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Through the volunteers' eyes: What volunteers want nonprofits to know about effectively involving them

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Happy National Volunteer Week! This week, events will be held across Canada to celebrate the contributions of countless volunteers. In the midst of the festivities, let's pause for a quieter, more reflective way to recognize our volunteers...by listening to them as they share their thoughts and ideas. In this cover story, three volunteers talk about what makes them feel supported by the different organizations they serve. By taking the time to listen to their accounts, we value the volunteer voice and gain ideas about effectively involving volunteers.

"I feel informed when..."

Cyrille Godin is a civil servant with the New Brunswick Ministry of Health. Five years ago, an ad in a local university paper caught his eye; AIDS New Brunswick was looking for volunteer translators. He was intrigued because it was the first time he'd seen an advertisement for volunteer translators. Remarks Godin, "Usually you see 'We need people to sell tickets. We need people to go door-to-door,' and that just wasn't appealing to me." But being a volunteer translator was, so he checked it out further. Since then, his annual time commitment averages in the 50 to 60 hour range.

Godin really appreciates the effort that AIDS New Brunswick puts into keeping volunteers informed through e-bulletins and e-mails. He likes knowing what is going on in the organization as a whole - like any restructuring or new people who've joined the organization. This is interesting as well as practical, explains Godin, because when he gets a translation request, he already knows who the person is who is approaching him.

"I feel connected when..."

It was also a newspaper ad that caught Grant Thomas' eye about a year after his July 2003 retirement as a production planner with a chemical company. He had never volunteered before when he came across an ad for volunteer drivers with the Oakville (Ontario) Unit of the Canadian Cancer Society. At that time, there was a bit of a lull in his life so he decided to investigate even though, "I didn't think I would fit their criteria. I don't know why exactly. I didn't know what to think. Volunteering was new to me." As a volunteer driver, Thomas doesn't have a lot of interaction with other Unit volunteers so he is very appreciative of events that help him feel connected to staff and other volunteer drivers.

Last summer, he attended a barbeque that helped him to "see who 'Joe' was, and so forth." There was also a training session about procedures last September that Thomas found very helpful because it gave him the chance to review procedures, hear what other volunteers thought and how they reacted in certain situations. "I felt like I wasn't doing this alone. I felt part of group," reflects Thomas. Interestingly, a number of the other volunteer drivers left with a much different impression of the very same training session. Notes Thomas, some thought is was a check-up of the drivers as if they weren't competent and had to be straightened out.

"I feel recognized when..."

This is the paradox of feedback: some volunteers welcome it while others can be put off by it. But according to Godin, "I'd just as soon have someone tell me that I'm not doing it right from the get-go rather than wait a year because they didn't want to lose me. I also consider feedback to be a form of recognition." For Godin, that includes hearing in concrete terms how much money his translation services saved the organization in a year or hearing that people have read his translated work and are happy with it. Equally, he feels appreciated when the organization tries out new translation volunteers and lets Godin have a look at their work. He knows this means the organization has confidence in him.

Of course, receiving a thank you card out of the blue with a coupon for the local coffee shop is a nice touch, too. Godin thinks it's appreciated more than the Volunteer of the Year Awards, where only one person is picked and the others are left out. Positive reinforcement also comes from hearing from the clients and how they benefit from the services provided by a volunteer.

Thomas appreciates this touch, too. He receives the feedback when someone he's driven calls in to the transportation desk. "I've dealt with four people on the transportation desk and I find one in particular very helpful," says Thomas. "When I talk to her she lets me know if she got any feedback from clients. I'm not running around looking for praise by any means, but it's nice to hear that people are appreciative." Other volunteers agree.

"I don't personally feel it is necessary to spend a lot of money on volunteer recognition," remarks Sally Murphy of Halifax, NS, who started volunteering twenty years ago with CanTRA (Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association). "The biggest award for me is not public recognition as much as the ear to ear smiles on the riders' faces or a parent's tears - that's worth much more than a plaque." While she began her volunteering in a small way, Murphy now approaches it like a full-time, unpaid commitment. She provides a combination of hands-on teaching at the local level, plus she is the CanTRA zone chairperson for the Atlantic provinces and a member of the national board of directors.

Her reasons for getting involved were two-fold. First, her nephew was born with spina bifida and was involved in the first therapeutic riding stable in the 1960s. At the time, Murphy lived in the United States and couldn't help him, but she would talk to him on the phone and heard how much the program was helping him. Plus, she had polio as a child and was paralyzed on one side and knew firsthand what it meant to be disabled. Her love of horses gave her the determination that she would walk again.

"I feel frustrated when..."

Despite the positive experiences reported by most volunteers, volunteering does not come without frustrations. "One thing that turns me off is if the agency is not organized," laments Godin. He has tried out special event volunteering with different organizations and that has sometimes been frustrating, "especially when you don't have a clear sense of who is responsible, who to report to. I've been involved in handing out pamphlets at a musical event and I got there and nobody knew what I was talking about." Godin also finds it frustrating when organizations do not deal with a volunteer who is not cut out for the role. "That has an impact on other volunteers. No one wants to work with someone who is doing it half-heartedly."

Murphy wants to be useful and have her past experiences and talents used appropriately. "It's frustrating to hang around doing nothing." After twenty years of volunteering with the same organization, Murphy is obviously very content with her volunteer experience with CanTRA. However, she is mindful of these feelings when she is in charge of other volunteers .

There are thousands upon thousands of volunteers involved in communities all across Canada. So, while the thoughts of three volunteers may seem like a drop in the bucket, the important message here is that volunteers have lots of insight into involving them effectively. We just need to ask...and then listen.

This week's cover story is the second installment in a five-part series that offers nonprofit organizations a glimpse into their world from another perspective. The series also includes the perspective of funders, the media, consultants, and donors, and what they want the nonprofit sector to know.

Louise Chatterton Luchuk is a freelance writer and consultant who combines her love of writing with experience at the local, provincial and national levels of volunteer-involving organizations. For more information, visit www.luchuk.com.

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