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Working together to co-create a better future

tm-tm  photo on flickrThis September, Volunteer Alberta is hosting interCHANGE, a multi-sector event bringing together leaders from all sectors – government, business, nonprofit, and community – to collectively make a positive impact in Alberta communities.

We know collaborating is difficult. We know working together poses challenges. We also know that our communities are complex, and that we are all invested in their health and vitality. We originally published the following blog July 23, 2014 on the scope of what collaboration can achieve – and why it is so important that the nonprofit sector leads the way:

There has been a recent development in the world of electric cars that’s got me thinking about strengths and opportunities in the nonprofit/voluntary sector (NPVS). On June 12, 2014 Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced that the company “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”[i] Essentially Tesla released their patents for others to use, for me the questions are why and what is the broader lesson for us in the NPVS? One of the reasons cited as to why Musk chose to do this is that, due to the increased pace of technological innovation, there is a new challenge for innovators where the highest hurdle innovative organizations often face is no longer the theft of their ideas, but rather the development of new markets for those ideas to flourish[ii]. Tesla seems to be indicating that in order to move to electric car based transportation, we need to create the infrastructure and technology to support that market. In other words, Musk is basically saying is “the old system isn’t working, creating a new way of life is a big challenge, too big for one company/person to solve so let’s work together to co-create a better future.”  For me it is from this mindset that I see the connection to the NPVS and why I believe the sector is increasingly well positioned to be a strong voice and essential contributor in the emerging economy.

It seems to me that the NPVS is increasingly stating that the “challenge is bigger than me” (whatever that “challenge” may be) and is continually moving to a place where co-owning and sharing the burden of the challenge is the norm. There is the growing realisation that the challenges our communities face and the resources to sustain the fundamental structures of a resilient society are bigger than one organization, one program, one person, one sector. In fact with the NPVS, everywhere I turn collaboration is the word/approach mentioned as the way forward. We are all increasing familiar and participate in collective impact initiatives, social labs, cross-sector collaborations and partnerships, to mention a few. Although the constant barrage of these collaborative opportunities could make us weary and/or sceptical, there is growing evidence demonstrating that the NPVS is achieving measurable impact through collaboration.[iii] It is this collaborative mindset, the sharing of ideas/approaches, the scaling out and up of social innovation, which is the emerging economic model in the 21st century.  The sharing/collaborative economy is growing and turning the “traditional” economic and social systems on their heads in small but increasing pockets of our society.[iv]

I see Tesla and Elon Musk’s releasing of patents as a further indication that the collaborative/sharing economy has significant momentum. Now is the time for the sharing of ideas across and within sectors and the co-ownership and co-creation of innovative solutions (social and technological) for addressing large systemic challenges. The NPVS is an early adopter of this emerging model as we have an intrinsic understanding that the most effective approaches need to be shared, reused, and improved to have the most transformative impact. Let’s continue to share with each other and further overcome our need to act in a proprietary manner especially when we know that challenges we are trying to solve require constant innovation and the efforts of many.

[i] http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you (July 23, 2014)
[ii] http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/07/17/rethinking-patent-enforcement-tesla-did-what/ (July 23, 2014)
[iii] http://www.fsg.org/KnowledgeExchange/FSGApproach/CollectiveImpact.aspx (July 23, 2014)
[iv] http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/category/collaborative-economy/ (July 23, 2014)

Annand Ollivierre
Volunteer Alberta

Stand out

Six Insights for Systems Leadership

In the Winter 2015 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania co-authored an incredibly valuable article: “The Dawn of System Leadership”. Leading up to Volunteer Alberta’s collective impact event, interCHANGE 2015, I have been reflecting on this article and, more generally, the world of systems thinking and leadership.

The article offers three key points regarding systems leadership:

1. System leaders are not singular heroic figures but those who facilitate the conditions within which others can make progress toward social change.

2. Any individual in any organization, across sectors and formal levels of authority, can be a system leader.

3. The core capabilities necessary for system leadership are the ability to see the larger system, fostering reflection and more generative conversations, and shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.


