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Volunteer Recognition: Good & Cheap

Volunteer-HandshakeIn order for volunteer-run nonprofit organizations to be sustainable they often need to retain volunteers. The most important retention strategy (aside from safe working conditions) is volunteer recognition. Over the past few years the sector has begun to really stress the importance of volunteer recognition; not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because organizations likely stand to benefit from making their volunteers feel appreciated.

Last week, Volunteer Canada released their Volunteer Recognition Tool.  It is a 9-question survey for volunteers to identify how they prefer to be recognized. Volunteer managers can use this information to recognize their hard working volunteers in ways meaningful to those volunteers. Survey data published in Volunteer Canada’s 2013 Volunteer Recognition Study indicates an overwhelming 80% of volunteers simply want to know how their efforts have made a difference.

Here are a few observations we had about this statistic:

  • It is incredibly obvious. Research by Imagine Canada indicates that 95% of people chose “believe in the cause” as a primary motivation for volunteering. Of course, they want to see how their efforts made a difference – That’s why they volunteered in the first place!
  • This is good news. It’s good news because of all the ways to recognize volunteers this is among the least costly. For nonprofit organizations that often face funding challenges, it means they can adequately recognize volunteers without breaking the bank.

The Volunteer Recognition Study results are encouraging because it means volunteers generally prefer volunteer recognition methods that happen to be cheaper than others. Alberta’s nonprofits might not all have big budgets, but it’s safe to say they have lots of heart. A sincere heartfelt ‘thank-you’, whether in the form of a cup of coffee, phone call, letter, post-it note, or Volunteerville post, might be just what they are looking for.

Please keep in mind that volunteer appreciation events do have value and some people enjoy being recognized publicly. But, the survey results show that volunteers don’t necessarily volunteer their time expecting a public thank you along with a free burger. National Volunteer Week is an important opportunity for our sector to recognize volunteers. NVW Enhancement Funding, which is available to Volunteer Alberta members, can go a long way in helping communities rally around their volunteers without stretching their budgets. But volunteer recognition is a year-round activity and different approaches, whether formal or informal, are valuable. The important thing is that recognition efforts are personal and help connect the volunteer with the value of their role.

How do your volunteers prefer to be recognized? Have them use the Volunteer Recognition Tool and find out!


Tim Henderson, Program and Communications Coordinator

Books on books

Nonprofit storytelling tips

engage-storyWe all have stories to tell. You may think that telling your story doesn’t matter, but in the nonprofit/voluntary sector, telling your story is one of the most important things you do. Stories are used to teach us about our communities. Stories inspire us to act.

But very often it’s not that easy. How do you tell the story? Where do you start?

All great stories seem to have a formula that they follow, a recipe for success. Although there are no hard and fast rules to create a great story, there are elements that are apparent in all stories. Identified below are some of the more important elements. Simply put, Completing storytelling five tips to get you started:

  1. Identify a hero – The hero might be someone in your organization, it might be the work that your organization does or it is the people who you serve in the work that you do.
  2. Identify an end goal – The end goal is usually the answer to a problem your organization works to solve. Your organizational purpose should be the common theme running throughout your story and your day to day work.
  3. Conflict – Conflict is the challenge that your organization must overcome to solve the problem. Human capacity issues, lack of resources, and tight timelines that your organization needs to deal with are all examples of conflict.
  4. Have a mentor – The mentor in your story will be someone who inspires, motivates and encourages the work that your hero does. Or, maybe your organization is the mentor who can help the hero achieve their mission.
  5. End with the moral or call to action –What did the story teach you or others? What can the readers do to continue the work of the hero?

When creating your organization’s story, remember to be authentic. Make your story personal. Get people to connect to your organization by connecting to them. Finally, use stories that have an emotional impact. Find a way to pull at the heartstrings of your audience. Every story should have one compelling character that the audience can feel emotionally invested in, within nonprofit organizations these characters are often the reason for our work.

For a more detailed guide, check out the Storytelling Guide.

