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Why I embraced virtual programming: How I learned and connected with peers online during Youth @ the Table

In a time where virtual volunteering is the new norm, young people looking for opportunities to give back or connect may wonder what being part of a virtual community is like. How do you keep people engaged online? What about tech issues?

In its pilot year, Youth @ the Table convened eight youth from regional communities on Zoom each month, forming Y@TT’s Virtual team. In this guest blog, Alexis Holmgren, a virtual team alumna, shares her perspectives and insights on meeting remotely.

Why I Joined Youth @ the Table

What excited me the most about Y@TT was the opportunity to partner with a nonprofit board. I was eager to learn more about how nonprofits run and what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in boardrooms. I previously had experience serving on councils and committees, and I wanted to expand on this experience.

I was drawn to apply, additionally, by my ingrained love for volunteering and desire to make a difference. As an advocate for diversity and inclusion, I was thrilled that a program existed to prioritize youth and youth voices at the decision-making tables of Alberta’s nonprofit sector.

Being on a virtual team

When I found out that I would be on a virtual team, I was excited overall, but a few challenges came to mind. I expected that there would be technical challenges, requiring some patience and a lot of flexibility. I was worried that I couldn’t connect with my peers and learn from them if we weren’t all in the same room together physically. I also wasn’t sure how the meetings would be structured virtually.

However, I was excited that being on a virtual team meant that I could connect with people from across the province over a much wider distance than my own city. I was also excited because as a person with multiple health challenges and disabilities, the program was much more easily accessible to me since I could log on from my bedroom.

An insight to engaging remotely

The virtual meetings were excellent and exceeded all my expectations. I felt that even with the significant distance between us, we were able to connect on a meaningful level and build relationships. I also learned new pieces of technology in the process like Google Jamboard. More importantly, I learned extensively from the experiences of my peers.

There were times where people couldn’t hear me, my internet would cut out, there would be background noise from someone not muting their microphone, or a pet or family member would walk in. Still, we worked through it and shared some laughs and bonded all the while.

A lasting impact

Even though the program was virtual, I found it highly meaningful and impactful. I am proud to have contributed to the Good Practices Guide that will change the future of how youth are engaged on boards and hopefully further the presence of youth on boards.

I looked forward to the virtual meetings every month and I always felt my views were valued. I gained more confidence in sharing my ideas, experiences, and perspective with those who may have different viewpoints from mine. I also learned a considerable amount about nonprofit boards and how they operate, which is a significant reason why I was interested in the program in the first place. Y@TT gave me an invaluable opportunity to learn and grow as an individual.

The advice I would give to youth who want to participate but are worried about the virtual experience is to give the program a chance. The program is absolutely worth it, virtually or in-person. I would say to be patient and flexible but also know that everyone is there to support you. In fact, many of your peers and the facilitators face similar challenges to those you face. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support if you need it.

Are you ready to take the plunge and be a part of this year’s Youth @ the Table cohort? Apply now! Applications close June 29, 2020.

Author Bio:

Alexis Holmgren is 19 years old and comes from Red Deer Alberta. Alexis is a dedicated volunteer and holds many accomplishments. As a lifelong Girl Guide, she’s served as part of the National Inclusion Action Group and a Youth Accessibility Leader. Currently, she serves as a Trainer Candidate and Link Member. She is also especially proud of her time as a member of the RCMP National Youth Advisory Committee. Outside of volunteering, Alexis is currently studying to become a genetic counsellor to help others like herself who have rare, genetic disorders. In her spare time, she is a published writer, a traveller filled with constant wanderlust, a knitter, and a scrapbooker.

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What young volunteers can bring to the board governance table

Many nonprofits and charities experience challenges in recruiting young volunteers. What kind of language appeals to youth? What channels can you reach them on? And what type of opportunities are they looking for?

Luckily, at Volunteer Alberta, we’ve created a unique volunteer matching program that connects youth with nonprofit boards across the province: Youth @ the Table, taking the guess-work out of recruiting young volunteers for board governance.

In this guest blog, Janica and Paul, a mentor and youth board member duo from Youth @ the Table, tell us how trying something new and joining the program led to an impactful relationship between them, and uncovered lasting learnings.

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

Janica:  I’m a person who loves the community. I’ve worked in the not-for-profit sector for most of my career. I am the Executive Director of Humanity In Practice (h!p), and I am a Youth @the Table mentor.

Paul: I’m currently a board member of Humanity in Practice and am part of Youth @ The Table. I am also a second-year undergraduate neuroscience student at the University of Calgary.

What made you want to participate in Youth @ the Table?

Janica: We were excited to engage youth at a board level. I thought this was an excellent opportunity to connect with Volunteer Alberta and other nonprofits across Alberta. We hoped to understand the challenges and experience the benefits that youth can bring to an organization.

