Volunteer engagement frameworks or no?

There are two fantastic volunteer engagement spectrum/ladders that I have come to know and use in my strategizing for volunteer engagement, and another that looks more at the purpose/intent of volunteerism. I wanted to share them with you as potential frameworks with which to view how you engage volunteers, and for you to identify gaps in how volunteers might be engaged.

Framework 1: Spectrum of Volunteer Engagement (Volunteer Canada)

Spectrum of Volunteer Engagement
Source: Volunteer Canada. Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement. p. 20. Available at http://volunteer.ca/content/canadian-code-volunteer-involvement-2012-edition 

I like this framework in its simplicity. It is easy to envision the types of roles volunteers and supporters can play for each colour of the rainbow. It recognizes that the value of giving in ways other than hands-on time (e.g. who share their social capital by sharing information about the organization/issue with people in their networks). It acknowledges that people might come to volunteering through less active support, meaning that volunteer engagement and marketing/social media folk should work together within an organization.

The weakpoint of this framework is the absence of more robust descriptions and assistance for the reader in implementing what the framework suggests. I suppose that is what strategists like me can do for organizations, but it would be great for organizations to play with it more in house. While there isn’t really a link to more info about this framework, members of Volunteer Canada can try out their audit tool to help gauge their volunteer engagement work.

Framework 2: Engagement Pyramid (Groundwire)

Engagement Pyramid
Source: Idealware / Groundwire. Engagement Pyramid. Available at http://www.idealware.org/articles/engagement-pyramid-six-levels-connecting-people-and-social-change.

The original source of this framework (Groundwire) has ceased to exist, but you can find a description of it at Idealware.

What I like about the framework, and especially the information supporting the framework, is its detail in what each level might look like, how to measure engagement at a specific level, and how to move people up levels. I highly suggest a read of blog post describing the Engagement Pyramid.

I spoke about this tool/framework in June 2013 at Social Media for Nonprofits conference in Vancouver. In that space I used it more as an idea generator. But those who have the capacity to conduct strategic planning around volunteer engagement, in conjunction with marketing/communications and fundraising can really benefit from what the framework offers.

The upside of this tool for some is a downfall for others – its complexity. For organizations with little time and resources to spend on volunteer engagement strategy, this might be too robust. At a minimum, however, it’s great for ideas.

Framework 3: Continuum of Service (Morton, 1995)

Continuum of Service
Source: Morton, K. 1995. The Irony of Service: Charity, Project and Social Change in Service Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2 (1), 19-22.

This one is a little academicky, but it speaks to different motivations/intents of volunteers, and the types of work they can be engaged it. Organizations that only offer roles that connect to charity (often because the mission/service model of the organization is focussed on charity) will serve a very specific type of volunteer interested in hands-on work, that can be short term in nature (though some volunteers will continue longer term). Social change opportunities exist more frequently in advocacy and public education/policy oriented organizations, which again will attract a specific type of volunteer.

Each type of opportunity has its benefits and downfalls (e.g. feeling evidence of impact various) but each serves a purpose AND a specific type of volunteer.

Framework 4: No framework

Time limited? Want to think the least about volunteer engagement?

If you just want to start somewhere, I suggest continuuing with your work, sharing it publicly, saying YES to those that contact you with something important to offer, and focussing your efforts on those who often support you.

Vancouver Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force final report – a review

Engaged City Task Force cover

Late 2012 I was selected to serve on the Vancouver Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force (ECTF)…and promptly had to step down as I was heading to Spain and Morocco for 4 months.

But I remained interested in the work of the task force, following their “quick starts” released in mid 2013, and recently read the final report [PDF], which was approved at council last month.

About the ECTF and the report

The purpose of the final report was to “dig deeper into the roots of a disengaged and disconnected population,” specifically to

To examine innovative best practices for civic engagement, and seek to make progress on priority issues including improving the way the City communicates with citizens, engages newcomers, new immigrants and youth, consults on policy, increases voter turnout and enables community connection at a neighbourhood level.

City Council requested the ECTF to focus on potential improvements in three areas:

  1. Enabling neighbour-to-neighbour engagement
  2. Increasing civic literacy about, and opportunities for engaging
  3. Enhancing how the City engages with residents, and vice versa

City Council and the ECTF also decided to focus on certain demographics and areas of interest.

