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Volunteer-Matters

Flip the narrative around volunteerism

Language is important

I stumbled upon an insightful blog post recently that delved into the concept of "missing words." (https://rewritingsocialcare.blog/2022/01/02/missing-words/)

One phrase in particular struck a chord with me: "We talk a lot about needs. But it’s amazing how little we talk about rights. We need to flip the narrative, from ‘need for’ to ‘right to.’”

As leaders of volunteers, for example, we often say “we need to properly engage volunteers”. What if, instead, we framed it as “volunteers have a right to be properly engaged”? This subtle shift in perspective not only gives the issue greater urgency but elevates its overall importance.

It prompts us to question how we currently undertake volunteer engagement, and ensures we're actively working towards creating environments where volunteers feel valued, respected, and integral to the organization's mission.

In the social impact world, the power of language can’t be overstated. The words we choose shape perceptions, influence actions and define the very essence of our volunteer programs.

You’ve probably heard, or even said, the phrase, "we need more volunteers". While that may be true, it lacks the deeper truth of stating that “people have a right to volunteer”. By changing the phrase, it gives us a nudge to look at any barriers to volunteering that our programs might have. If we can tackle those barriers, we make it easier for new people to volunteer, which will bring in more volunteers. It transforms a complaint into a plan of action.

Think, too, about the phrase, "volunteer recruitment." As it stands, the words imply a transactional process focused on our needs. "We have a gap; who can we bring in to fill it?" What if, instead, we speak of "welcoming volunteers"? This shift focuses the attention to a more individualized, inclusive and warmer way of inviting volunteers to help. Rather like welcoming people into your home. It provides quite a different mental picture, doesn't it?

Note, these phrases aren’t meant to be just outward-facing. This isn’t about optics. It’s important we use them in our internal discussions, and even in how we think.

When we flip the narrative and use these and similar phrases as part of our regular language, we change how we view our roles. We will start to think more about barriers to volunteering, for example, than about our need for volunteers. And that will help the entire sector.

Language, used in this way, becomes a catalyst for cultural transformation within organizations and within the greater community. When we move from talking about needs to emphasizing rights, we automatically start building a culture of inclusivity and equity. Leading volunteers then becomes, not just a task to be fulfilled, but a part of a shared commitment to upholding the rights of individuals to contribute meaningfully to their communities.

We have to learn be mindful of the phrases we use, recognizing the profound impact they have on shaping organizational culture and volunteer experiences. Through an effective use of language, we contribute to building a stronger and more robust volunteer community. Challenge yourself to examine the words you routinely use - even to yourself - and consider how they shape your view of volunteering and volunteers.

Leaders of volunteers need to flip the narrative. As leaders, we are entrusted with the responsibility of helping set the tone for our organizations. If we pay attention to our language, it sends a clear message about the organization's values. It communicates that volunteers are not commodities used to fill a void but integral components of a mutually beneficial partnership.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.



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Find a community of volunteer professionals

Sharing volunteer ideas

One of the hardest things about being a leader of volunteers is you are often the only one in an organization.

It can feel very isolating and you may start thinking you are the only one dealing with the issues you face. It’s important to find a community of volunteer professionals.

On Monday I had the privilege of meeting with 36 other volunteer management professionals from across 21 time zones to start a two-month process of sharing, learning and building community. The Advanced Volunteer Management Symposium provides keynote presentations about some of the issues many of us face, and then puts us into a group where we could discuss, question and dive deeper into those issues.

Not only do we have the opportunity to learn in a far more in-depth way, but we also build connections that can last throughout our careers.

One of the activities we did on Monday was choose a word that described what we hoped to get out of the process. Then, we were put into breakout rooms of three people to discuss why we had chosen that word. One thing I found very interesting was although all three of us in my group chose different words (share, inspiration, network), when we discussed our reasons for choosing them, it all came down to one concept—connection. Helping others and receiving help. Gaining inspiration from other professionals. Building a community.

This column, though, isn’t to tell you about the symposium. It’s to re-emphasize the importance of having people you can reach out to for ideas about where you can find those people if you haven’t already found them.

One of the foremost reasons for leaders of volunteers to embrace the idea of a professional community is the wealth of shared knowledge. By joining a community, you gain access to a treasure trove of insights and best practices from people who have “been there, done that”. Why reinvent the wheel?