As a follow up this article, WGBH, FSG , and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley convened and recorded their event, Catalyzing Collective Leadership, which further expanded on the concepts introduced through the original SSRI article. In addition to the three key points offered in “The Dawn of Systems Leadership,” here are my three highlights from that recording:

  1. A system leader is not full of answers. They have a clear understanding that nothing will change if others are not able to contribute. Systems leaders are skilled at asking questions that surface the ingenuity and know-how of others.
  2. Change is accomplished through teams. Systems leaders foster compelling team cultures that inspire others but aren’t solely dependent on one leader. The culture ripples through the team and is perpetuated by each team member.
  3. Letting go is a pathway to success. Systems leaders bring what is most important to them to the table and are completely willing to have others take it on. This often looks like letting go of control and ownership over decisions and solutions. Sacrifice is not a loss but rather a gift given for the sake of the larger cause.

flockAs Peter Senge puts it: “We need lots of leaders in lots of places everywhere, all kinds of people stepping forward and doing all kinds of different things. We live in an era where the effective use of hierarchical power and authority is simply inadequate for the problems we face.”

The capabilities used by systems leaders are learned and more importantly practiced, reflected on, and refined. I encourage all of us to try on the capabilities of systems leadership and explore our world through a systems lens. Through practicing the capabilities above I am sure new worlds will open, old assumptions will crumble, and access to previously unidentified levers for positive change will emerge.

Annand Ollivierre
Volunteer Alberta


Working to create vibrant communities is complex work

interchange quotePeople working across the province in government, business, nonprofit, and community all face Alberta’s 21st century reality. When looking forward to the future, we’re asking ourselves, what relationships need to exist to create the conditions to collectively make a positive impact in Alberta’s communities?

To begin to answer this question is no simple feat. It is sure to provide challenges and opportunities, and there are many landscapes to navigate. On the road to making positive impact, one potential starting point is interCHANGE, a multi-sector collaborative event we’re hosting at NAIT this fall in Edmonton.

Our work at Volunteer Alberta is complex and intersects with many players in the field of community action.  From volunteers on the frontlines of community building, to nonprofit organizations, to corporate social responsibility programs and initiatives, to the provincial government. All of these players are working, in some capacity, to enhance the quality of life for all Albertans and address the same cross-cutting issues in society – such as poverty, child welfare, seniors, the environment and recreation.

So, why not collaborate to address these complex issues together?

Collaboration is not a hard thing to do, it’s just hard to do well. For most of us, it begins with understanding who else out there has the same passion for the work that needs to be done.

Solving complex problems in community can require seemingly endless insight and energy; not unlike crossing the prairies and the mountains on foot. This complex landscape is better travelled together, and this complexity inspired us to gather other future-focused Albertans to help us all discover how, together, we can increase our impact.

TamarackLogoWe often look to our friends at Tamarack, An Institute for Community Engagement for words of wisdom and expertise about community-focused strategies and actions.  On their website, Tamarack provides some essential information about multi-sectoral collaboration. We’d like to share it with you:

6 key principles for Multi-sectoral collaboration

  1. Everyone is the solution and the problem.
  2. Together we can do more.
  3. We do not have answers – only a commitment to learn, change and grow.
  4. We take on issues that no one sector can take on alone.
  5. Together we create increased Credibility, Capacity and Capital for the work.
  6. The synergy is magic!

(see their website & video clips for more on these ideas)

Key Definitions

Community Engagement: People working collaboratively, through inspired action and learning, to create and realize bold visions for their common future.

Multi-sectoral Collaboration: A community project in which many diverse actors—“sectors”—share responsibilities, resources, and expertise. These actors may include any combination of national and local government, large and small business, non-governmental organizations and charities, and people who live in the community.

Collaborative Solutions: The purpose of Multi-sectoral Collaboration is to solve community problems; many of these problems exist because community actors aren’t sharing expertise or resources very well, which leads to overlaps in some places and gaps in others. Collaborative Solutions allow many sectors to work well together.

Partnership: Many people use partnership as a synonym for collaboration. We find that partnership more often refers to individual links between actors—many partnerships working together can produce Multi-sectoral Collaboration.

Volunteer Alberta’s vision is for a strong, engaged, and connected society serving the common good in Alberta. To celebrate our 25th year, this September we are asking others who share our vision to join us at interCHANGE and participate in rich conversations around how we can make a positive impact together.

interCHANGE is an event where we can begin to weave together the skills, resources, networks, and knowledge of the participants to achieve greater impact in communities across Alberta’s diverse landscape.

