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VA Staff Volunteer Experiences

Throughout National Volunteer Week the VA blog will be featuring the volunteer experiences of the Volunteer Alberta staff. Volunteerism comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and so does volunteer recognition. We encourage you to share with us your experiences in volunteerism – Tell us where you have volunteered and how you were recognized!


During the 2010 Edmonton Municipal Election, I volunteered for Don Iveson’s City Council re-election campaign. Councillor Iveson put an emphasis on ensuring that the volunteer experience was not only a positive one, but also downright fun. During the final week of the campaign he held volunteer events with food provided by the Eva Sweets waffle truck in the morning and Elm Café sandwiches in the afternoon. Every volunteer was invited to the election night party, which was great, but volunteer recognition was a focus throughout the whole campaign. Volunteers were also given t-shirts emblazoned with the proposed future LRT map. Don took the time to individually thank each member of his large and enthusiastic group of volunteers; and in the end, that was the best form of recognition – a sincere ‘thank you’.


I spent a day volunteering for the cross-country phase of a June event put on by the Clearwater Valley Pony Club in Beaumont.  It was a cold and dark morning when the alarm went off; thankfully I can always hop out of bed for a horse related event.  My 5 year old daughter and I were looking forward to the day.  We showed up to a well-organized and friendly crew with free hot coffee and breakfast.  It didn’t take long for me to receive good instructions, answers to my questions and supplies (pre-packed snacks, a radio and a lawn chair).  My daughter instantly connected with the crew of kids whom she hadn’t met previously and set off aboard an ATV, smiles plastered on their faces.  After hiking out to my allotted jumps for the day, I set up camp and nestled in.  What a joy to get a front row seat to all the horse jumping action and to be involved in judging the competition. It was also a treat to learn more about running an event and to hear the discussion on the radio between the officials.  Occasionally the ATV full of children would fly by, and refill my coffee cup and ask if I needed anything.  We were very well looked after and what was a long day on the clock flew by too fast.  My daughter was given the opportunity to be a part of the group and made many new friends in the process.  I can’t wait to volunteer at the event again, it was a great group people and a wonderful experience for my daughter and I.


I was one of 1100 volunteers for this year’s Tim Hortons Brier. The sea of blue (our jackets) was apparent everywhere you looked.  50-50 volunteers were the largest division – as there were usually 50+ people per draw. Some days had 3 draws so I’m sure the logistics were crazy!

As a 50-50 volunteer, I had different shifts, either selling tickets or helping in the count room. Selling was fun – got to walk about, chat with people, provide information, and mingle with other volunteers. In the count room, we had to quickly and efficiently file all the sellers through once the draw closed so the winner could be chosen in a timely manner.  I even got to pull a couple of the winning tickets! Chatting with the other volunteers was great fun and we even discussed how volunteering might be a great way to see the event when another city hosts it.

Overall it was a great experience. It was a long time to volunteer for – I was there for seven out of the events 10 days, including one day I did a double shift. However, we worked with super staff and the volunteer coordinators were very appreciative.

We got to show how fantastic the volunteers are in Edmonton and Alberta. Can’t complain.


My fondest volunteer experience by far was a three year stint with the radio show Adamant Eve on the campus and community radio station CJSR. I started working on the show through a Community-Service Learning (CSL) placement for a university course, but I fell in love with it and asked to stay on, eventually becoming the producer of the show a year and a half later. I can’t pinpoint what made my time there so great – I have a hard time narrowing it down. I had great mentors. I had room to be creative, to grow and advance. I got to research things that interested me, interview people that inspired me, and use my writing skills to put together scripts. I had freedom and support simultaneously. I worked with friends on live show nights, and fulfilled my introverted, perfectionist tendencies putting together our pre-recorded shows. It was the perfect mix of flexibility and challenge with a huge dose of discovery and ownership.

Usually ‘volunteer recognition’ means free cupcakes, reference letters, or parties. While I would never turn down a free cupcake, for me all of the factors that made my time at Adamant Eve amazing were volunteer recognition in and of themselves. After all, what better way to keep a volunteer than to make them happy in a fulfilling role!


Last year, I volunteered for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships. As a hockey fan since birth, I was thrilled to help out. There were two specific highlights for me. As a Ceremonies volunteer, one of my duties was to help pass out a large Canadian flag for excited fans to pass it around the arena! Our volunteer team sprinted around the upper bowl of Rexall Place to keep up with the flag, to ensure it didn’t touch the ground and that it was quickly wrapped up at the end. The other major highlight was distributing the Player of the Game awards on New Year’s Eve, when Team Canada beat the United States. Being on the ice, in the middle of Rexall Place hearing the crowd drown out the Canadian anthem played was certainly something I’ll remember forever. I couldn’t believe that I got to do all these great things as a volunteer!