Storytelling can draw in funders, engage volunteers, drive up sponsorship or get your organization into the public consciousness. Go out and tell your stories because it does matter. If you don’t, others might do it for you and they may not get your story right.

An excellent example of an organization effectively communicating their story is Charity:Water. They do a great job creating stories and videos from their many heroes from around the world!

Do you have a great story to tell? Let us know!


Jennifer Esler, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Guest Blog: Volunteers as Staff: Where Labels and Titles Collide

volunteer staffIn 2010 alone, 47% of Canadians volunteered 2 billion hours, the equivalent of 1.1 million full-time work positions. Volunteers, who freely offer their services, have become an essential component of our communities and the modern workforce. In the nonprofit sector, we know all too well the benefit volunteers bring to our organizations. For many of us, they are indeed a necessity. But having volunteers work for our organizations can and does expose us to potential risks.

With the important part volunteers play, should we as agencies recruit, screen, and manage them, as we would staff? Or do they require something different?

This may sound like a daunting question. How would we even begin to tackle this? My initial strategy was to ask as many people as possible, so I asked volunteers, managers, and those in-between, this very question. I found there were just as many points of view as there were individuals who held them:

• Some agencies I spoke with (such as Distress Centre Calgary) identified having worked towards an integrated Human Resources model. Their rational was that many volunteers provide a front line service and need similar training, time, support, and supervision as employees. “Volunteers do not get the financial benefits. However, the volunteer is here to do a job, shows up, and does it to the best of their ability. Volunteers represent the agency just as much as staff, and expectations around service seem the same for both volunteers and staff”.

• A few volunteers stated they enjoy being on an equal footing with staff. This made them feel respected and important; a peer in the organization. Others felt a sense of safety being separate from paid workers, feeling almost exempt from punishment over mistakes or errors in procedure. “I feel volunteers are lower in the hierarchy overall, and that there’s less responsibility on the volunteer when being directed in my role.”

• A surprising number of respondents worried of a volunteer/staff “synergy.” When asked to clarify, these individuals said the treatment of some nonprofit staff leaves something to be desired and worry about comparisons being made between the kinds of support given to volunteers and to staff. “Essentially, volunteers are held in a place of esteem while staff is often not. All too often staff does not get the same support to the same degree.”

• Others found an already organic union blurring of the lines between staff and volunteers. “I volunteered for a program essentially run by volunteers. With some volunteer roles, you are doing the same tasks as a staff anyways.”

With such a wide range of experiences and opinions, what’s a nonprofit to do? Do we work actively towards formalizing the volunteer position? Do we establish rigid screening and feedback processes? Or do we play it by ear depending on the volunteer role and/or specific individual? Much to my chagrin, it looks like there is no definitive answer.

However, there are a plethora of references and materials out there for agencies wanting to take a stab at formalizing the volunteer role. They make a strong case that it’s in our best interest, as nonprofit organizations, to put volunteers and staff on a similar plane. Authors such as Judith Wilson, Michelle Gislason, and Linda Graff highlight that as the risk for the agency or the volunteer increases, so does the need for formalized processes. Conveniently, you can find these and many other resources on the Volunteer Alberta Resource Centre, or why not ask other nonprofits (such as Distress Centre Calgary) what is working for them.

Chloé McBean, Contact Centre Volunteer Team Lead
Distress Centre Calgary



Please Sir, May I Have Some Statistics?

statisticsI subscribe to The Daily from Statistics Canada and I think you should too! For those wondering what I am talking about, everyday, StatsCan releases a list of up-to-date statistics and data related to a wide range of sectors, as well as economic and social indicators that reflect and affect our lives.  As an employee in the nonprofit/voluntary sector (NPVS) within a capacity/backbone organization, I am most interested in information related to this sector. What I find is that the existing statistics on the NPVS are not widely available and the nonprofit sector is often a lens that is not used when reporting statistics.

