Using “I wonder…” to develop high impact volunteer opportunities

The word “volunteer” usually conjures up an image of a person in a helping role – reading to children, serving at a soup kitchen, stuffing thank you letters. While these activities play important roles, they miss out on a segment of volunteers interested in using their minds more than their hands.


As a director of the Canadian Women Voters Congress, I am interested in knowing more about the context of our work helping women achieve success in politics and leadership. We have a visioning day coming up, and part of that will focus on the direction of our educational programming. However, the board will be in a much better position to decide on that direction if we know the breadth of programs offered in Canada that support women’s involvement in the political process. So we wondered: what are other organizations and initiatives doing in this area?

And from there a Research Associate role was created. We’ve interviewed and hired a talented pair of women from the Ottawa and Vancouver areas to lead the project and are still interviewing more for potential involvement. These high impact volunteers are essential to our growth as a strong organization.

The challenge

Vantage Point, a Canadian nonprofit capacity building organization, has been pushing high impact volunteering for years. But the uptake has been challenging. Many organizations are unwilling? unable? unaware? Sometimes reenvisioning the ways an organization has engaged volunteers from its inception is difficult.

Using “I Wonder”

I suggest having a note pad nearby your desk. An actual note pad. A Google Doc. Something to keep track of questions that unexpectedly or otherwise pop into your head. Things you wonder about.

  • I wonder if there’s an easier/better way to do _________.
    • eg use technology, public speak, process donations
  • I wonder what our stakeholders think about _________.
    • eg our brand, our events, our strategic priorities
  • I wonder how effective _________ is.
    • eg our advertising, our volunteer recognition, our mentorship program
  • I wonder what other organizations are doing in this area.
    • eg the breadth of programs offered in Canada that support women’s involvement in the political process

These are the questions that high impact volunteers can help you answer.

What questions could a high-impact volunteer help you answer? How have you engaged high-impact volunteers to answer them?

Upcoming events: Volunteers and technology; what the next gen wants from nonprofits

I’ll be speaking in three different places next month – hope to see you at one or more!


Complete details here >

Tuesday, July 5 | 5:30pm | 306 Abbott St (upstairs) | FREE
Join me and Elijah van der Giessen (of Net Tuesday and David Suzuki Foundation) as we share strategies about the use of technology for effective volunteer engagement.


Complete details here >

This two-part series will introduce you to data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits, help you identify how your organization is currently performing, and encourage next steps you can take to achieve your goals. Sample topics include volunteer opportunities, new donors, staff retention, and social media.

No more guessing: Data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits

Wed, July 13 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Future engagement: Assessing your current practices and taking the next step to effective next generation engagement

Wed, July 27 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

3 reasons why I’m a National Volunteer Week skeptic

So this week coming to an end is National Volunteer Week.

My reaction? Meh.

This is why.

Volunteers need constant engagement

If organizations are drawing public (or private) attention to their volunteers and thanking them this week only, I bet they are having a hard time retaining volunteers. It’s like a romantic Valentines Day dinner when your partner is an ass the rest of the year. Doesn’t mean much.

Volunteerism doesn’t need awareness-raising

Volunteerism as a concept does not need promotion. Volunteering for specific organizations might. But drawing volunteers to an organization involves more than good promotion. It requires an organizational culture that is attuned to the changes in the expectations and interests of volunteers. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to outstanding people who are meaningfully engaging volunteers through their work – and they have few problems recruiting volunteers, and rarely need to promote.

Volunteer agencies are bad at PR

Yes, #NWV11 has had some traction on Twitter. But really, as someone who is fairly embedded within the nonprofit and volunteerism culture in Vancouver, BC and Canada, I am often surprised how rarely campaigns promoting a spirit of volunteerism reach me. I’m not saying it’s easy – I had the job of promoting engaged citizenship at SFU and it’s was a slow and tough slog. It’s hard when your target market is broad and diffuse. But these organizations are often preaching to the converted, and even then only a very small circle of the converted.


Instead, organizations tasked with the promotion of volunteerism should focus on those doing the volunteer engagement. How can you help them succeed in promoting a spirit of meaningful volunteerism within their organizations?

Let’s shift to a place where citizens are clamoring at our doors because we all are offering engaging opportunities that address the realities of the present. Volunteerism isn’t changing. It has already changed.

Incomplete Thought #3: Do we ‘lead’ volunteers, or ‘manage’ them?

When we talk about working with volunteers, the word “volunteer management” is the general phrase that’s used. People whose job it is to do volunteer management are volunteer managers.

But what about leading volunteers?

I say that for those engaging passion citizens as volunteers, is it not even more important to inspire vision? To show people what is possible? To actively engage minds and individual motivations?

The only problem is, the phrase “volunteer leader” sounds like you are a leader who is not getting paid, not one who leads volunteers.

Damn “volunteer” and its dual use of noun and adjective.

Oh, and by the way, happy belated International Volunteer Managers Day, which was apparently on November 5.


The Incomplete Thought Series is, well, a series of incomplete thoughts. These are thoughts I have not researched, but which have popped into my head and am interested in discussing. Your incomplete or complete thoughts are encouraged.

Volunteer intersectionality – grassroots vs. big image

Image Credit: wili_hybrid

Well, I’ve been a bit AWOL for the past few weeks – busy @work, crazy sick with lots of vomiting, final MBA papers due, and a recent death in the family. Let’s just say I’m glad to be moving forward from here.

