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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

St. Albert Appreciates Volunteers

National Volunteer Week was a huge success! There were many great volunteer appreciation events across the province and staff represented Volunteer Alberta at a number of events, including the Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon hosted by the St. Albert Community Information and Volunteer Centre (CIVC).

When Ellie (VA Program Coordinator) and I arrived at the St. Albert Alliance Church Hall, it immediately became clear this was going to be an outstanding event. There was a constant stream of vehicles pouring into this large parking lot. The venue was adorned with white and orange balloons and streamers; it took on the feel of a gala rather than a modest luncheon. The hall was filled with over 300 volunteers, public officials, small business owners and honored guests – the atmosphere was one of tremendous warmth.

Emcee Glennis Kennedy, from the St. Albert CIVC, welcomed everyone and introduced special guests St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse and Member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert Brent Rathgeber, who both expressed their heartfelt thanks to the volunteers of St. Albert. Last year’s Volunteer Citizen of the Year, Anna Rodger, was then invited on stage to say grace. After Anna’s beautiful words, everyone filed into the buffet lines.

Waiting in line for lunch, it was fascinating to see all these outstanding members of the community treat each other with such admiration. These volunteers, who are used to serving others, now found themselves being catered to for their invaluable contribution to their community, and yet their incredible spirit of giving still shone through. As Ellie and I waited in the salad line we remarked at the diversity of the group, and how these volunteers made up what seemed to be a perfect cross section of the community. It was uplifting, seeing teenagers sharing a laugh with seniors, and individuals of every walk of life together celebrating the vital role of volunteerism.

After lunch, Glennis drew door prizes contributed by local businesses.  When all the prizes were gone, we were all treated to a performance by the musical comedy group, Il Duo. They put on a great show and there couldn’t have been a more perfect way of putting smiles on the faces of the volunteers of St. Albert. Their performances had people doubled over in their seats laughing. At the end of the event we were all encouraged to take individual cakes baked in mason jars with tangerine icing… by a volunteer, of course. They had thought of every detail – the event was organized largely by volunteers, after all.

Mayor Crouse said something during his remarks that stuck with me; he pointed out that without the efforts of volunteers there would be no extracurricular school activities, no amateur sport, no music festivals, or religious institutions. These are the things that make a community a community. The Mayor captured the true essence of volunteerism, and this event captured the true essence of community.

A big thank you to the St. Albert CIVC for their incredible hospitality. Congratulations on a successful event and Volunteer Alberta looks forward to attending next year!

Tim Henderson
Office & Communications Coordinator

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