Guide to exemplary practices in volunteering: Inspiring others

From Employment and Social Development Canada

Official title: 2016 Canada's Volunteer Award – Guide to exemplary practices in volunteering: Inspiring others

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The 2016 awards in context

Canada's Volunteer Awards recognize the significant efforts and contributions of individuals, businesses and not-for-profits from across the country; encourage partnerships across sectors; and highlight the exemplary practices of people who give their time generously and find new ways of making a difference.

There have been 67 award recipients since the first ceremony was held in 2012. Coming from all walks of life, award recipients bring passion, life experience, and skills to their volunteer work. They generously give their time without seeking credit or always knowing the extent to which their work has affected others. Instead, they are guided by a passion for making a difference and a commitment to improving the lives of others.

"As volunteers, we plant a seed or we drop a stone in the middle of a pond, and through our passion, it grows… it's a ripple effect."

Marilyn Lenzen, Community Leader Recipient

The purpose of this guide

Each year the Exemplary Practices Session is held in conjunction with the Awards ceremony. Here, recipients share their knowledge, experience, and ideas about how to engage and inspire others to contribute in their community. This dialogue takes place in the context of select themes that change annually.

On June 8, 2016, Award recipients, their supporters, and stakeholder representatives with a perspective on youth, gathered to discuss their experiences and best practices in the areas of intergenerational volunteering and the use of technology in volunteering.

"I decided to volunteer because I though, 'If I can help just one person, it would be a way to give back to those who have given me so much hope.'"

Linda Ryan, Community Leader Recipient

The dialogue was passionate as participants contributed their thoughts and ideas from their own experiences. What follows are the highlights of that dialogue.

The contributions of the Exemplary Practices Session participants are intended to guide people looking to enhance the impact of their volunteer activities through intergenerational practices and the use of technology.

Intergenerational volunteering

Intergenerational volunteering refers to individuals from various age groups working together towards a common end—sharing personal experiences and strengthening the community as a whole.

Integrating the needs of different generations or blending generations together in a volunteer program can be challenging. However, done well, it can be rewarding and yield significant benefits for volunteers and the host organization.

The character of each generation is different, based on life experiences and expectations for the future. Some differences include: level of familiarity with technology; expected level of timely feedback and recognition of their work; and expectations for advancement—either the speed at which they believe they are ready and hope to advance and take-on more responsibility, or whether they expect or want to advance at all.

Despite these differences, there are a variety of similarities across generations, such as: valuing work-life balance, desiring to be challenged in the work, wanting to be involved in decision-making, valuing teamwork, and seeking out opportunities for learning and development.

By exploring these generational similarities and differences, organizations and individuals can develop successful strategies for intergenerational volunteering.

Participants of the 2016 Exemplary Practices Session shared their own views on what they saw as important considerations when contemplating intergenerational volunteering experiences.

Consider the psychological development of different demographics

Session participants said that different demographics have different ways of understanding; including different ways of understanding how to care for others.

The discussion on psychological development considerations highlighted that organizations cannot talk to volunteers of different generations in the same way, hoping that they will understand. They have to be willing to experiment with a variety of ways of engaging and talking with different age groups, and adapting existing approaches to the special considerations of each person.

As an example, when discussing fundraising for his volunteer project, 2016 Emerging Leader recipient, Ryan Hreljac, recounted that, at the age of six, he did not understand the abstract concept of how far it was for someone to walk five kilometers to get water. But, he could understand that everyone should have access to clean drinking water. Knowing that there were people who didn’t have the same access to essential resources as he did motivated him to raise money.

This example highlights the importance of finding creative and concrete ways to convey information to children, so that it is easier for young minds to grasp.

Look at people's life circumstances and not just their age group

Different things motivate different generations because of where they are or what they are doing in life. For example, some people choose to volunteer in order to apply the skills they already have, while others want to develop new skills or meet new people.

"One of the [Indigenous] artists who created one of the suites at the [social enterprise] hotel [that I was working on], thanked me and said that when he walks into the suite… he realizes that his life finally has meaning."

Jon Zwickel, InnVentures Hospitality, Business Leader Recipient

Recipients used the example of those of any age transitioning to college, university or a job. For them, volunteering is useful for post-secondary and employment applications. It also provides networking opportunities.

From an engagement point-of-view, having an intergenerational team can also be helpful, since each demographic can relate to its peers. There is a need to speak a common language and to be able to communicate the benefits of volunteering from the perspective of what is of value to that particular demographic.

Recipients were quick to say, however, that regardless of life circumstance, some things stay the same: the desire to do something good.

"At the dedication ceremony, I had the opportunity to pass over the house keys to a young lady with a family of three, and I knew it really made a difference in her life."