So a few weeks ago a young woman set up an interview with me to help her with a paper she was writing about volunteers and why they volunteer where they volunteer. She wondered what made some people work with small organizations, and others work with large organizations, like for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. It sounded like someone else that she interviewed thought that those volunteering with smaller organizations were more interested in social and environmental justice, whereas those volunteering with large organizations and events like the Olympics are interested in getting the name on the resume, checking off the experience on list of things to do.

Why not both?

I do both.

I’ll be volunteering with the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in February. I’m incredibly thrilled and am so wrapped up in the spirit that’s been demonstrated along the torch relay in communities across the country. I’m proud to represent my country as a volunteer (because I am never going to be a world-class athlete) and be a part of something bigger.

I also currently volunteer with the Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation which does great work supporting youth in grades 10-12 who face a multitude of barriers, providing a mix of adventure-based learning, academics, therapy, and community service with great results. I volunteer with Volunteer Vancouver (recently rebranded as Vantage Point, which I’m not sure I get, but I digress) on a steering committee for a young professionals network and have done curriculum development and delivery for them in the past.

Maybe these last two aren’t social or environmental justicey enough to cut it for the hard cores out there. Sure, I don’t happen to currently volunteer at my local farmers markets, but I shop there and think they do great work. No, I don’t happen to currently volunteer with Pivot Legal Society, but I buy the Hope in Shadows calendar, and think Pivot does great work. Maybe I will in the future, but I’m a little tapped out at the moment.

Are volunteering for brand name organizations and small grassroots groups mutually exclusive? I hope not.

Volunteer Intersectionality

I often perceive that certain causes and passions are not visually marriageable. I guess what I mean by that is that they don’t fit together by first glance. And if you are involved with one, you must be against the other. For example, if you support homeless rights, you must be anti-Olympics and vice versa. People make assumptions about you based on one characteristic. By voicing that viewpoint,  you risk excluding potential supporters (i.e. me). Why define the boundaries of supporters? Maybe it’s just my introvert self perceiving and overthinking something that’s not reality, but I don’t think so.

I’m lucky to have great friends that share this awareness. They may personally disagree with Olympics, but they ask me how my training is going and don’t chastise me for my involvement. They’ll tell you I’m not uneducated or unaware. I’m just a passion-diverse person. And if you want my support, you’re going to have to accept that.

The rush to create group volunteering opportunities

Group volunteering is high in popularity thanks to both corporate volunteerism, stemming from trends in corporate social responsibility; and the Millennial generation’s propensity for group activities, stemming from their history of group work and cooperation in the K-12 school system.

I remember the volunteer coordinator at the last nonprofit I worked for asking if I had anything I needed doing suitable for a corporate group of professionals. The call would go out to various programs once in a while, and I always found filling this role to be awkward. On one hand, corporate volunteerism might lead to corporate donations, so nonprofits often jump to sort something out for these potential donors. However, precious resources may get used up, taken away from working with clients, running programs, etc., just for a group of corporate volunteers to spend a day doing a ‘meaningful’ task.

Nonprofits may also start jumping to create team opportunities for Millennial volunteers, though this trend might take a bit longer. It may be hard to change the way volunteers are engaged if the current model has been working for so long. However, if your organization is only offering individual opportunities, the current model is not going to work forever. Secondly, nonprofits will soon (and many already have) start to realize that their aging donor base isn’t going to sustain them forever and new donors are going to have to be cultivated from this Millennial generation.

Some of these group volunteer opportunities may last a day. Others a year. Here are some ideas for creating group volunteer opportunities that may be suitable for either corporate or Millennial volunteers.

  1. Stock up. Doesn’t it always seem that when you need people you don’t have them and when you have them you don’t need them? Even though the timing may not be ideal, save your donation sorting, activity room painting, or garden planting for when you get that call. Better yet, initiate contact with prospective group volunteers or donors and offer the opportunity. Ahead of time.
  2. Create a group of mini-skilled positions. Maybe you want your website or brochures translated into other languages. Maybe you need a bunch of documents realigned with your new branding. Corporate and Millennial volunteers can be a skilled bunch, so set aside some small skilled tasks, have a potluck, and get a work-party on!
  3. Re-brand individual activities as group activities. I don’t mean calling a duck a swan–some legitimate changes need to happen. For example, if your organization holds multiple events per year that requires volunteers, create a “Crew” opportunity. Give them chances to meet and greet each other outside of event times, offer some value-added training, and provide them with some unique chances to be engaged in other ways, and be sure to communicate with them as a “Crew” throughout the year. The SFU Student Development department is great at this branding. The orientation volunteers are the “O Crew”. The Week of Welcome volunteers are the “WOW Crew”. The volunteers are a team.
  4. Get Professional Development. Both corporate volunteers and Millennials may have backgrounds that could be beneficial for your staff or clients to learn from. Corporate volunteers from an audit company may be able to deliver a workshop to program managers about demonstrating a program’s return on investment. Millennial volunteers in a university HR program may be interested in leading a workshop for community centre clients on resume building. For example, SFU Career Peer Educators have work as a team before to deliver just such a workshop. It was valuable for the participants, and a highlight of the year for many Peers.
  5. Bring together individuals or small groups of volunteer together for special opportunities. I am currently working with two fantastic segments of student volunteers at SFU Volunteer Services. Two students scout and write stories for our ENGAGE blog; another team of volunteers is helping plan a Volunteer and Civic Engagement Week on campus this fall. Both groups are working in teams already, but bringing them together for special development or social opportunities could a) reinforce how each group contributes to our mission, and b) build social connections and a larger sense of team.

How have you engaged groups of volunteers at your organizations? How have you been engaged as a group volunteer?