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New Thinking Tackles Old Problems

New thinkingOver the past few months, the board and staff of Volunteer Alberta have been working on a new strategic plan. This process has been both challenging and rewarding, as we have embraced the opportunity to redefine our goals and strategies for the coming years. For me, being new to strategic planning, the most interesting part of the whole process was how we started. To lay a strong foundation for the next months, we had Unstoppable Conversations work with us to get to the root of how we think and how we could think better.

Often when organizations identify problems that are holding them back, they come up with a list including resources, funding, technology, and people. For example, “there isn’t enough funding”, or “funding is too competitive”. These obstacles could actually be symptoms or results. Trying to change them without going further back to the activities that led to those results, and to the thinking that led to those activities, means nothing is going to change.

Sometimes, instead of trying to change our thinking (the root of everything we do) organizations work backwards – we let our results inform our activities rather than the other way around. For example, an organization might apply for any grant, even for projects only vaguely related to their mission, in order to solve the problem of a lack of funding. The new result? They are still lack the funding to meet their objectives, and they are spending a lot of staff time chasing money to do these additional projects, further depleting their human resources. Meanwhile, they have never stopped to ask what beliefs or thinking led them to pursue these activities in the first place.

thinking activities results

Kevin Gangel and Vik Maraj of Unstoppable Conversations teach organizations to look for their hidden constraints in their thinking so that they can begin to change their results and better achieve their outcomes. Some examples of the type of thinking that might lead an organization to use a lot of staff hours applying for every small funding source include:

  • “We don’t think funders value what we really do “
  • “We have always done it this way”
  • “There isn’t enough money to go around to the whole sector, so we need to compete for it”

That is some pretty bleak thinking. But we can change it. Some examples of new thinking that could replace these negative beliefs include:

  • “We have valuable impact and we can communicate that value to our donors, funders, and new potential supporters”
  • “We believe in working together with other organizations to meet our shared goals”

With new thinking like this, activities and results can start to change. Suddenly an organization isn’t asking for every grant they hear about it; instead, they are shopping around in new places for funders that share their vision and who are a good fit for their core programs. They now have staff time to do it, because they aren’t using all of their human capacity on additional grant applications or side projects!

Or maybe the organization tackles their issue of competing for funding by applying for collaborative funding with another organization, or only applying for funding after ensuring they aren’t duplicating existing services.

What other thinking could we change? What else is holding organizations back? Take a look at your thinking, rather than your results, and you might just find a new and better way to achieve your goals!

Sam Kriviak, Project Coordinator

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Courtesy of Orange County Register

Courtesy of Orange County Register

In early August, the Edmonton Humane Society (EHS) had to temporarily close its doors to owner-surrendered animals. For the first time in their 106 year history, they had too many animals to realistically care for. Within hours of the announcement, the EHS website was forced to temporarily shut down due to a huge amount of activity, and in the three days that followed their announcement, the public responded with 167 adoptions, a new record for EHS.

EHS knew when to ask for help; they knew that if animals continued to come through their doors that they may not receive the best care possible. They put the word out that they needed help and Edmontonians responded.

Many nonprofit organizations exist to help, whether it’s helping people, animals or the environment. The very nature of this sector is to provide assistance that is lacking; so why are many nonprofit organizations afraid to ask for help? How often do we sell ourselves short when we talk about what we do, whether its to clients or to potential funders?

Amanda Palmer has a great TED talk called the Art of Asking and the shame that can be associated with it (she’s rocking some wild eyebrows so be prepared). Palmer also discusses the power of crowdsourcing and social media, which EHS did wonderfully with their recent crisis. When their website had to be shut down due to overactivity, their Facebook and Twitter became their main communication tools. They had to act very quickly to get information up on these outlets, which they did, and that allowed them to solve their overcrowding problem within just a few days.

Lisa Michetti, Member Engagement Manager

Guest Blog: Prevent Long Term Disability by Managing Casual Absences

desk_benefitsRight now, there are employees at workplaces across Canada who may be at risk of absence and disability, some of them in your own place of employment. They may be dealing with physical or mental health issues, personal concerns or unresolved issues with a work colleague or supervisor. It is estimated that mental health problems alone cost employers about $20 billion a year, according to Statistics Canada. Add to this the fact that the average employee reported the equivalent of 9.3 days in work time lost for personal reasons in 2011, and the picture of lost productivity becomes very relevant for employers.

