volunteer appreciation events across the province and staff represented Volunteer Alberta at a number of events, including the Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon hosted by the St. Albert Community Information and Volunteer Centre (CIVC).

When Ellie (VA Program Coordinator) and I arrived at the St. Albert Alliance Church Hall, it immediately became clear this was going to be an outstanding event. There was a constant stream of vehicles pouring into this large parking lot. The venue was adorned with white and orange balloons and streamers; it took on the feel of a gala rather than a modest luncheon. The hall was filled with over 300 volunteers, public officials, small business owners and honored guests – the atmosphere was one of tremendous warmth.

Emcee Glennis Kennedy, from the St. Albert CIVC, welcomed everyone and introduced special guests St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse and Member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert Brent Rathgeber, who both expressed their heartfelt thanks to the volunteers of St. Albert. Last year’s Volunteer Citizen of the Year, Anna Rodger, was then invited on stage to say grace. After Anna’s beautiful words, everyone filed into the buffet lines.

Waiting in line for lunch, it was fascinating to see all these outstanding members of the community treat each other with such admiration. These volunteers, who are used to serving others, now found themselves being catered to for their invaluable contribution to their community, and yet their incredible spirit of giving still shone through. As Ellie and I waited in the salad line we remarked at the diversity of the group, and how these volunteers made up what seemed to be a perfect cross section of the community. It was uplifting, seeing teenagers sharing a laugh with seniors, and individuals of every walk of life together celebrating the vital role of volunteerism.

After lunch, Glennis drew door prizes contributed by local businesses.  When all the prizes were gone, we were all treated to a performance by the musical comedy group, Il Duo. They put on a great show and there couldn’t have been a more perfect way of putting smiles on the faces of the volunteers of St. Albert. Their performances had people doubled over in their seats laughing. At the end of the event we were all encouraged to take individual cakes baked in mason jars with tangerine icing… by a volunteer, of course. They had thought of every detail – the event was organized largely by volunteers, after all.

Mayor Crouse said something during his remarks that stuck with me; he pointed out that without the efforts of volunteers there would be no extracurricular school activities, no amateur sport, no music festivals, or religious institutions. These are the things that make a community a community. The Mayor captured the true essence of volunteerism, and this event captured the true essence of community.

A big thank you to the St. Albert CIVC for their incredible hospitality. Congratulations on a successful event and Volunteer Alberta looks forward to attending next year!

Tim Henderson
Office & Communications Coordinator

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