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The Super Volunteer in Rural Alberta

A few weeks ago, I attended an interagency meeting where the term “STP” was used in reference to volunteering. I had not heard this term used before, so I was relieved when someone else asked if the acronym could be explained. As it turns out, STP refers to the “Same Ten People” who always volunteer their time and energy on different projects and events. Now you might be chuckling to yourself, as you probably know that handful of people, and chances are you might even be one of them. In our community, I immediately thought of a young couple who both work full time and volunteer tirelessly for their children’s sporting teams. This past winter, they coached and managed their son’s hockey team and then, in the spring, they stepped forward and did the same for lacrosse. They do not have more time than the rest of us, nor did they magically acquire the skills to coach and manage a team. So why do they do it?

There are many reasons why people volunteer: recognition and feedback, personal growth, giving something back, bringing about change, friendship, bonding and/or a feeling of belonging. When managing volunteers, we need to know which of these incentives will motivate our volunteers, either to recruit them to our organization, or to keep them coming back. While speaking at the Didsbury Museum, I was engaging the group on this very subject, and one of the participants explained to the group how once a month they recruit volunteers to DUST (yes dust!) the museum. She explained that they started at a convenient time and they provided pizza for everyone at the lunch break, but she said the biggest reason they had people coming back was that they made it fun! The same goes for the couple who volunteers with their son’s hockey team – I am sure it is not fun getting up at 6:00 am on a Sunday morning to freeze in a cold arena (come on, we live in Canada, we’re meant to be tough). However, it is fun to give back to your community and watch the kids as they develop new skills and grow individually and as a team. It is fun being a part of the bigger picture and belonging to a group, a society or a team.

So next time you hear the term “STP”, whether it be same two people, or same ten people, count yourself in as one of those extraordinary people who volunteers their time, for whatever fun reason is close to your heart!

Wondering what it is that motivates STPs? Book a session to break down the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering, and Participating statistics into information you can use to recruit volunteers!

Diane Huston

Knowledge Exchange Coordinator (Central Region)

Youth Engagement – You Already Know How!

Last week I had the privilege of sitting on the Vitalize 2012 Conference youth engagement panel, ‘Volunteerism: The Next Generation’ moderated by my colleague Steven Kwasny. I joined 16-year old co-founder of 8th Rung Jocelyn Davis, Volunteer Calgary’s Community & Service Learning Coordinator, Ralamy Kneeshaw, and Banff Volunteer Centre Executive Director (and all-around youth engagement guru) Katherine Topolniski, on the panel for a fun and interactive afternoon session.

Two of the themes I found particularly interesting that emerged over the course of the conversation seem on the surface to be contradictory: we need to start treating youth more similarly to ‘non-youth’, and, at the same time, we need to start treating youth differently.

Just like with everyone else, youth engagement only works well when good recruitment, retention, and recognition practices are in place. And, just like everyone else, if these processes aren’t in place (and even if they are) sometimes youth won’t show up, or won’t stay on long term. As Ralamy reminded those at the session, you have likely had an absentee board member or a problem with high volunteer turn-over – even when it isn’t youth that you are engaging! Blaming either of these problems on age is a failed opportunity to improve your volunteer program and increase youth engagement at your organization.

At the same time though, it is important to recognize that ‘youth’ is a relevant category insofar as it tends to describe shared experiences. For example, many young people have a schedule quite different from other age groups: they have school 8:30-4:30 if they are still in grade school, or they have school all the time if they are attending post-secondary. In other words, a 15-year-old is never going to be able to attend your lunch meeting, and a university student will have a hard time committing themselves to an organization that can’t work around their exam schedule.

Youth might have a curfew or need parental permission, they might rely on public transit or rides from relatives, and many of them, students and older youth in particular, are low-income, have entry-level positions, poor job security, and are in debt or have lots of expenses like tuition. Recognizing these needs and challenges will help to inform more successful ways of recruiting, retaining, and recognizing youth volunteers.