City Council requested recommendations that would be relevant to all age groups but asked the Task Force to put a special focus on residents between the ages of 18 and 35. … It also asked the Task Force to explore opportunities to expand engagement through the use of new technology. As well, since the Task Force had members from a number of cultural communities, we decided to also make special efforts to engage newcomers and new immigrants. (p. 15)

My reading lens

The lens I took when reading was: will the results lead to meaningful engagement of those underrepresented in or isolated from current ‘mainstream’ community engagement (who might well be engaged in ways that are not seen by dominant culture)? Or will it lead to more engagement of people that are already engaged?

The report

Firstly, thank you to all the volunteers who served on this committee. Such an endeavour takes time, expertise, compromise, courage for new ideas, and commitment. You had a big hill to climb.

The final recommendations fell under four valuable categories:

  1. Build knowledge
  2. Build capacity
  3. Build trust
  4. Build power

The recommendations run from the specifc (“Create a Public Space Action Association”) to the incredibly vague (“Develop specific strategies for engaging under-represented groups”).

A qualifier re: my thoughts. I admit I am a highly critical person. My instinct is to want to make things the best they can be, and my way of contributing to that is to play devil’s advocate, challenge thinking, and pointing out potential flaws or gaps.


My initial reaction: some gems, with overrepresentation of hipster/artsy/tech ideas, and lacking voices from underrepresented/marginalized populations.



There are a selection of observations and recommendations the report made that I wanted to highlight as being particularly valuable:

Observations/reflections (all direct quotes)

  • accurate information from a trusted source, in a convenient location, delivered graphically and/or in first languages is crucial to engaging community members
  • many organizations are struggling to find, access, and retain affordable (private) spaces in which to bring people together
  • To build trust, several stakeholders stressed the importance of providing extra time for complex planning issues
  • “food encourages people to come out when nothing else will draw them”
  • the need for smaller, localized opportunities for engagement to complement those that that are citywide
  • Many residents expressed an interest in becoming more invested in neighbourhood and citywide decisions, yet were concerned that some groups dominate consultations and can intimidate others with alternative views

Recommendations (all direct quotes, any emphasis mine)

  • “City Hall 101” that employs graphics and animation to describe City processes
  • seek opportunities to increase awareness of 3-1-1 (through civic facilities, but also community groups, churches, etc.), paying attention to its promotion in languages other than English.
  • all internal project briefs include a dedicated budget line for communications and engagement
  • develop an evaluation framework for the selection and monitoring of online tools
  • develop a condo toolkit that helps residents to determine their building’s assets and identify opportunities to promote social inclusion [I started a condo newsletter a few years ago and great things came out of it]
  • provide regular facilitation training opportunities for staff and work to develop guidelines on the elements of a productive meeting.
  • community bulletin board[s]
  • filming public addresses from all of the [election] candidates and then sharing those videos on YouTube
  • work with the local post-secondary institutions on a voting registration drive  to allow people as young as 16 to register to vote [LOVE this idea – register even if you can’t quite vote yet]
  • initiate a process to review whether or not to lobby the Province of BC to extend voting rights to permanent residents
  • take action on campaign finance reform [oh yes! my opinions here]

Hipster/arts emphasis

Oh hipsters. I suppose I could count myself among the margins of this amorphous “group”. Some recommendations include “Create a Public Space Action Association” and talk of potlucks and long table conversational meals. Various civic and community organizations arlready take action in these areas; yes, there is an opportunity to scale up some of these ideas, but the connection to the target demographics of the report was missing. I can’t see how these would further engage the unengaged except at a minute scale.

There was a surprising amount of focus on artist space/cultural venues in this report. Especially considering the lack of focus on other important areas (e.g. Aboriginal voices). While I firmly support the need to make accessible and protect cultural venues, the notes about this in the report seemed very tangential. Perhaps because I’m not a part of the artist community, I’m missing something here. Yes, artists are marginalized in many ways but wasn’t the report meant to focus on youth, newcomers and new immigrants?