Paul: I have experience in volunteering, but was always curious about the function and decision-making structure of the organizations that I volunteered for. The need for youth involvement became apparent when I came across a statement from Youth @ The Table saying that youth representation is lacking in nonprofit governance. I became motivated to participate in Youth @ The Table to learn more about nonprofit governance, but also increase youth engagement at this level.

Did Youth @ the Table allow you to connect and learn more about board governance easier?

Janica: YES! The process was simple. Volunteer Alberta handled all aspects of recruiting a board member, which we know can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. This opportunity provided both h!p and youth with training, networking, and a board member match. Paul was a welcomed addition to our board.

Paul: Without Youth @ The Table, I don’t think I would have reached out and become part of a nonprofit board. It’s daunting for youth to participate. We do not have much experience nor knowledge about nonprofit governance and boards. Janica has been such a great mentor and has made me feel more confident in myself as a board member.

What are your key takeaways from this experience?

Janica: Youth are busy with school, work, and extracurricular activities, and thus, a successful role for them must contain flexibility. The youth want to be engaged and heard. Paul brought to our table fresh ideas and insights. By listening to his ideas, we tailored our program to be more youth-friendly!

Paul: Collaborating and presenting my perspective is not as scary as it seems. I really feel that my voice is valued on my board. With that said, I also learned that not all boards are the same. Finally, I learned that being a board member takes time, which some youth don’t have much of. Despite the challenges, the relationship you build with a board mentor and board can enhance your experience. Janica and h!p listen to my perspectives and points of view. I am genuinely thankful for all they have done to accommodate me.

Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to your peers?

Janica: I would tell boards: “Bring them on!” Create an environment where youth can be engaged with your organization at a higher level.

Paul: Don’t be scared. Both boards and youth should be willing to connect with each other without any barriers. We shouldn’t be afraid to get involved.

Any last thoughts?

Janica: Through Youth @ the Table, Volunteer Alberta created an opportunity to connect youth to a board-level experience that gives them insight into the nonprofit sector. I hope that experiences like Y@TT encourage youth to continue supporting and participating in the nonprofit sector.

Also, our board has met the other participating boards and given us an opportunity to network. We learned about other initiatives across our province. The possibilities of collaborations and shared learnings have been an unexpected outcome, one that has both strengthened our awareness of programs and services available and has introduced us to like-minded cheerleaders.

Looking for more resources about engaging youth on your boards? We’ve got you covered. Coming in the spring of 2020, Volunteer Alberta is releasing a Youth @ the Table Good Practice Guide that identifies what the 23 participating organizations did well to engage youth during the program. We are excited to share what we learned with you.

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Giving back: The benefits of getting involved with nonprofits during your post-secondary education

“What do you want to do when you graduate?”

September means a few things: green leaves and grass begin turning yellow and gold, the wind is a little crisper, pumpkin-spiced drinks are back, and of course, students are back in school.

As a recent grad, I reflect on my post-secondary and employment journey often. The truth is, I didn’t always know I would be working in the nonprofit sector. That’s because I had no idea what it was, and the important role it plays in civil society.

When I graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, I was unsure of where and how to apply the important theories I learned. And once I left the campus environment, it felt like there were no options.

So, I went back to school and finished another Bachelor’s degree in 2018 following a failed attempt at being a barista along with a string of other odd jobs.

Praxis makes perfect

In the last year of my first degree, I enrolled in a course with a Community Service-Learning component, which paired me with a nonprofit organization for a 20 hour volunteer placement.

During my placement, I had to reflect on my volunteer experiences, and draw connections from course materials and content. As a post-secondary student, this was exactly what I was looking for – a way to apply concepts and theories that appeared abstract and intangible to real life.

I also developed practical skills that expanded my interests in addition to my capabilities. The organization I was matched with was looking for someone to develop marketing materials, which I happily took on. The work I did ended up sparking an interest that I didn’t realize I had in graphic design and outreach.

I realized that Praxis, or the bridge between theory and practice, was the ‘thing’ that was missing from my education.

I continued to pursue other experiential learning opportunities, and by the end of my second degree, I accumulated over 150 volunteer hours to complete a certificate in Community Engagement and Service-Learning in addition to my degree. It also encouraged me to pursue other volunteer opportunities in areas that were relevant to my degree.

Although not every post-secondary institution has Community Service-Learning, more institutions are realizing the importance of experiential learning. Talk to your respective career centres about similar opportunities on your campus.

3 ways giving back gives you an enriched experience

So what can my story tell you? By making the extra effort to give back to your communities through volunteerism, you’ll receive an enriching experience to learn new skills and more about yourself.