Also, professional groups serve as a platform for continuous learning. The social impact sector is an ever-evolving landscape, so staying abreast of the latest trends, tools and methodologies is paramount. This collective learning not only benefits you but contributes to the overall advancement of volunteer management as a discipline. And let’s face it, it helps just to have someone to talk with who gets what you’re going through. Even if it’s just to remind you that you aren’t alone.

Okay, so where do you find these communities?

Start with social media

Online platforms have become hubs for professional interaction. Joining forums dedicated to volunteer management or participating in online communities allows you to engage in discussions, seek advice, and share their own experiences. I personally belong to four different volunteer management groups on Facebook, and two on LinkedIn. To find them, go onto the platform you like best and do a search under groups.

Attend conferences and workshops.

Physical or virtual conferences and workshops are excellent opportunities to not only expand your knowledge but also network with fellow leaders of volunteers. These events often feature interactive sessions, breakout groups, and networking opportunities. In person ones can be hard if your budget is limited, but there are several that are virtual. If you can, check out international conferences to expand your network and gain insights from different perspectives. It’s fun to see where the similarities and differences are.

Join professional associations

Many regions have professional associations specifically dedicated to volunteer management. Joining such associations provides a structure for networking and professional development. These associations often organize events, webinars, and training programs tailored to the needs of volunteer leaders. I belong to the Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada, Volunteer Canada and a few others. Better Impact posted a list of the best volunteer associations around the world. Check it out.

Do it yourself

If you can’t find a suitable community, you can always start one. Decide what you want to get out of, and contribute to, the group, and reach out directly to people who fit the profile. Building a community of practice is a great way to get started. Here’s an article I wrote on how to do that.

All this to say, you are not alone. There is a world of people out there doing what you’re doing, facing what you’re facing and coming up with solutions you can benefit from. And, you have solutions to problems they are struggling with too.

You don’t need to participate in an Advanced Volunteer Management Symposium, though but I recommend signing up for the next cohort to find yourself a community with which to share, inspire and network.

Good luck.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.



Adaptability of water is a good example for leaders

Lead like water

We are leaders of volunteers. But what does that really mean?

I’ve been doing a lot of research into leadership lately. One thing I’ve discovered is there are as many thoughts and opinions about what leadership is and what attributes leaders should have, as there are people who write about it.

When it comes to leading volunteers, though, three things have come up repeatedly. Leaders of volunteers are adaptable, they have integrity and they make a difference. In other words, they lead like water.

Adaptability

As a leader of volunteers, being adaptable is essential. You need to be able to adjust to changing situations, deal with obstacles and challenges and treat different people and circumstances in the way best suited to them at any given time. When a crisis hits, you need to be strong and decisive. If a volunteer is suffering, you need to be gentle and sympathetic.

What has this got to do with water, you ask? Well, think about it, what is more adaptable than water? It flows around and over obstacles and it can find its way right into the heart of things. It changes to perfectly suit the environment that it finds itself in. When things get hot, it turns to steam, when cold, it turns to ice.

Integrity

Despite the need for adaptability, a leader of volunteers must also have unshakable integrity. Volunteers need to know your focus is always on advancing the cause, that you base your actions on solid values and they can trust you to do what’s right for them and for the organization.

Water is the same. Despite all its adaptability and capacity to change, at its heart it is always the same. Whether water, steam or ice, it is always H2O. Its core and its essence never change, it stays itself. It has integrity.

Making a difference

The theme last year for International Volunteer Manager’s Day was Helping Others Help. The volunteers we work with help our various causes, but they couldn’t have as great an impact as they do without your work behind the scenes. You make a difference. Every time you recruit a new volunteer, you expand the reach of your organization. Each time you come up with a creative solution to a challenging problem, you smooth the path for volunteers and other leaders. The difference you make is phenomenal.

And water makes a difference. It is impossible to imagine our world without water. Leaving aside the fact that there would be no life without it, think of the changes that water makes every day; some of them swift and massive, some of them slow and subtle. A mudslide that changes the entire shape of a mountainside, or a patient drip steadily wearing away a boulder.

One more thing, as a leader you need to be able to fill volunteers up.

When they’re tired, you provide energy and motivation. If they’re losing enthusiasm, you get them fired up again. You train, encourage and mentor them to be the best they can be at whatever role or task they have taken on. You increase their satisfaction by showing them the impact they have—just as dry sponge will swell and soften with just a touch of water.

Can you lead like water? If you can, no obstacles can stop you, you’ll just flow around them. You can change your actions and style to meet the need of the moment, assertive and directive during times of crisis, collaborative and nurturing during times of growth.