Some specific tips and recommendations that came out of the session include:

  • Ask youth how they would like to be engaged at your organization. This is good practice in any volunteer’s orientation, but take it a step further and organize a focus group including youth you have already engaged, as well as youth that aren’t yet involved. Find out what their needs are and, more importantly, where their passions and skills lie, and how to tap into both.
  • Remember that ‘youth’ is not a homogenous category. Be prepared to engage everyone from youth with disabilities, to immigrant youth, to outgoing youth, to youth who hate public speaking, to youth who never show up on time, to youth who love spreadsheets (I am one of them!).
  • Relationship-building is a fantastic technique for retaining any volunteer. Don’t isolate youth from the rest of your team, and make the effort to encourage friendships. As I mentioned during the panel, the reason I have stayed on for extended periods at certain organizations is always because I love who I work with, even more than I love what I am doing.
  • Get started by using existing youth groups, like sports teams, church groups, or classes. The relationships are already there. An audience member told us about a playground in his community that was built by a football team who already had a built-in volunteer manager: the coach.
  • Put youth on equal footing in your organization. They might not have all the skills or knowledge as older team members, but that’s because they haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn them, not because they aren’t able to do a good job once the tools are provided. Their ideas are no less likely to work than someone else’s; in fact they might be exactly what your organization needs to reach people in the 21st century.

In short, we recommend approaching youth as people who have excellent motivations for getting involved in the nonprofit/voluntary sector, and a few minor obstacles standing in the way of them doing that. Just like the rest of your volunteers.

Now, go help them get involved!

 

Sam Kriviak

Program Coordinator

Okotoks Engages in Knowledge Exchange

I was excited to have the opportunity to travel to the fine community of Okotoks to participate in the Selling the Invisible workshop presented by my fellow KnEC colleague, Diane Huston.  I was quite impressed with Diane’s ability to engage the audience with meaningful anecdotes, which supported learning opportunities and course content. Further, Diane’s very evident knowledge of the voluntary sector really added value to this workshop.

Audience participation/engagement can make or break a presentation, and the 12 participants who took time out of their very busy work schedule to attend Selling the Invisible, were so engaged that they stayed an additional 30 minutes to share their own knowledge and ask questions.  Seeing this kind of participation, I was once again reminded about the commitment and dedication of the countless individuals who participate in over 20,000 nonprofit/voluntary sector organizations in Alberta.

The essence of the Knowledge Exchange Coordinator position is “to engage nonprofit/voluntary sector organizations across Alberta to enhance organizations’ capacity to provide programs and service to communities.”  Further, I see the KnEC role as one being about gathering strategies and information on effective volunteer engagement from people in the nonprofit/voluntary sector and disseminating that knowledge to others around Alberta.

Of the many tips discussed at the workshop on volunteer engagement, one participant shared this strategy on volunteer recruitment: “When holding any kind of volunteer appreciation event, encourage your volunteers to bring a friend.”  By bringing friends to an appreciation party, the newcomers will get firsthand experience  on how volunteers are treated and recognized, what other community members are in attendance, the variety of ways an organization engages volunteers, and what the overall culture is within the organization.   In so many ways, this really makes sense to me. The likelihood of a “good” volunteer bringing someone who has the same core values and beliefs is, in my opinion, quite likely.

If you have any questions about the role of KnECs in your community or Volunteer Alberta, I would be very happy to answer your questions.  You can reach me at 780.482.3300 (toll free in Alberta 1.877.915.6336) ext. 231 or by email at aollivierre@volunteeralberta.ab.ca

Voluntourism: What do we know about giving out fish?

I traveled to Belize last August with the Rotary International Belize Literacy program. I really enjoyed my time in Belize, it was awe-inspiring in its natural beauty and the people were fantastic. I spent time in the Cayo region, which meant I had the chance to see Mayan ruins in my time off.  Awesome, right? It was.

However, this blog post is not really about the fact I got to swim with sharks or climb Mayan ruins. Rather, this is what I learned about volunteering while I was there.

