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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



Volunteer Engagement: It’s Not Just a Walk in the Park

Rocky w Volunteer at PitPThis past Sunday, I had the pleasure of taking my four-legged family member, Rocky, to the Edmonton Humane Society’s annual Pets in the Park event at Hawrelak Park. Rocky got to enjoy some doggy carnival games as well as copious amounts of attention from both humans and other dogs. Meanwhile, I had the opportunity to brush up on my pet-care best practices, pick up some pet insurance information and scout out some cute toys to spoil him with later, all while taking in performances by The Alberta Redneck Furry Fliers Disc Dogs. I also found some time to chat with some of the hard-working volunteers who chose to donate their weekend to Edmonton Humane Society, and they all have one thing in common: they love those dogs.

Recruiting engaged volunteers is one of the most challenging tasks organizations face, with over 26% of Volunteer Alberta Members naming a lack of volunteers as one of the biggest challenges they encounter. On Sunday I picked up some pointers that can assist you in recruiting and retaining the volunteers who will make the biggest impact on your organization.

Encourage your already engaged volunteers to share why they think you’re great.

Word of mouth is the most effective form of promotion, and who is better equipped to tell your story than the people who are dedicated to your cause and devoting their free time to your organization? Your volunteers are the best ambassadors your organization has. You can encourage them to share their experiences through social media, through sites such as volunteerville.ca, or even by quoting them on your own website. Volunteers are a simple, free, and effective avenue to get the word out on the work you’re doing, while encouraging likeminded people to get involved with your cause.

Reach out. Connect with your community.

If you don’t have adorable puppy faces for volunteers to rally around, don’t fret – you can still reach out to your community in a variety of ways. One organization that connects with their audience in imaginative ways is The Foothills Country Hospice Society in Okotoks. Instead of trying to pull volunteers in, they are pushing their own name out into their community. From restaurant fundraisers to law office hot dog sales, Foothills County Hospice is engaging the people and organizations of Okotoks in every way they can. This includes their major annual fundraiser each fall (this year’s theme is The Great Gatsby!), where instead of trying to find volunteers one person at a time, they approach the town’s organizations for assistance.

Businesses are often looking to give back to their communities and many have volunteer programs in place to help them do just that. The number of businesses partnering with or sponsoring Edmonton Humane Society’s Pets in the Park is staggering, and the event couldn’t be held without them. Not only does connecting with a business this way give you access to talented bodies to assist with your program or event, but the company also gains recognition within the community for its contribution, and your organization fosters awareness amongst businesses and consumers who may not be familiar with you.

Take Time to Find the Right Roles for the Right People

When engaging volunteers, it is important that no relevant skills are wasted. Taking the time to uncover the talents of the people involved with your organization may not be your highest priority, but by nurturing the talents of your volunteers, they feel more fulfilled by the work they do for you and it increases your organization’s efficiency. It can also be beneficial to have a variety of volunteer opportunities available, so people with a variety of skill-sets have an opportunity to get involved with your organization. When acting as a manager of volunteers, it is important to make sure that both the needs of the organization and the needs of the volunteers are being met.

From 200 pound Saint Bernards to 5 pound Chihuahuas (and even a couple of ferrets and a pot-bellied pig), all pets were encouraged to come down and enjoy the sun on Sunday. It was obvious by the volunteer’s faces that they loved every minute of the animal-filled day, maybe even more than their furry guests. The Edmonton Humane Society did a wonderful job finding the right people to donate their time to this event to make it as spectacular as possible, and those volunteers made sure I came away from the day with more than just pet insurance brochures.

Check out the Learning Resource Guides in Volunteer Alberta’s Resource Centre (VARC) for more ideas and information on volunteer recruitment, retention, and recognition; and please leave your own volunteer engagement tips in the comment section!

Are Today’s Youth Unengaged? Not according to SCiP

scipmixersamA few weeks ago, Sam (our resident Serving Communities Internship Program expert) and I got the chance to participate in the SCiP mixer at the University of Alberta, organized by CaPS (Career and Placement Services). Designed as a speed-networking event, the event matched four representatives from nonprofit organizations with 16 prospective interns for what turned out to be a dynamic and fruitful evening.

The evening’s guest speaker was Omar Yaqub, who was also manning a table that night in his capacity as Chair for IFSSA (Islamic Family Social Services Association). His presentation highlighted his varied experience in social innovation in the nonprofit sector and encouraged students to utilize their skills to create their own opportunities.


Also in attendance was Maggie Baird from NextFest, a great festival that offers a lot of opportunities for emerging artists. Sam and I headed up the last two tables. Sam discussing the internships available here at Volunteer Alberta and me answering student questions about the Serving Communities Internship Program. Groups of four students were seated at each table for a period of 20 minutes, after which they moved on to the next table.

