inVESting in Volunteerism

Ilya Ushakov

Director, Programs & Volunteerism

Volunteerism is the foundation supporting your home. It’s largely hidden, yet rock-solid and dependable, and essential to propping up the spaces and situations in which you, your family, and your community connect and thrive.

Every Edmontonian has been touched by volunteerism in some way. Volunteers are behind the events and festivals we attend, the food hampers delivered daily to those in need, the organized sports kids enjoy, even the natural landscape that surrounds us. It’s behind the acts of service and the  random acts of kindness woven through our interpersonal relationships. Though we may not always recognize it, volunteerism is fundamental to so much of what we do, see, and interact with.

Behind each volunteer is a dedicated professional who coordinates their effort and supports their experience. If volunteers are foundations, we ought to recognize the architects and engineers responsible for carefully pouring everything into place. At ECVO, we like to refer to them as Volunteer Engagement Specialists.

A Culture of Growth

Edmonton has a rich history of building supportive networks around these specialist roles. For decades, the Volunteer Management Group had been working to bring together individuals in voluntary management positions. However, in September 2019, the group disbanded, leaving a wide gap where there was once a space for collaboration, sharing resources, generating ideas, and peer support.

ECVO had been hosting Think Tank Conversations since 2014, which gathered volunteer engagement specialists to discuss common themes or challenges in the volunteerism space and brainstorm new ideas and possible solutions.

Think Tank participants had voiced many challenges, some of which persisted year after year without much progress towards their solutions. We needed a new approach. With the loss of VMG, Think Tankers found an opportunity to widen their scope to fill the gap, spurring a shift towards more consistent and strategic collective action work.

We went back to the drawing board and launched focus groups to help set a clear path ahead.

Ultimately, this led to inVESt, a fresh approach and new identity that nods to both the Volunteer Engagement Specialist in its many different forms, and the long-term investment needed to achieve systemic change.

In 2020, we entered into a discovery phase, beginning with an environmental scan in which the inVESt community will identify what resources and supports are available and needed to grow the VES role and networks surrounding it. Throughout the year, ECVO is working with the Government of Alberta’s Community Development Unit to formalize this group and develop a self-sustaining community of practice dedicated to growth and collective impact.

inVESt’s first sessions created two focus groups with a combined 28 local volunteer engagement specialists from across the non-profit sector. The energy was fantastic: at times cautiously optimistic, but ultimately excited and enthusiastic to move forward. We worked together to chew on answers to big questions: what does volunteerism look and feel like currently, and what is the ideal future for volunteers and voluntary organizations?

A Culture of Evolution

We’re learning that both the general public and non-profits themselves could benefit from a deeper understanding of what volunteerism is, how it’s evolving, and how it functions in different organizations.

A lack of understanding leads to more discontent amongst volunteers who feel they’re not having the experience they had hoped for. That creates challenges for non-profits and their staff: retention rates drop, culture dissipates, and satisfaction declines. It’s a dangerous cycle that tends to spiral if left unchecked.

Making matters more difficult is that society is constantly evolving. Volunteers increasingly want short-term flexible opportunities, while organizations still desire the stability of longer-term volunteer commitment. That said, volunteer engagement specialists tend to agree that the public’s desire to help is still strong and technology is creating more opportunities for impact and connection.

By the end of the two sessions, we had mapped some of attributes we might see in this ideal future for volunteerism. The two groups drew similar conclusions, with some interesting differences.spaces

As the sessions drew to a close, action plans began to emerge. I saw organizations sharing contact information, making plans to connect, and riding the energy from the meeting to start moving the needle in the volunteerism space.

There was so much active conversation around dreams and ideals, and yet many left with actionable ideas for their organization in the here-and-now. They tossed around ideas such as peer tours to help create better understanding between organizations. They proposed a master contact list so that those working in the volunteerism space know where to find their peers. They began talking about active recruitment for the inVESt community. To my mind, nothing beat seeing the sheer excitement from those in the room to be sharing contact information with others, making plans to meet, and laying the first building blocks of greater connection within the profession.

A Culture of Collaboration

As simple and uniform as a home’s foundation may appear, the reality is that it took a lot of intention, collaboration, and maybe even the occasional difficult conversation to ensure it was built to hold up an awfully heavy structure, and do so for generations to come.

We’re excited to continue this conversation with another session on March 26 to capture more of this conversation and begin to frame the ideal vision of this passionate group. If you work in this space—if your job involves coordinating volunteers in any way, shape, or form—we would love to see you there.

We’re encouraging attendees from the first session to bring a peer from another organization, as well. Together, we’ll continue building our community and the incredible work that enables volunteerism in Edmonton.

If you have questions, want to learn more or get involved with the process feel free to reach out to me, Ilya Ushakov at [email protected].

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