Belize is about a two-hour flight from Houston, Texas. It is relatively safe, clean, the food is good, and the citizens speak English. As such, it is the go-to location for every church group, hospital, or student group with good hearts and a week to spend volunteering.

The vocational training team I was sent on was tasked with finding out why, after Rotary had been in Belize for over 10 years, it was not seeing the results it wanted. The Coles Notes version of the story is:

  • Belize needed more schools, so Rotary built schools.
  • Belize needed trained staff in their schools, so Rotary sent Canadian teachers down to train Belizean teachers.
  • Belizean teachers needed more support, so Rotary sent Canadian principals down to train the Belizean Principals.
  • Belizean principals needed support, so Rotary sent down a team to work with Ministry of Education officials.
  • Teachers, Principals and Government officials needed more support, so Rotary sent a team down to assess the situation with community leaders (that’s where I came in) and what we found was quite eye opening.

Belize is the half-finished project capital of the world. True, it is the destination of many voluntourism groups, but each group only stays for about one week at a time. Think about your home community – imagine your local community school was falling into disrepair; a group of people descend on your neighbourhood, paint part of it and go home. Great, except who will paint the rest? Who will do touch-ups when it gets chipped? Is the paint even the problem? These questions often go unanswered by communities working with voluntourist groups. Compounding the problem is that no one ever wants to say no to someone offering a hand, even if it won’t be more help.

What struck me as most troublesome was that there seemed to be little concept of sustainability or long-term planning amongst either the volunteers or the locals. The question “what happens when the volunteers leave?” was, for the most part, left unanswered. For example, the Belize Ministry of Education receives old computers from North America almost daily with no idea what to do with them. The places that need computers have no internet infrastructure, aren’t on a reliable power grid and, quite frankly, have greater needs beyond the internet, like access to clean water. Yet, the government receives more computers, at times without warning. Another example is one small town, which already had two community centres, said they needed another because the others were run down.  Without a plan for how to use and maintain the centres, it’s no wonder the community centres get run down.

The developing world, to be cliché, needs heads not hands. I learned that, while places like Belize are always looking for help, what we do while there doesn’t always help.  As the old adage goes “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” All too often, voluntourism programs hand out fish, when they should be teaching not just how to fish, but also healthy, sustainable fishing practises so they can share it with their communities. Admittedly, I may have really stretched that analogy. Fishing aside, the idea that every way in which we try to help should leave a lasting, positive impression seems obvious to say, though I have to admit the point seems all too often missed.

–          Steven Kwasny

Information Management Assistant

What do you think? Have you had a similar or maybe a different voluntourism experience? Share it with us in the comment section below.

 

Lethbridge’s Leaders of Tomorrow Awards Impress

Last week, Rosanne (VA’s Director of Programs) and I attended Volunteer Lethbridge’s annual National Volunteer Week celebration – the Leaders of Tomorrow awards. This event recognizes the exceptional contributions made by youth aged 5-24 years old in the Lethbridge area. I was blown away by the list of hundreds of organizations that Lethbridge youth volunteer for. As the emcee read out the list of where the nominees volunteer, it seemed like the list would never end! I was particularly impressed by the 5-11 year old category – I used to consider myself almost a life-long volunteer but I certainly wasn’t doing any volunteer work at 7!

I was also struck by what one of the winners of the 18-24 categories mentioned in her brief speech. She asked the crowd to remember all these volunteer contributions made by young people the next time they hear someone say, “young people don’t care”. As a young person, I often find myself defending my generation against the apathy others perceive us to have.

Our main purpose for visiting Lethbridge was to wrap up our Intersections 2 project, which works to help nonprofit/voluntary organizations effectively engage new Canadians in their organizations. Visit our new Intersections website for resources, activities and more!

Rosanne and I were thrilled that the timing worked out to attend this amazing event and to see what exciting things are happening in Lethbridge. Laurie and her team put on a fabulous event and we always feel very welcomed when we get to visit beautiful Lethbridge! Thanks to Volunteer Lethbridge again for being great hosts during our visit.

Lisa Michetti
Member Engagement Manager

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