Jon Walker, Exit Realty, Business Leader Recipient

Consider social context

Some volunteers, of certain age groups, prefer to work alone, while others may prefer to work in groups or with their peers. For example, teenagers prefer to work with their peers. This should be considered when an organization is recruiting and trying to retain young volunteers.

Exploring the possibility of having families and friends volunteer together is also a consideration for increasing engagement. Recipients spoke to a unique aspect of volunteering happening in churches, where all members of the family volunteer a great deal. Sometimes they are doing the same thing, sometimes they are contributing in their own areas of interest.

Focus on level of commitment and diversity of opportunity

People who choose to pursue bringing together different generations of volunteers need to also consider the level of commitment different generations can give. Some can only commit sporadically or for the short-term, while others can commit for longer, more sustained timeframes. This requires flexibility and an appreciation for what people have to offer as volunteers, rather than only focusing on what the organization wants from them.

Participants emphasized that it is possible to involve volunteers for short-term projects, such as creating a video (high school student) or providing legal advice (young new lawyer). There is not just one way to volunteer—in conventional ways or for long periods of time.

Make it easier for potential volunteers of all ages to participate

It is also important to be aware of why people of different age groups disengage. It’s not usually because they are disinterested or don’t want to contribute. Volunteers, whether they are young, middle-aged or seniors, juggle competing priorities. It is possible that they have other time commitments, their own financial constraints, cannot drive or that they cannot afford transportation.

"The thing I’m probably most proud of is the friendships I’ve made."

Don Wall, Community Leader Recipient

Having an intergenerational volunteer force can help find creative ways to reduce people’s barriers to participating by leveraging the strengths and resources that each demographic brings to the team.

Help people see and hear about the benefits of volunteering

A lot of volunteering takes place behind the scenes, so people do not get a sense of the impact they might be making.

Participants emphasized the value of intergenerational volunteering to engagement efforts by bringing younger and older people together so that veteran volunteers can speak to youth about their experience and contributions, and encourage them to continue to be involved.

Let people get involved and be heard

Volunteers want to feel that they are contributing to an organization, a community or an effort, yet sometimes feel that they are given menial rather than meaningful tasks, or that their voices are not being heard. Being appreciated and knowing diverse perspectives are authentically considered is encouraging for all volunteers—regardless of age.

"I'm most proud of the fact that we have a team of very passionate volunteers across Canada talking about the issues of domestic violence."

Shanan Spencer Brown, Royal LePage Shelter Foundation, Business Leader Recipient

When considering the governance structure of organizations, it is rare to see young board members. Some at the Session suggested that we ask the question: "from an intergenerational perspective, when we look at our organization’s structural balance, is it including the voices and views of all generations, and what might be different if it were more inclusive?"

There was a view that while we should consider the power dynamics in our organizations in terms of age, we should also consider volunteers in terms of broader demographics, such as gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, to see if different groups are represented in different activities.

Using technology in volunteering

Technology has become such an integrated part of the daily lives of Canadians that most of us hardly notice it. However, the significant impact that it has had on innovation and the way we live and work is undeniable. The voluntary sector is not immune to this phenomenon.

As with other sectors, technology and innovation are central to productivity and growth in volunteerism. Innovation represents technological advancement and creative ideas that lead to new processes, systems and methods of work. Technology contributes to innovative advancements as well as supports them by providing greater efficiency and increased capacity.

New technologies bring new skills and ways of thinking, which can then be used when volunteering. Technology allows us to gather data more easily, rapidly and in more ways than ever, providing new opportunities to use information.

Organizations, businesses, and volunteers often also use adaptive and emerging technologies to grow their capacities and potential as well as promote greater community integration and outreach.

Participants of the 2016 Exemplary Practices Session shared their views on how technology continues to impact the practice of volunteering, as well as how volunteer organizations are using it.

Reverse mentoring

Participants shared their experience on how they have seen a flip of the traditional role of older experienced volunteers mentoring younger volunteers. They explained that when dealing with new technology, this scenario is reversed. Youth can often explain how technology works. The advantage to this reversal is that it creates technology prowess in your organization.

Diversity and balance are key

Discussions around the use of communications technologies to connect and engage others raised a couple of considerations.

First, all agreed that it is important to not get caught up in the technology boom. While smart integration of technology into volunteer strategies and operations is beneficial when done properly, an organization cannot rely solely on new technology.

Not everyone can or is willing to respond or engage this way. Some people do not have access to smart phones, computers, etc. or they use traditional methods like 1‑800 numbers. For them, this underscores the importance of being heard. On the other hand, others may not want to communicate orally and some would rather send an email.