For more information or to register for interCHANGE visit www.interCHANGEalberta.ca

Katherine Topolniski and Jennifer Esler
Volunteer Alberta


Our Rebrand Journey

There are many journeys in life, but none quite like a rebrand journey.

logoOver the last four years Volunteer Alberta, our staff and board have been on the long and winding rebrand-road with our 25 year-old organization. Typically a rebrand adventure like ours can take between 3-5 years from start to finish. And there are times it will seem like you aren’t moving at all, while others times it can feel like you are on a runaway train.

For us, our rebrand is more than changing our visual identity. It’s about changing the way we work, the way we talk about ourselves, and the way others interact with us. The organizations and people we serve are important to us. To get to where we are today we included the people we work with because we know we’re all in this together; serving the common good in Alberta and working toward connected, engaged and vibrant communities.

First, let’s take a step backward to 2010, when board and staff created new mission and vision statements, and the idea of a rebrand was first introduced. We understood that VA had grown to be more than our original purpose and, to stay relevant, we needed to adapt and change.

Not an easy place to arrive at, but a necessary one.

We listened to our stakeholders, surveyed members and engaged in lots of conversations. We conducted a communications audit of our internal and external communications to see what was working and what needed changing.

Recommendations we heard were:

  • improve our website (which we’re working on this summer)
  • refresh our visual identity (which we launched at our AGM at Vitalize in June)
  • we needed to tell our story better, to clarify our what, how and why.

In 2013 we created the opportunity to change our thinking with Unstoppable Conversations. We adopted ‘new’ thinking and the Board set new strategic directions. We started focusing on network stewardship and workforce development.

By the beginning of 2014 we implemented our rebrand strategy and really started moving! In the fall we brought in The Met Agency who guided us through visual identity and brand story processes. The pace continued to pick up. The staff did a lot of internal work, diving deep into our ‘what’, how’, and ‘why’; seeking to better understand our members, methods, and messages.

We actually started to look and feel different by the spring of 2015. We moved to our new headquarters at the Empire Building on Jasper Ave, our brand story and new visual identity came together and we began implementing a new operational approach which we hope will really transform the way we serve Alberta.

Our journey certainly took us down a winding road, which is why we are so excited to reveal our new visual identity! This is Volunteer Alberta, refreshed!


Our vision for a strong, engaged and connected society serving the common good in Alberta is being reflected like never before, and we couldn’t be more delighted. We invite you to share your opinions and let us know what you think in this short survey.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog featuring our Brand Story.

Katherine Topolniski and Jennifer Esler
Volunteer Alberta

Nonprofits + Students = Great Success!

SCIP-logo-greenThe Serving Communities Internship Program (SCiP) was launched by Volunteer Alberta in partnership with the Government of Alberta in 2011. The goal – connect Alberta’s post-secondary students and organizations to create great results for participants and communities.

The concept is simple:

  1. Nonprofit organizations register for the program at www.joinscip.ca, then post a meaningful, skill-based, part-time internship that would make a big difference for their organization, and offer a great learning opportunity for a student.
  2. Then students browse the internship listing and apply directly to the organization. When the internship is are all done, students get a $1000 bursary from the Government of Alberta!

Now nearing the end of its fourth year, SCiP has had its most successful year yet with 1000 internships filled – our maximum available for the year. That is $1 million in bursaries for interns making a vital difference for organizations in their communities:

“This is a tremendous program; we were able to accomplish things I could only dream about with the help of these SCiP students!”
– SCiP Organization

“If we tell our future leaders how to be good they may forget. If we teach them how to be better they may remember. But if we involve them then they will learn to be the best. That is the reward of a SCiP internship.”
– L’Association Multiculturelle Francophone de L’Alberta (AMFA)

Thank you Alberta nonprofits and students – you have been and will continue to be what makes SCiP a great success!

As SCiP has reached this year’s internship maximum, we cannot accept any next internships for the remainder of the program year. Don’t worry – the next program year begins soon: August 1st, 2015! If you think your organization has the perfect project for a SCiP intern, now is a great time to start registering and planning for August. Just visit www.joinscip.ca to get started.

Sam Kriviak
Volunteer Alberta

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