What can you as an employer do to address these issues before they escalate to a long-term disability claim?

Assess your organization
As an employer, you first need to look at your organization and assess the following.

Baseline- Do you have measures in place to track absenteeism, disabilities or health risks? The 2012 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey showed that only 38% of employers formally track absenteeism. It is difficult to address a problem if you don’t know the extent of the problem, so getting a good read on the current state of your organization is important.

Current policies and practices – Do you have an absence policy? Is there a disability plan for short and long-term disabilities? Does your sick leave policy mesh with your disability plan?

Health or organization assessment – You might decide that simply assessing your current policies and practices reveals opportunities for improvement, which allow you to take action.

Create a plan and strategy
Once you’ve assessed your situation, you need to form strategies and plan.  It is hard to address everything at once so prioritize. Assess whether you need to do the following:

  • develop policies and practices that address current gaps related to managing absence and disability; or
  • develop a workplace wellness strategy (i.e., what are the areas of focus that can best help your staff? do you have someone who can be responsible for managing the wellness programs? If not, where can you tap into resources?).

Develop improved practices
Early identification of issues and appropriate early intervention can help avoid short and long-term disabilities. On the other hand, sometimes simply treating an absence problem as a performance issue can do more harm than good, and can even lead to a disability. A manager must be able to look beyond the absenteeism and consider the reason for the absences, and do this in a way that respects the employee’s privacy. In this respect, management training is essential to help managers guide the discussion.

Communication is important, so you need to let employees know that the resources and services available can make a difference. In addition, providing information on medical conditions, prescription drugs, treatment options and health news can enable employees to help themselves.

Measure success
How you manage absences can say a lot about your organization and send a clear message to employees about their value. By applying various best practices and understanding what is going on in your workplace, you can support your managers and employees with great result. Consider some of these potential benefits:

  • a decrease in employee absence and disability incidence rates;
  • the ability to retain and engage valued employees and improved employee morale;
  • improved levels of overall organizational health and wellness;
  • improved service to customers; and
  • reduced costs, increased productivity and a healthier bottom line.

OASSIS partners with Volunteer Alberta to access respected and reliable carriers of benefit products. Organizations in Alberta that wish to access OASSIS Employee Benefits must be current members of Volunteer Alberta.

To get a quote today, contact Jennifer Truman at 1-888-233-5580 Ext. 7.


Karen Bentham

Executive Director of OASSIS


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

Successful Online Communications Means Thinking Like a Person, Not a Business

online communicationA successful nonprofit organization in today’s competitive economy must conduct itself in a very businesslike manner if it is to meet its mission, balance their budget, and stay solvent. However, Amy Sample Ward co-author of Social Change Anytime Everywhere, suggests that in order to succeed in the increasingly high tech nonprofit/voluntary sector, organizations need to adopt an online multi-channel strategy (i.e. email, website and social media) for their advocacy, fundraising, and community building.

In a blog post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website, Sample Ward suggests that in order to effectively use this multi-channel strategy, organizations must act like people rather than businesses. This involves an understanding that those you are attempting to engage online via social media, email or your website are making decisions quickly. People are interacting with your nonprofit in small intervals, seconds not minutes, so that needs to be taken into account when devising your online multi-channel strategy.

People are busy and they move quickly when consuming information online. You don’t have much time to make an impression or sell your vision to those you are attempting to engage. This means your message, image, infographic, video, survey, newsletter, website or email needs to be appealing and easily digestible to those you are attempting to reach.

For instance, Person-X (let’s call her Mary) checks her Facebook and sees that her friend has posted a link for a summer camp. Mary has been looking for a summer camp for her 10 year-old son, she clicks on the link and expects to be led to a website that will tell her where it is, what kind of activities are included and how much the camp costs. If the summer camp communications team were thinking like a business it might have the “where”, the “what” and the “how much” divided onto different pages, with not much on the main page. But Mary wants all of that key information immediately. If the summer camp is thinking like a business, it may want Mary to click on each page of their website. But, the summer camp is more likely to win Mary over if they think like a person and satisfy her curiosity before she moves on to the next thing. If it takes too much time to process the information or message people will move on to something else.  In this scenario, organizations need to think like a person not like a business.

Social Change Anytime Everywhere by Allyson Kapin and Amy Sample Ward is available through the Volunteer Alberta Resource Centre (VARC).

Tim Henderson, Office and Communications 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

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