A second consideration is reach and appropriateness. Not all communication technologies are the same. Those who seek to enhance the impact of their volunteer activities through the use of technology need to get to know their different audiences and the most appropriate way to get their message across.

Several Session participants argued that it is important to not only have an online presence, but that the traditional ways of communicating and engaging have a substantial impact as well.

If we want to bring awareness to our initiative or organization, new media is the way to go. If we are looking to have people donate something or their time, then we may need to use a different approach to reach people.

Ryan Hreljac, founder of Ryan's Well, claimed that, from his perspective, "the best way to reach everyone is to have an e-blast as well as a mail out." He said that his organization "hears more from their mail out than from their Twitter and Facebook accounts."

Use it to connect

Jean-Marie de Koninck, Thérèse-Casgrain Lifelong Achievement Award recipient emphasized that his organization is currently developing an application that allows people to apply for various volunteer positions once they have obtained a criminal record check. He highlighted a number of benefits to this application: the volunteer gets a real-time notification when a volunteer position is available, the organization can fill positions quickly, and different organizations as well as volunteers can benefit from a single background check rather than continuously having to pay for them.

"I'm inspired when anybody can employ an entrepreneurial mindset..."

Victoria Lennox, Community Leader Recipient

Education is critical

It is important to be clear on how different social media platforms are intended to be used. It was clear to younger participants when they stated that Twitter and Facebook cannot be used effectively in the same way. Whereas Facebook is a tool that allows organizations and individuals to gather people with deeper social interests—known as Friends—Twitter-users follow individuals in order to ascertain immediate status updates. Facebook is excellent for disseminating information that is more permanent and creating events; Twitter is better suited to spreading information or updates quickly.

Social media is an effective tool and we need to engage the right people who know how to use it to its full potential. As this field of communication continues to grow, social media is a great space in which people with these skills and insights can volunteer.

Organizations also need to match their needs with volunteers’ as well as clients’ and customers’ comfort levels and skills. Lisa Browne, from Stella’s Circle, shared that texting to make a donation was a new concept for her organization. People did not understand how it worked and the organization had to educate people.

Youth-centric organizations at the Session also shared some of their own expertise related to the use of social media. They stated that live tweeting is great, as it makes an organization’s events more accessible to those who cannot attend. Groups who use this method tend to have higher levels of engagement.

Marketing professionals have found that consumer-oriented websites that have diverse visual content—including video—provide the best return on investment. Among other reasons for this, they cite the desire for consumers to be educated before making decisions on products and services, the way people process information as they learn about products and services, and the ability to easily follow-up with additional learning after their purchase.

It is therefore possible that volunteer organizations that incorporate video and other visual attributes into their webpages may be more effective in promoting their ideas, initiatives and successes, as well as communicating the benefits of volunteering.

That being said, while visual learners may be in the majority, there are many others who still prefer text. It is therefore important not to leave out the rest. Consider accompanying video with text on screen or in PDF format.

Consider technology as a spectrum

Some recipients suggested that we should not limit the types of technology used or how it is used. "It is important not to get locked into the idea that technology is only Twitter and Facebook."

Useful technology not only includes social media, but PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, word processing, videos, microphones, telephones and projectors, as well.

Chris Holt, Executive Director of Vancouver Island Providence Farm, says that the organization thinks of technology as a continuum. "Technology on a farm includes shovels, spinning machine, all the way to computers." Different people engage with different forms of technology in different ways. We need to train and educate people on how to use technology, no matter what kind it is.

"What inspired me most to volunteer . . . they really helped me come a long way, and I just want to give back to them."

Jessica Coriat, Community Leader Recipient

Analyse and adjust

Technology allows us to learn more about those we are connecting with than ever before. In particular, outward-facing applications and social media sites allow us to look into how they are being used and analyse the data. With this information we can see how many people have seen our post, visited our site, or clicked our links. We need to get better at using this information to modify our strategies to target different groups of people, including potential volunteers.

Conclusion

The contributions presented in this guide are intended to serve as guidance to those who seek to enhance the impact of their volunteer activities through the integration of intergenerational practices and the use of technology.

The perspectives shared by participants of the Exemplary Practices Session offer a number of practical considerations. While both present unique challenges, each also has the potential to bring outstanding opportunities. Done well, their integration into the volunteer experience can yield significant benefits.

The determination and purpose that award recipients have exhibited, and the impact they have had, are exemplary in their own right. We thank them for giving their time, creativity, inspiration and experience for the benefit of others by participating in this Session.

"When you’re working towards a goal, you don’t see the hours that you are putting into it until someone points it out to you."

Denis Poitras, Community Leader Recipient

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