Social media/tech

When I see  “social media” or “online community” in any recommendation, I twitch a little. Yes, social media is an important communication tool. Yes, some online communities are successful. However, these just two tools. Used by people with easy access to internet and/or smart phones. Who are statistically more likely to already be more civically engaged. Yes, these are tools that should not be excluded from civic engagement efforts by the city; social media especially is a given. I perceived that perhaps the report included tech-recommendations because the city originally asked for them, not because they are actually meaningful to the original intent of the task force. Especially as the final report acknowledges:

…we found that those who have language barriers or do not use computers and social media are particularly likely to be isolated from important issues and decision-making processes.

Missing voices

Finally, the report is honest in its lack of success in its progress re: underrepresented groups.

“We were limited in our ability to connect with people from traditionally under-represented demographics. … We feel it’s important for us to acknowledge the absence of voices from Aboriginal communities in this process. “

Very unfortunate. To me, this alone is the downfall of the report. The committee acknowledged the trust- and relationship-building that is required to do this work well, and within a ~1 year time frame, success seemed to have insurmountable barriers.

This gap reminds me of two different thoughts I’ve come across in my work. The first is from the infinite wisdom of Twitter, the second came from my interviews on “new ways to advance social good” for a 2013 HRSDC research project.

  1. If you want to involved more [insert marginalized population] in your work, make them the centre of your work. That way you don’t have to invite them in. They already are in.
  2. Plan with a focus on the most-barriered populations. If your work is inclusive to them, it will be inclusive to all.

Reading Appendix B, which lists the events they held, the people they spoke with, the reports they read, I feel there was a missed opportunity to outreach and to work with existing infrastructure to hear diverse voices (i.e. work with partners that engage people where, don’t ask people to come to you). The task force shouldn’t have been expected to build relationships with individuals from scratch, so connecting through others should have been vital.

Recommendation #2, “Develop specific strategies for engaging under-represented groups,” should have been what this report was about. Isn’t it what the city asked the ECTF to do in the first place? Moving forward, this is where the work should focus.

This year is the year of staff creating an implementation plan and benchmarks. I look forward to the outcomes.

Social innovation webinar February 13

Next week I’ll be presenting a webinar that reviews the report I released last year for HRSDC (now ESDC) on how individuals are contributing to community, beyond giving and volunteering. Join me and SocialFinance.ca next week for this FREE presentation!

Social Finance Connects: Beyond Giving and Volunteering

Le français suit l’anglais

While levels of volunteering and donating remain relatively stable in Canada, individuals are finding new ways to advance social good. They are applying the practices most commonly found in consumerism, use and development of technology, investing, and business owner practices in innovative ways to support vulnerable populations.

In partnership with Community Development and Partnerships Directorate within Employment and Social Development Canada, Trina Isakson conducted a study in 2013. “Beyond Giving and Volunteering: How and why individuals are exploring new ways to advance social good” explores this emerging trend wherein individuals are both demanding and innovating new ways to use time and money, creating opportunities to multiply their impact above and beyond traditional methods of giving and volunteering.

The objectives of the report are:

  1. to provide an overview of the current state of the emerging actions Canadians take to support socio-economically vulnerable populations in their communities;
  2. to identify the potential for these activities to make a positive impact on vulnerable populations;
  3. to identify the barriers to and the drivers of these activities; and
  4. to determine opportunities for government and other actors to take action and to make investments designed to further support these activities.

This webinar will feature important findings from that report.

Date: Thursday, February 13, 12:00 noon EST

Format: 30-minute presentation followed by 30 minute Q&A session

Registration Info: To register (FREE), please visit: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/social-finance-connects-beyond-giving-and-volunteering-tickets-10255142407


Financement social : Au-delà du don et du bénévolat

Bien que les niveaux de bénévolat et de dons de bienfaisance restent relativement stables au Canada, les citoyens trouvent de nouvelles façons de promouvoir le bien de la société. Ils mettent à profit de manière innovatrice des pratiques généralement caractéristiques du consumérisme, de l’utilisation et du développement des technologies, de l’investissement et des pratiques des propriétaires d’entreprises pour offrir de l’aide à des groupes vulnérables de la population.