As recent graduates ourselves, Sam and I often hear about a lack of youth engagement, in the nonprofit sector and otherwise. We were happy, and not at all surprised, to be met with students who were exceedingly eager to diversify their experience and learn more about the sector. What struck me most was their clear understanding of the required skills, such as flexibility, cooperation, resourcefulness, and their motivation to grow in these aspects. The $1000 bursary awarded to interns is a great incentive, but it was plain to see that these students sought benefit beyond the monetary. Furthermore, they really wanted to do the work.

The SCiP mixer was really SCiP at its best – bright, driven students and accomplished organizations working together for mutual benefit. Thanks to CaPS for hosting a great event – Sam and I are more convinced than ever that the future of SCiP is bright!

Visit the SCiP website for more information, or email Tim with any questions.

Rachel Pereira, Program Administrative Assistant

How to Use Volunterville

1.       Volunteer!

There are many ways to do this and there are many ways to find a place to volunteer in your community. Here are a few options:

Visit Govolunteer.ca

Visit Getinvolved.ca

Contact your local Volunteer Centre

Or directly contact an organization that has a mission you connect with. There are different ways to volunteer, like being a Big Sister, serving on a board, or helping rescue animals find their forever home.

2.       Capture and Tell!

While you’re volunteering, take a picture! It can be of yourself volunteering or of the people you’re helping. Or take a picture of the great ways your organization is recognizing your hard work: thank them for providing that piping hot Timmy’s coffee and donuts.

If you don’t want to take a picture, you can compose a tweet. Use those 140 characters wisely, though, they go quickly.

Not a fan of social media? Write your story down. That’s part of Volunteerville too! Next up…

3.       Share!

Throw your picture up on Instagram, use the hashtag #volunteerville and voila: your photo will now appear on Volunteerville.ca! Tweets with the hashtag #volunteerville will also show up on our website.

If you don’t like Twitter or Instagram and aren’t sure what a hashtag is, you can visit Volunteerville.ca and upload your photo and your story. Or just your photo…or just your story! It’s up to you how you want to share your experience.

Sharing your story builds your community.  We create our story by doing the things we love and spending time with friends and family, and that includes volunteering.

4.       Inspire!

When your picture, tweet or story shows up on Volunteerville.ca, you’ll be inspiring people across Alberta to get involved too.  For many of us, volunteering is a part of our lives that we often forget to talk about and celebrate. Volunteerville is your chance to share your volunteer experiences with the world.

What happens after Step 4? You can do it all over again! You can participate in Volunteerville as frequently as you like. We’ll be throwing in some fun giveaways and contests throughout the year to thank you for being a citizen of Volunteerville. Browse volunteerville.ca right now, and start liking photos, or even share them on your own social media.

Let’s make volunteering go viral!

Make sure to follow @volunteerville on Twitter and Instagram! For more information about Volunteerville, email Lisa at lmichetti@volunteeralberta.ab.ca.

Lisa Michetti, Member Engagement Manager

The Gathering’s the Thing

potluckI am certain that, had we all been listening carefully, we would have heard a collective sigh across the country on Monday morning. With the dawning of a new day came a dispiriting realization – the Olympic Games have come and gone. Gone are the action-packed lunch breaks, the eager checking of stats, the surprisingly lively discussions over ice dancing. For those of us not competing in the Games, the gathering’s the thing – the viewing experience is rendered more meaningful by being with others.

The good news is that while we may have to save our more spirited celebrations for the summer of 2016, we can gather as a community any time of year. Being new to Volunteer Alberta, I have quickly come to admire the importance of the lunch hour; sitting down to eat together truly enhances the communal atmosphere of the office. As I work with newcomers learning ESL (English as Second Language) in my spare time, I am always thinking of how to foster community engagement.

The ESL classroom is a simultaneously safe and vulnerable space. It is undoubtedly beneficial for the students to come together, but many are stepping far outside their comfort zones by participating. To speak English brings them one step closer to belonging and being an active member of the community. For many nonprofits serving newcomers, celebratory occasions and milestones are often marked by a potluck, allowing clients, volunteers and staff alike to share food from their respective cultures.

Potlucks have always been an excellent way of bringing people together, but some organizations are really upping the ante and highlighting the importance of gathering in unfamiliar spaces. The Green Room (an IFSSA initiative) offers family-friendly activities encouraging people to embrace winter, such as snowshoeing, nature walks and stargazing; the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers has organized an inclusive choir singing in multiple languages; and Catholic Social Services is even hosting a weekend camping trip for its clients.

Those of us missing that Olympic high this week need look no further than our fellow nonprofit organizations to get inspired, as gatherings inside and outside the workplace are great ways to keep our spirit alive.

Rachel Pereira, Program Administrative Assistant

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