3 Lessons for Making Recognition Matter

With National Volunteer Week coming (April 21 – 27, 2013) I got to thinking about recognition and what it means to be recognized. I have volunteered with the Edmonton Folk Music Festival (EFMF) for the last eight years in various roles from night security to my current role as a member of the site kitchen team. The one thing that has kept me coming back to the festival year after year is the ability of event organizers to recognize all of its volunteers. Thankfully, the festival has the capacity to provide diverse recognition approaches and I understand many nonprofit organizations do not have the same capacity, but from where I sit as a volunteer, I think there are strong lessons for all organizations in what EFMF does.

Lesson #1: Recognition is continuous and happens simultaneously with retention and recruitment.

Every EFMF volunteer gets a package a couple of days before the festival starts that contains the information they need for the four festival days, as well as your crew t-shirt and I.D badge. We get a t-shirt with the new design for that year ahead of the general festival goer and we get a special badge that grants access to volunteer-only events. The badge is also a clear reminder of the diligence the festival has taken in ensuring each volunteer is screened and in the appropriate position so that I can feel confident in the abilities of the people I volunteer with, and them in me. These packages mean that recognizing volunteers is not an afterthought but rather integrated into all components of volunteer engagement.

Lesson #2: Make space for volunteering to be fun

During the festival, on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, after the days concert has ended there are volunteer only (no exceptions) parties! The venue is smaller and there are quiet rooms for impromptu jam sessions and a large party room with live music, and the party lineup is different every night. After a long day of volunteering you are tired; you love what you do but it is still work. These parties are nothing but an unapologetic opportunity for the volunteers to have a ton of fun laughing, reminiscing, rehashing the best and worst parts of the day and getting to let it all out. These parties don’t make you anymore rested for the next day but the smiles and memories created will get you through.

Lesson #3: Say thank you in the biggest, most public way you can

Each night of the festival, just as the sun is going down, there is a lantern parade that makes its way through the crowd onto the main stage. This lantern parade is dedicated to the volunteers of the festival, and makes everyone stop and clap and say thank you. I get a little misty eyed each time because it reminds me of why I’m there. I volunteer to be part of this great festival so that those that paid to attend and those that volunteered have the best possible time. It’s great that other people care enough to say thank you. There is also a giant display on the festival grounds with the names of every single volunteer for all to see and it’s bigger than the signs the sponsors get!

These lessons aren’t ground breaking but it is important to be reminded of them nonetheless. I believe that each organization can find ways to incorporate these three lessons into their volunteer engagement approaches. As we move closer to National Volunteer Week let’s take the time to look at how we can make recognition an ever present part of volunteering in both subtle and overt ways. It’s the least we can do for the volunteers that drive communities forward.

Annand Ollivierre, Program Manager

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

Engaging a New Pool of Volunteer Leaders

Courtesy of guardian.co.uk

Courtesy of guardian.co.uk

While people are often open to volunteering when called upon, it can be more difficult to fill volunteer leadership positions in an organization. “I’d love to help with that initiative, but I don’t want to be in charge,” is not an uncommon refrain. Finding suitable people for your board, council, or committee can be especially difficult. When you think about it, it should come as no surprise that these positions are the hardest to fill – they require difficult decision-making, greater responsibility, and oftentimes they demand the biggest time commitment.

In her article, “Where are your volunteer leaders?” in the Nov/Dec 2012 edition of Nonprofit World, Susan Ellis recommends going back to the two basic recruitment principles when recruiting volunteers for leadership positions:

– Identify the benefits of being in a leadership position;
– Identify those people most likely to find those rewards satisfying.

Think outside the box, toss out conventional wisdom, and take a fresh approach if your current volunteer recruitment techniques aren’t working. For example:

– Instead of approaching the hyper-engaged volunteer, ask a less active volunteer that you feel may be looking for an opportunity to step up and make a larger impact. Not only that, but they likely have more time to commit to a leadership position.
– Re-evaluate the role description of the post that you are trying to fill. Sometimes redesigning the role can make the position more enticing (and whenever possible, avoid the dreaded “co-chair” scenario. Often, neither co-chair feels ownership and is wary of overstepping the other).

Considering a wider group of volunteers for leadership positions may help identify someone with unfulfilled potential and, as mentioned in a previous VA blog on retaining volunteers, flexibility is a key to happy volunteers – whether they’re on your board, council or committee. Making accommodations can go a long way to filling those leadership roles in your nonprofit organization.

Nonprofit World is part of the Volunteer Alberta Resource Centre (VARC) collection. To schedule a visit to the Resource Centre, contact Tim at thenderson@volunteeralberta.ab.ca.


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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