A feedback loop of learning

Volunteering with nonprofits can have a tremendous impact on post-secondary students as well as the nonprofits they participate in. In my case, I had the chance to impact social issues I care about by getting involved with nonprofits that address those issues.

That is, you get to help create the change that you want to see in the world. Organizations also have a chance to be exposed to the newest forms of thinking that come out of post-secondary institutions.

Exploring untapped potential

While the possibility to work on things beyond what your volunteer job description ranges from organization to organization, being immersed in a professional setting can give you a chance to practice skills that you already have or can help you realize skills that you didn’t even know you had!

Awards for community-oriented students

While many awards exist for high GPAs and other scholarly achievements, being involved in your community through volunteerism also pays off.

For example, the Edmonton Community Foundation provides bursaries to Edmonton and/or Northern Alberta students with financial need who have a history of community involvement or leadership.

In addition to specific post-secondary institutions and awards for non-campus related activities, the Government of Alberta also has a comprehensive list of awards for community-oriented students.

For some institutions, being involved with nonprofit organizations can also give you extra credentials that will make you stand out after you graduate.

How can you get involved?

The first step to finding the right opportunity to get involved with nonprofits is a tricky task. Luckily, Volunteer Connector has made finding volunteer opportunities easy for Albertans. The opportunities posted on the site can be filtered by your interests, skills and time commitment.

Eunice Doroni

Volunteer Alberta

Low Ropes Course at Alberta 4-H Centre

Member Spotlight: 4-H Alberta invite youths’ imaginations to soar

Has the belief that youth can change the world disappeared? Nowadays, people seem more pessimistic than ever towards youth – that youth today are more apathetic and consumed by their phones and social networks.

As a result, a lot of people tend to overlook how to motivate youth to participate. But, 4-H Alberta still believes that youth can change the world and they’re helping them do it with a unique approach to engaging youth.

4-H Alberta is a youth-oriented organization offering both urban and rural youth a dynamic and inspiring environment to learn and grow by doing. In their 2018 program year, 4-H had 5,885 youth members from ages 6 to 20 across Alberta. And, it’s not hard to see why youth sign up.

The 4-H approach to youth: Learn to do by doing

What 4-H does differently is that they create a safe and supportive environment that invites youth to not only govern their own clubs but also direct their own learning and skills development in any subject that interests them.

“The possibilities are endless and limited only by the imaginations of the members themselves,” says Bernadette Sereda, Leader Screening Coordinator at 4-H Council of Alberta (the nonprofit division of 4-H Alberta that handles risk management). “4-H members can pursue whatever projects they can dream up so that potential is perhaps the most appealing reason for youth to join 4-H.”

Some of the possibilities include community service, summer or winter camp, projects, clubs, conferences, travel exchanges, and so much more. In fact, community service and public speaking are member requirements while projects can range broadly from computer coding and woodworking to horticulture and other food and agriculture related projects.

Youth members also elect their own club leaders and mentors based on who they want to further their learning and growth. By providing a solid and safe framework for young people to run the show, 4-H teaches youth life-long leadership skills.

Why youth join, return and become 4-H alumni

And, 4-H’s approach is working as youth keep joining or returning. According to their 2018 youth member survey, some of main reasons youth join are because they thought the events, programs, and projects sounded interesting, they wanted to develop or learn a new skill and/or they wanted to meet new people.

Interestingly, youth’s top five reasons for why they come back to participate are similar to why they joined:

  1. It was fun.
  2. I developed friendships with other members.
  3. I want to improve my leadership skills.
  4. I enjoy project competitions/I want to go to camp.
  5. My parents have encouraged me to continue.

4-H also attracts youth by engaging entire families into the program. “4-H leaders and families are vital to the program,” says Bernadette. “We engage families as volunteer leaders, parent volunteers or some simply show up for their children to help, support, share and celebrate.”

However, it is mainly youths’ experiences within 4-H that keep bringing them back even as alumni (age 20+). Beyond their programs, 4-H rewards youth through awards, trips, scholarships, and recognition of their accomplishments.

“Many members once aged out of the program return as leaders themselves as they are inspired to provide the sort of mentorship that they enjoyed,” shares Bernadette. “One of the reasons that 4-H is great is because it can be whatever it needs to be to serve and enrich individual lives and communities at large.”

4-H Alberta’s program year for 2019/2020 opens this October.

Are you looking for more ideas to captivate youth? Check out Volunteer Canada’s youth engagement resources.

About 4-H Alberta

This Alberta institution and popular program has been around since 1917. Over the years, 4-H has quietly evolved into a dynamic program whose projects encompass everything from active living, arts, science and technology, crafts, cooking, agriculture and so much more!  Today’s exciting 4-H program gives urban and rural youth and adults life-long skills such as co-operation, leadership, interpersonal relations, critical thinking, decision making, organization, public speaking and community service.

