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Are we truly engaging our volunteers?

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In looking back at the work that took place at the National Summit last November, and in reading through the summary reports, articles and discussions that followed, what stands out is the importance of shifting the culture of volunteerism while at the same time, building organizational capacity around volunteer engagement.

It seems that expanding the traditional view of volunteerism (moving beyond the service-delivery, charity model that has persisted for decades) is imperative to creating favourable conditions for meaningfully engaging people in the work and goals of the nonprofit sector. This cultural shift means looking internally at the some of the sector’s entrenched ideas about the role of volunteers and challenging the public perception about who volunteers and why.

To jog your memory, here are a few key points that stand out from the summit:

  • Increasing our understanding of today’s volunteers - their expectations, needs and skill-sets – will lead to the creation of more meaningful opportunities to participate. Volunteer Canada emphasized the importance of offering a spectrum of engagement opportunities, meaning designing a broad range of ways that people can be involved. See the 2012 edition of the Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement to learn more.
  • Many volunteers want to understand how their contribution fits into the larger picture and to gain a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. The sector is grasping the importance of making a connection, building relationship and communicating effectively with today’s volunteers - and successful organizations are embracing technology and specifically social media key tools to achieve this.
  • Some volunteer leaders are moving towards an integrated, strategic approach to people management that breaks down the silos between paid human resources and volunteer management to allow organizations to bring together the people with the skills and talent required to achieve their missions. This requires an emphasis on increased collaboration and cross-over between paid and volunteer contributions.

Checking in with Volunteer Canada six months after the Summit, it’s interesting to see where things are shifting, where their work is focused, what ideas are continuing to get traction in the sector, and what comes next.

As the national leader on volunteerism, Volunteer Canada played a significant role in shaping the conversation around volunteerism at the National Summit, and continues to take a lead in working on the priority challenges identified. Volunteer Canada President & CEO Ruth MacKenzie explained that the summit was an opportunity to test the ideas and priorities they are currently working on and to get a sense of where organizations are being successful, who is innovating and where there continues to be challenges.

“We found a tremendous amount of support for moving beyond the traditional volunteer model of ‘giver & receiver’. There was a very real and shared understanding that we need to recognize and enable everyone to engage with their community in ways that work for them. We heard about the importance of engaging with communities to address some of the traditional (and in some cases negative) perceptions of volunteering but also the need to look at where the sector may be perpetuating these negative perceptions and creating barriers.”

So where are the shifts happening?

It seems the language we use to talk about volunteering is changing. Volunteer engagement is supplanting volunteer management, reflecting not only a change in semantics, but more importantly a paradigm shift. Organizations are placing a premium on how they engage people – as citizens, as members, as employees, donors, and of course, as volunteers. They want to know how to connect, inform them of the work they are doing, the impacts they are having, and most importantly, how they can contribute and participate.

“We are seeing the conversations evolving. Organizations recognize that how they engage a volunteer is critical to their ability to recruit volunteers,” says MacKenzie. “They are seeing the connection, the relationship between volunteering and active citizenship. They are adapting to what volunteers are looking for."

Although there may be a willingness to think about volunteer engagement more broadly, there are practical challenges in making this a reality. Many organizations have spent years working very hard to professionalize the way they work with volunteers. They may a have dedicated employee responsible for the management of a volunteer program, perhaps they have developed policies and created procedures around how volunteers are recruited, selected, supervised and recognized. Now, as organizations work to adapt to changing expectations from volunteers, there is a strong fear that some organizations may have over-bureaucratized volunteering or created barriers for some people who want to get involved. As organizations became more professional in their management of volunteers, did they also become more rigid, less responsive to what and how volunteers are looking to contribute?

In April, during National Volunteer Week, Volunteer Canada joined His Excellency, David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, in hosting roundtable discussions where participants considered whether we might be over-professionalizing volunteering and compromising some of its inherently organic nature, and the benefits and challenges of an integrated approach to HR.

In his opening remarks, the Governor General challenged volunteer managers to consider how the work that they are doing is making it easier for Canadians to volunteer their time and energy. “By helping volunteer organizations in our country incorporate proven professional practices, you empower them to engage volunteers in meaningful ways, maximize the impact each volunteer has on the organization and the people it serves, and ensure volunteers enjoy rewarding experiences.”

The professionalism that the Governor General is speaking about is one that empowers, supports and maximizes volunteer impact. Perhaps the challenge is to aspire to this ‘smarter’ professionalism and not to equate professionalism with layers of bureaucracy, paperwork or process. The best volunteer managers are moving well beyond checking off all the boxes – they are skilled in relationship building, in connecting with and developing people and asking the right questions to really understand their motivations, interests and what they have to offer. Rather than trying to fit prospective volunteers into a rigidly defined positions or roles, looking at how organizational goals can be achieved by harnessing the skills and energy presented by those who want to be involved.

The challenge of this new approach to engagement lies in the fact that while it’s great to aspire to be more flexible, responsive and adaptable, organizations also have to be diligent, careful and thorough from a risk management perspective. So how are managers balancing the new engagement model with the risk-management responsibilities of their jobs? MacKenzie states that “this is an important question and we don't have a solid answer at this point. As always, it is critical to emphasize screening as a comprehensive ten step process, rather than as being synonymous with police checks as continues to occur.”

Organizations want to be creative and engaging, while at the same time, applying a thorough ten step screening process – not an easy feat. Volunteer Canada is continuing to roll-out their national “Building the Bridge” volunteer engagement campaign to provide volunteers with the tools and resources to become more involved in their communities, as well as provide organizations with the tools and resources they need to more effectively engage volunteers. This campaign will continue to target youth, baby boomers, and newcomers to Canada.

As the nonprofit sector continues to challenge and expand ideas about volunteering, organizations must continue to work to be both professional (smart-professional, that is!) and highly engaging. It remains to be seen how organization are going to strike this balance. It is likely that the organizations who will continue to lead the way are those who have both the organization culture and capacity to engage people. They are dynamic, exciting organizations and they likely have highly engaged members, donors, employees AND volunteers.

Editor's Note: For additional context read Allison's original article which was published shortly after the National Summit in 2011. 

Allison held a number of positions in the nonprofit sector in the areas of HR, volunteer management and community engagement. She currently works as a Coordinator of Volunteers and volunteers as a Manager of Disasters(!) in Ottawa. You can reach Allison by email at allisonseniuk@gmail.com.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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egrinshteyn@rrc.ca egrinshteyn@rrc.ca
It is a fantastic peace, however sometimes the volunteer needs are different from what organization has to offer, it may be a challenge to make this rewarding experience. In those cases what should happened? The volunteer job description should be modified? Should we redirect this volunteer?
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apalubiski@thevantagepoint.ca apalubiski@thevantagepoint.ca
Great piece! I agree “professionalism” does not = being less adaptable. Clear & consistent people processes for paid and external talent is key to “an integrated, strategic approach”. At Vantage Point we are highly adaptable to the expertise of volunteers – we’ve changed course many times because of their knowledge & insight! But we always follow clear processes to select the right people, with the right skills & educate them on our mission, culture, & values.
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