En collaboration avec la Direction du développement communautaire et des partenariats à Emploi et Développement social Canada, Trina Isakson a mené une étude en 2013. « Au-delà du don et du bénévolat : Comment et pourquoi les personnes explorent de nouvelles façons de promouvoir le bien de la société » explore cette tendance émergente en vertu de laquelle des particuliers exigent et innovent en trouvant de nouvelles façons d’utiliser temps et argent, de créer des débouchés afin de multiplier leur impact au-delà des méthodes conventionnelles de don et de bénévolat.

Le rapport vise à :

  1. fournir une vue d’ensemble de l’état actuel des nouvelles mesures que prennent les Canadiens pour soutenir les populations socialement et économiquement vulnérables dans leurs collectivités;
  2. déterminer la possibilité que ces mesures aient des répercussions positives sur les populations vulnérables;
  3. relever les obstacles à ces mesures et leurs éléments moteurs;
  4. établir les possibilités pour le gouvernement et d’autres acteurs d’intervenir et d’effectuer les investissements nécessaires pour appuyer encore davantage de telles activités.

Ce webinaire portera sur certaines des grandes constatations issues de cette étude.

Date : Le jeudi 13 février, à midi (HNE)

Format : Exposé de 30 minutes suivi d’une période de questions de 30 minutes

Pour s’inscrire (gratis) : https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/social-finance-connects-beyond-giving-and-volunteering-tickets-10255142407

Everyday Political Citizen shortlist + my focus on community engagement

Late 2013 I was notified that I had been nominated for Samara’s Everyday Political Citizen project, in which Samara sought nominees from every federal riding in the country.

The Everyday Political Citizen project showcases a more human side to politics, and provides role models for those who are considering engaging politically themselves.

I had the best intentions of nominating some amazing people in my life, but, alas, I was in the throes of pneumonia at the time, and well, I didn’t. I still don’t know who my nominator was, but I have a few suspicions. To the anonymator (a new word I just made up), thank you.

Miriam Lapp nominates Trina Isakson
Source: Samara

And today, Samara announced that I have been shortlisted as one of 13 Canadians. Miriam Lapp, Assistant Director, Outreach and Research at Elections Canada, was the juror that selected me, and I am… well, I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s definitely an honour, but I’m generally not one who likes to talk about myself (I’m more likely to talk about my work or the organizations I work with) so being nominated as a individual is kind of cool but also uncomfortable. (But the fact that Rick Mercer has probably read my name, even just in his own inner voice, is pretty exciting.)

Which is why my focus on community engagement is largely about helping and promoting others, and staying out of the spotlight myself (though I am happy to speak publicly about issues and knowledge that are important to me). This is a trend I see pretty clearly as I look back on some of the key jobs and projects I’ve been involved in over time.

When explore what drives me, my purpose is clear.

I challenge the status quos of how people contribute positively to their communities.

I call this a blend of social innovation and community engagement. My consulting work (i.e. how I earn a living) focusses on things like emerging trends in volunteer engagement, ways individuals are using consumerism, investing, and technology to help vulnerable Canadians, explorations of community-university engagement, and critiquing how young people are investing in their communities (and vice versa). My volunteer work involves getting more women engaged in the electoral process through campaigning or advocacy, and helping nonprofit organizations rethink the ways they engage the people that support them. My side passion project at the moment is writing a book on how introverts can and do create social change.

I will admit I’ve thought about a future involving elected politics (i.e. the “spotlight”), but in reality, I know this is not for me. For one thing, I’m quite clearly introverted and I love my quiet days spent at home alone reading, writing, researching, strategizing, and thinking, scattered with the odd phone call, meeting, or event. I see my mark being made through strong (and fairly silent) ripples.

So providing new venues for people to do in the world, that’s me. Congratulations to the other shortlisters!

PS. There is another great opportunity to nominate (women) community leaders with the deadline this Friday.

2014 is a historic year on Prince Edward Island, a year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, and the resulting vision that led to the formation of Canada. The Charlottetown Conference was a meeting which enabled 23 men to create a bold vision, form relationships and begin conversations about what our country could be.

We want to know what 23 women will do with that opportunity.