Why do I care? Simply put, it is about context and opportunity. I am often asked fairly basic contextual questions that can be more difficult to answer than they should be. Questions like: how many Alberta nonprofits are there? What is the economic impact of the sector in Alberta? How many employees? What are the rates of volunteerism? This information is often inadequately collected, what is available is often outdated, not well reported and not regionally specific (Alberta vs Canada). Without consistent and reliable contextual information, the NPVS finds itself saying different things (is it 19,000 nonprofits or 23,000?) and struggling with the perennial issue of demonstrating the scope and size of the sector. Additionally, it is not just about trends and size of the sector, but about having accessible statistics to help identify opportunities and challenges. Statistics are what other sectors use to spot future challenges and proactively shift to mitigate or capitalize on them. By paying attention to shifts in labour market attitudes, economic indicators, increases or decreases in certain social indicators, among other information, the NPVS will be better positioned to be an integrated partner in designing our future communities and economies.

The solutions as I see them are at least two-fold. First, better data collection on a reasonably frequent basis is required. For example, in a world where data is collected constantly, it is surprising to me that basic information on the economic impact of the sector is not easy to find. I recognize this is easier said than done; however, if the system to collect this type of data is not in place – let’s work together to develop it. The second solution is openness. I know a number of institutions collect information on the NPVS. Governments collect nonprofit and charity registration information, academia is always conducting research and studies, and banks and other large private sector organizations collect information on NPVS as well. The thing about all the information collected is that it is our information; it is about us as a sector: who we are, what we do, and how we do it. But it seems like the nonprofit/voluntary sector is the last to find out what others know. A greater commitment by these large organizations to making the information they collect available and open for the NPVS to look at and analyze would go a long way in addressing the information deficit.

In recognizing the data challenges the NPVS faces, some sector organizations have taken it upon themselves to fill the void. There is great research and information available through CCVO, Imagine Canada, Volunteer Canada and our own CSGVP analysis, please use it. Also, I would encourage all of us to assist in the efforts of these organizations and commit to participating in surveys and interviews when asked so as to help paint the picture of our sector. In our current rush to demonstrate impact, let’s not forget that numbers combined with stories have the most influence. Let’s make sure we use statistics that are available and consistently advocate for more information to be collected and shared with us.

Annand Ollivierre, Program Manager

Is Your Organization Doing Enough Research and Evaluation?

evaluationIn September 2012, I decided to go back to school part-time and do the Public Relations Program at Macewan University. I will complete my program later this year and I can’t speak highly enough about the program, the instructors and the content. It was also an opportunity for me to explore the for-profit world from an interesting standpoint: my entire post post-secondary work experience has been in the nonprofit sector. I started my professional career here at VA and going back to school (in this particular program) has taught me that while there are many similarities between the sectors, the nonprofit sector can be very different.

The courses in my program have been quite varied but several concepts and principles run throughout the program. One in particular that hit close to home was the RACE formula: research, analyze, communicate, evaluate. After learning how crucial the research phase is to a communications plan, I realized how often we aren’t able to do that in the nonprofit sector. As we carefully craft funding proposals and consider the logistics of program operations, we don’t always have the time to research to validate that this new program/initiative/project is required in the sector or in our community. We hope for the best and if that project doesn’t quite meet targets, we wonder why. Was it something we did? Did we miss something? Did the logo or font not appeal to people?

It’s not for lack of trying. When a funding approval letter comes in the mail months after the project’s projected start date it creates a sense of urgency.  Sometimes there simply isn’t time to research, because from day one it’s already behind and the tendency is to head right to program planning.

Evaluation is also an aspect that can also be inadvertently neglected. We complete the funding report templates, but will we relate those results back to our strategic plan or our mission and values? Once we give the funder the information they require, how can we turn it into something tangible to demonstrate impact and perhaps produce better results next year?

Research should be built into project timelines and budget, with ample time for focus groups, surveying or literature review. Evaluation needs to be an accurate reflection of the success of the project for an organization, not just the return on investment for funders.

We might even find that thorough evaluation will recommend research.

Check out these resources on research & evaluation:

VARC Learning Resource Guides on Program Evaluation
Pillar Nonprofit Network – Sector Research
Or, search VARC for research and evaluation resources

Lisa Michetti, Member Engagement Manager

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