Adrienne Vansevenandt

Volunteer Alberta

Youth @ the Table Team

Why engaging youth in board governance is important according to the Youth @ the Table team

Launched this year, Youth @ the Table is Volunteer Alberta’s new youth engagement initiative. The program aims to create governance opportunities for young people ages 18 to 30 who are interested in the nonprofit sector.

Participants will be paired with a nonprofit board in their community and spend six months learning directly from a mentor on the nonprofit’s leadership team. Over the course of the program, they will gain the knowledge and skills necessary to influence operations and strategic directions. By sitting at the decision-making table, youth will lead the nonprofit sector into the future and create space for young people to influence social issues in Alberta.

Hear from the Youth @ the Table team about why they believe engaging youth in Alberta’s nonprofit sector is important:

What is your role at Volunteer Alberta?

Eunice: I am the Youth @ the Table Coordinator! I help figure out the logistics of our overall game plan.

Lauren: My role is the Youth @ the Table Project Manager. I lead a great team who has been working hard to develop and implement the Youth @ the Table project!

Navneet: I’m the Senior Coordinator, Marketing & Communications! I curate our social media, draft external communications, and lead strategic directions on branding.

Have you ever had any governance experience? What was it like?

Eunice: Yes! I participated in the Non-profit Board Internship, a program run by Community Service-Learning at the University of Alberta. I was paired with interVivos, a nonprofit that provides forums for emerging leaders in Edmonton. I sat on a board for 8 months as an intern it really elevated my confidence and my ability to connect with professionals.

As a young person trying to navigate what comes next in a fast-paced world, developing communication, leadership, critical thinking and decision-making skills are crucial. I am now a more well-rounded community member. I know what goes on at the decision-making level of groups who shape our community to be better and more livable and I can ask meaningful questions, and really understand the avenues where real change can happen.

Lauren: I am relatively new to governance! During my first year at the University of Alberta, I served a term on the Alberta Mentorship Program (AMP)’s Executive Committee. It gave me the opportunity to volunteer with various organizations like the Mustard Seed and local initiatives like The Youth Restorative Justice Project.

Before and after AMP, I’ve asked myself “how do I get more involved in nonprofit organizations?”. I didn’t know how or where to seek out governance opportunities. Looking back, I think to have a program like Youth @ the Table would have really benefited me because Youth @ the Table bridges that gap between nonprofits who are looking to engage youth and youth who are looking to take action and get involved.

Navneet: During my time as a student at the University of Alberta, I was involved in a wide range of board and governance roles. I served as a Team Leader at the Campus Food Bank for a couple years then as a Member at Large on The Gateway Student Journalism Society’s board. I loved these roles because I got to go beyond the day to day operations and be part of major decisions such as which fundraisers to approve and how to transition the newspaper into a magazine.

Currently, I sit on the Winspear’s Young Leadership Council and get to do similar work. I provide input on how to make guest experiences more youth-friendly and engage young people in musical endeavours. This work is incredibly rewarding because I get to express my ideas and watch them get implemented to improve an organization that I care deeply about.

Why is getting youth (18-30 years old) involved in governance so important?

Eunice: This age group makes up the biggest chunk of Canada, I think finding opportunities for people in this age bracket to exercise their passions and channel their energy would only benefit society as a whole. It’s about time that folks who fall in this age bracket are recognized as important knowledge keepers, not just receivers.

Lauren: We are experiencing so much change in our world right now, I think there has never been a more important time for young people to get involved in decision-making, not only in the nonprofit sector but in every sector. I think as we continue to make space for them in these conversations, we will begin to recognize how much knowledge they have to contribute and how passionate they are about social issues.

Navneet: Young people are our future leaders. This fact, though obvious, is all too often overlooked in many sectors. By failing to include this age group at decision-making tables, we fail to prepare for the future and lose opportunities for growth in our sector. For young people to gain the skills necessary to tackle the world’s most complex social issues, we must break down the barriers that prevent them from being heard. Young people bring diverse perspectives and innovative ideas to the table — it’s important that they are taken seriously!

Do you have any last thoughts about engaging youth in the nonprofit sector?

Navneet: Governance can often be an intimidating concept that seems reserved for those who are interested in politics or traditional leadership roles. With Youth @ the Table, we want to break down this perception of governance and push decision-making spaces to be more open and inclusive. For progress to happen in our sector, we have to make sure young people have access to the board rooms in which decisions are made.

Are you between the ages of 18-30 and interested in making a difference in your community? Apply for Volunteer Alberta’s Youth @ the Table program by June 15th, 2019! Learn more.

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