You will always stay true to your beliefs and values. You may change your style, but your core will remain strong. And you will change those that you touch; whether you sweep someone headlong into a new belief in themselves, or whether you patiently wear away at a granite prejudice.

Foster in yourself adaptability, integrity, and the willingness to fill your volunteers up. If you lead like water, the world will be a better place because of you.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.



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Recruiting volunteers with open houses

Ways to find volunteers

I’ve been asked by clients, “Should I attend a community-wide volunteer fair or host our own open house recruiting drive?”

The answer, of course, is “yes”. The two types of recruitment drives are very different, and have different benefits, and both are worth doing. In a previous article, I wrote about how to make the most out of participating in a volunteer fair. Organizing an open house, though, is also a fantastic way to engage potential volunteers.

Some of the benefits to an open house include:

• A more immersive experience, as you can set up multiple stations, show off your facility and bring in several staff and current volunteers for demonstrations and to answer questions.

• An increased ability to share stories and testimonials.

• Extended interactions, as there aren’t any other organizations vying for their attention.

Okay, that’s all well and good. But how do you run a successful one?

Here are some tips.

Set clear goals

Clearly define what you want to achieve with the open house. Are you wanting to recruit a specific number of volunteers, or a specific type of volunteer? Or is it more about raising awareness about your organization? Maybe it’s about fostering community connections. Or all of the above. Knowing exactly what you’re wanting from the event will help you guide the planning and prioritize requirements. It will also help you measure its success.

Choose a suitable venue

If at all possible, host it at your organization's location to give attendees a sense of where they'll be volunteering. If you don’t have the space available, or there are other reasons why your location isn’t suitable (you may have vulnerable clients there), select a venue that is easily accessible and aligns with the atmosphere you want to create. If the potential volunteers will be serving at your location, at least find a venue that is nearby so that you can be sure that they can find transportation to get there.

Create and distribute invitations

Develop eye-catching invitations that clearly communicate the purpose of the open house. Use various channels such as email, social media, and physical flyers to reach your audience. Encourage your current volunteers to share the invitations with their networks. They are your best ambassadors. If you’re looking to recruit a specific type of volunteer, ensure that invites or flyers are distributed where that type of person can be found. For example, if you’re looking to recruit young people, target colleges and universities.

Prepare engaging hand-outs

Have informative materials available at the event, such as flyers and impact reports. Highlight the positive outcomes of volunteering and showcase success stories to inspire potential volunteers. Remember to mention the value that you provide the volunteer, not just what you are looking for from them.

Interactive stations

Set up interactive stations or booths that represent different aspects of your organization. A search and rescue organization, for example, could demonstrate how they get a stranded hiker off a cliff face. A musical charity could have an “instrument petting zoo”. Try to make the stations as interactive as possible. That’s how you build a strong connection with the attendees.

Testimonials and stories

Include videos or before and after pictures of the work your organization does. Incorporate personal stories and testimonials from current volunteers. Hearing real experiences can help potential volunteers connect emotionally and understand the meaningful impact they can make. Encourage those of your current volunteers who are there to share their stories with attendees.

Give informational talks

Randomly throughout the event have someone give a short talk (no more than three minutes). Cover topics such as the mission of your organization, available volunteer opportunities, and the benefits of getting involved. Don’t forget to end with where they can get an application form.

Prepare to answer questions

Ensure that all staff and current volunteers at the event are willing and able to answer questions. This allows attendees to seek clarification and gain a deeper understanding of your organization and its volunteer programs. If someone doesn’t have the answer to a specific question, they should know to whom to refer the questioner.

Provide refreshments

If you feed them, they will come. Consider offering refreshments to create a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere. This encourages attendees to stay longer, engage in conversations, and feel more connected to your cause. This can be as simple as coffee, tea, water and a selection of pastries. It doesn’t have to be lavish or expensive.

Collect contact information

Even if they aren’t filling out an application right then, have a system in place to collect contact information from interested attendees. This will enable you to stay in touch with them after the event and provide additional details about volunteering opportunities or events that are being planned.

Remember to follow-up

The most common mistake I’ve seen, whether after a volunteer fair or an open house, is to lose touch with the attendees.

Even if they don’t sign up with you, promptly follow up with them to express gratitude for their participation. Provide any additional information they may have requested, let them know you are always willing to answer their questions, and reiterate the positive impact they can have by joining your volunteer team.

An open house can be an effective way to recruit volunteers, but the quality of the results will depend on the quality of the event.

Hopefully these tips will help. Good luck.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.



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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.



The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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