This shouldn’t be innovative, but it is…

In Lieu of Money, Toyota Donates Efficiency to New York Charity is a fantastic example of skills-based corporate volunteerism done awesome. The New York Times reports:

At a soup kitchen in Harlem, Toyota’s engineers cut down the wait time for dinner to 18 minutes from as long as 90. At a food pantry on Staten Island, they reduced the time people spent filling their bags to 6 minutes from 11. And at a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where volunteers were packing boxes of supplies for victims of Hurricane Sandy, a dose of kaizen cut the time it took to pack one box to 11 seconds from 3 minutes.

Skills-based volunteerism and corporate volunteer programs have been around for ages.

But they’re generally not done well. Organizations limit volunteer roles requiring professional skills to their boards of directors, and corporate volunteering often involves intelligent professionals painting walls.

“They make cars; I run a kitchen,” said Daryl Foriest, director of distribution at the Food Bank’s pantry and soup kitchen in Harlem. “This won’t work.”

In a research project 27 Shift completed for Volunteer Canada in 2012, we found that organizations engaging corporate volunteers were most commonly doing so in a workplace fundraising capacity. Unfortunately, there is often short-sightedness and protectionism when organizations explore skills-based and/or corporate volunteerism.

Sometimes this type of volunteer engagement is met with resistance: unionized environments protect certain duties, staff don’t want to give up interesting work, or staff feel threatened by a volunteer with more experience than they have. (From Building the Bridge for Volunteer Engagement, Volunteer Canada and 27 Shift, 2012).

This really shouldn’t be New York Times newsworthy, but it is. Maybe if organizations see the potential media exposure, they’ll finally get on board?

“It’s a form of corporate philanthropy but instead of giving money, they’re sharing expertise,” said David J. Vogel, a professor and an expert in corporate social responsibility at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s quite new.”

New only because it’s done well. It shouldn’t be innovative, but it is.

Why not an HR approach to volunteer engagement?

Imagine for me an HR department. HR departments:

  • make sure employees get compensated (payroll, etc),
  • reviews the organization’s HR practices in comparison to laws, standards, and best practices,
  • establishes policies for hiring, firing, etc.,
  • develop (or help other departments develop) job descriptions,
  • plan professional development for employees, and
  • help departments do performance reviews

among other services. They serve as internal consultants to the rest of the organization on managing employees.

HR departments are NOT responsible for supervising the organization’s employees (other than the employees in the HR department).

HR departments and volunteer resource departments both deal with people, with the main difference being that one group gets paid with money, and the other group receives other benefits.

However, volunteer departments often serve very different roles. Rather than supporting the organization’s volunteer engagement, they actually manage (recruit, supervise, schedule, etc) the organization’s volunteers.

Let’s view volunteer engagement through an HR model lens. What if we tasked volunteer departments with:

  • making sure volunteers get rewarded (though meaning, purpose, development opportunities, etc.),
  • reviews the organization’s volunteer engagement practices in comparison to laws, standards, and best practices,
  • establishes policies for hiring, firing, etc.,
  • developing (or helping other departments develop) role descriptions,
  • planning development opportunities for volunteers,
  • helping departments to performance review of volunteers, and
  • serving as internal consultants to all of the departments who engage volunteers,


  • actually supervising all the organization’s volunteers (other than the volunteers engaged by the volunteer department)?

In this way, volunteer resource departments can mirror HR departments.

In this way, “volunteer programs” don’t exist; instead, there are programs and departments that happen to engage volunteers.

In this way, every department can become responsible for engaging volunteers.

How to design virtual roles for young volunteers

The simple answer is: any volunteer role that requires work to be done on a computer, can be done virtually (eg at home, in pajamas, at 4am).

Heck, even roles that, on the surface, involve meeting in person, can often be shifted to involve meeting online (Skype, Google+ Hangouts).

Not only are vitual roles great for Millennials, they are great for people with disabilities, people in different geographic areas, and any individual with a changing and demanding schedule.

Here are some activities that can be done virtually, and can help drive your mission forward.

  • research
  • translating
  • writing articles
  • social media
  • blogging
  • web design
  • graphic design
  • project planning
  • writing press releases
  • outlining communication plans
  • giving feedback