How can I help? Always be on the lookout for that next great volunteer

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Recently I was standing in an elevator and started up a conversation with a stranger about the usual day-to-day stuff. Nice weather we are having this winter? Can't wait for summer, and all that.

Interestingly, she asked me where I work — and after telling her that I manage a volunteer program, she said what so many people have said to me in the past. "I've thought about volunteering but haven't done anything about it, maybe one day."

Well, perhaps not the best comment to say to an administrator of volunteers in a passing conversation. I immediately took out my business card and told her to call me. She did.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. Those who work with volunteers are always looking for opportunities to engage the community in what they do. That is what we do best.

Interestingly, the number one reason that people don't volunteer, is the same reason they don't make donations: because they haven't been asked. Why is that?

If you're looking for ways to engage more people into your organization's volunteer program, consider and remember the following (especially when talking to those potential volunteers):

Volunteering is good for your health

Research tells us that volunteering is good for our health. When we do volunteer work, we feel good about what we are engaged in. In addition to relieving stress and increasing our sense of belonging to our communities, volunteer activities have also been proven to release endorphins because of that good feeling — rewarding our bodies physiologically at the same as our hearts and minds. In fact, Baycrest Hospital in Toronto is in the midst of a research project that is studying effects on volunteers through a three-year span. As well, volunteering has been known to help reduce the risk of depression. One of the key benefits of volunteering is the ability to work with others and remove some of the social isolation that many people feel. By helping others, engaging socially and sharing your experiences, you are not only providing assistance, you are reinforcing the knowledge that your help makes a difference. Finally, volunteering can keep you healthy by keeping you active. Physical activity has many beneficial qualities for a healthy life.

Volunteering can start early in life

We are trying to teach children to be active citizens at a young age. Schools may embrace the concept of community engagement through mandated volunteer programs, but that is just scratching the surface. We need to build on that foundation and encourage young people to get out there and volunteer, beyond the hours they are required to complete. Are we guiding the schools in the right direction?

Is there a way for your organization to become more involved in area schools? Make connections with those who are responsible for matching students with volunteer opportunities. Consider activities that a group of teenagers could take on together, and remember to make it fun. No one wants to spend an afternoon stuffing envelopes, least of all a group of youth who we're trying to get excited about volunteering! It is important to understand the motivations of why youth volunteer. They are interested in learning, gaining experience, working with others, and having fun. Developing opportunities that can engage youth is a win/win proposal. Though youth may only volunteer episodically, they will come back if they feel that they have been appreciated and that they can make a difference.

Volunteering can look different based on where you are in life

The nearly 12.5 millions Canadians who volunteer are a diverse bunch. They include baby boomers, millennials, retirees, new Canadians, professionals and students to name a few — and just as diverse are the myriad of volunteer opportunities that are available to them.

Is your organization looking for a specific kind of volunteer? If you're looking for youth to help run an after-school peer-mentoring program, then maybe you shouldn't spend time trying to recruit retirees. It is important to understand what the role of the volunteer is before recruitment begins. Each diverse group of volunteers may have different expectations from their volunteer work. For example, baby boomers, who make up our single-largest cohort of volunteers, are becoming more interested in episodic volunteering. This allows them the flexibility to come in and volunteer, while providing the required balance in their life, especially if they want to be able to work, travel, volunteer and look after their families, all at the same time.

Youth on the other hand may be more focused on learning and having fun while giving back to their community. They are on a huge learning curve and bring a passion and excitement to their volunteering but maybe not so much experience.

New Canadians may have many skills and a lot of experience but not Canadian experience, so they may be looking at volunteering as a way to build their professional and community relationships as they get into the workforce and become engaged and active citizens.

As you can see, each one of these groups has different reasons for volunteering, and we need to be able to understand these and have our volunteer positions reflect or diverse volunteer population.

How do volunteers find out about you?

Do people know how to find you? Are you getting the right message out there? From the volunteer's perspective, do they know what questions to ask? Do they know what we do and the impact they can make in their communities? Why is there so little written about great volunteering in the media and highlighting what is going on in the community so that others can learn and maybe spark some ideas. I know that highlighting volunteerism is a priority during National Volunteer Week but should we be highlighting volunteerism on a mass scale regularly.

During National Volunteer Week we celebrate volunteerism but should we be doing it just once a year. One of the best ways for volunteers to find you is by making sure that you are highlighting your volunteers and their accomplishments throughout the year. There are many ways to do this. You can:

  • Talk about your volunteers in newsletters
  • Highlight your volunteer program on your website
  • Start a Facebook group to discuss volunteering
  • Create a video of some of your organization's volunteer highlights
  • Structure your volunteer requests so that they reflect the diversity of volunteers

As well, it is the volunteer program's responsibility to not only recruit and manage volunteers, but to engage them as ambassadors and to highlight their experiences. Happy and engaged volunteers can be an amazing resource as you seek to reach out to new volunteers.

Volunteering is more than three hours a week

Volunteering is more than just providing a set amount of hours to an organization. Though traditionally volunteers are attached to a schedule or an activity, they are more than this. Volunteers are our links to the community and our networks. Volunteers tell us what the trends are and how we can get ahead of the curve. They are the ones who are at the front lines in many cases. They are our advocates, our leaders and our friends. It is important to remember to include input from the volunteers on a regular basis. Whether you are evaluation successes or planning for future programming, gathering feedback from your present and even past volunteers will not only give you some insight that is valuable but will also make them feel that what they contribute is valuable to your work. This is a great form of recognizing their efforts and for keeping them engaged with your organization.

You don't have to reinvent the wheel

There are many resources available to help you manage your volunteer program. Volunteer Canada is always an excellent source, and with National Volunteer Week just around the corner from April 15 to 21, now may be a good time to be thinking about how you recognize and celebrate your volunteers. Your local volunteer centre is also an excellent resource — give them a call or stop by.

And most importantly, when seeking out new volunteers: don't forget to ask!

Lori Gotlieb is the Manager, Community Engagement, Ontario Division, The Arthritis Society and the founder of Lori Gotlieb Consulting. Lori is an internationally published author and workshop facilitator. Lori can be reached at lori.gotlieb@rogers.com.

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

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