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Volunteers

2012-03-30 10.44.32I’ve just signed up for www.tenthousandcoffees.com. I’ve known about it for a while and like many, had a certain opinion until I met the founder Dave Wilkin. He’s an earnest entrepreneur who, in this world that is oversaturated with social network platforms, has momentum on one whose mandate is rather simple, creating opportunities over a cup a coffee.

Shaping What’s Next, One Conversation at a Time.  The Ten Thousand Coffees movement exists to bridge the gap and create an equal playing field for everyone by embracing the newest technology and the power of conversation.

I am looking at platforms for mentoring. Ways to bring people together, to self-manage the matching and support conversations that can be one-off or ongoing: students with recent grads; recent grads with those who found a good job; those who want to transition with those who have; and entrepreneurs with each other. I am looking at ways to connect lots of people, something that is less structured than traditional mentoring programs, more like “unmentoring”, borrowing from the concept of an “unconference.”

un·con·fer·ence
a loosely structured conference emphasizing the informal exchange of information and ideas between participants, rather than following a conventionally structured program of events. (Google)

LinkedIn is a leader but lacks representation in certain industries and doesn’t talk to passion. Graduway is a platform that many schools are rolling out for their alumni but while my alma matter is huge, there are interesting people elsewhere as well.

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Cindy, someone wants to meet you for coffee!‏

So after meeting Dave, I thought wanted to know more about his platform. I filled in the forms, was automatically categorized as an expert and the next day I had my first request for a coffee date. A young woman, a graduate from my university, and we had a common focus on nonprofit organizations. An interesting topic was put forward.

I mentor a lot of people. They come to me from my volunteer activities. Some are referred by people who know me or have benefited from my advice. And sometimes there are chance encounters as I wander around the globe. But never have I felt so exposed as when that request for coffee came in. If you Google me, my blogs and profiles are online. I don’t hide. But putting my profile on a social platform that is expressly to empower people, strangers, to engage in meaningful conversations seems a lot like online dating. This is not a passive profile but an open door for a coffee meet up.

I have replied. We’ll see what happens. I am fairly busy so if the requests become too much I can switch to group meet ups online or in person, or I can make my profile invisible for a while.

Go for a coffee date

For those of you that want some input, have a question, or are challenged by your situation, sign up and take a look at the many experts that are already on the platform. I was truly impressed at who is available to you.

If you think you have something to offer, think of www.tenthousandcoffees.com as a knowledge-based volunteer portal. Put yourself out there and be surprised and delighted when someone approaches you for an unmentoring session.

 

It’s a delicate balance when you have a strong personal brand and you volunteer with an organization. I’ve been working in many capacities at my university. Much of the volunteerism initially facilitated by the university is now fueled by the momentum of my personal brand. I’ve worked hard, made myself available to a variety of events and people, and helped wherever I could. If the notes of thanks and friends that have resulted are any measure, I have added value. I have become a go to brand. It’s not unlike a company that is defined by key employees and this brings into question loyalties and allegiances.

But while the recognition feels great, this is not my goal. I need to transfer these brand perceptions to the organization, and have the organization I belong to share many of these my personal brand attributes. I am just an example of the value one might get from this organization.

So now I begin a journey I have done before. Putting people, processes and expectations in place so that service delivery is seamless. So that the workload is balanced and the thanks or positive feedback is ascribed to the collective. So the organization’s brand is lifted and distinguished from mine. So that I can move on leaving the organization stronger than when I started.

Lately I’ve noticed the importance of timing when it comes to recruiting volunteers. Of course volunteers give time when it’s available but with our busy and changing lives that is often an elusive commodity.

Consistency

If you can get a commitment of a specific time slot, volunteering becomes part of the routine, something that both parties expect. But the looser the terms, the more difficult it is to engage a volunteer. The cost or overhead of finding the right opportunities and the energy it takes to get calendars aligned might outweigh the benefit.

Get them early

The other aspect I’ve noticed is that when someone is just getting into volunteering it’s relatively easy to get them involved. They are open and actively looking to get engaged. Some may spend more time in the discovery phase than others, but time for volunteering has been set aside and they are looking to fill it.

The ramp up takes a while and so there is a defined period of time where the volunteer has to find any opportunity and then the right kind of engagement. But as soon as they start saying “yes” and the wave of options starts to flow in, it’s harder to get their commitment as you are now competing for a share of that precious allotment of time.

Change is good

Another window of opportunity to engage volunteers is when they’ve decided to switch their focus. This could be marked by an end of term among many other reasons. The window is usually short especially for exceptional volunteers as they have a reputation and are sought out, but if you watch for this availability you might get a great team member.

IMG_7600-rI’ve had lots of events this week with a common thread. In my capacity as the chair of the Community Engagement initiative for the University of Toronto Alumni Association (UTAA) along with a great team of volunteers and partners we held an event called UTAA Connected @ the Centre for Social Innovation.

It brought together about 100 UofT alumni to learn about the social innovation movement. For the 80 volunteers or want-to-be volunteers it was a chance to learn about the Centre and 14 (mostly) member organizations which do social good.

Our promise to the presenting organizations was to introduce them to potential volunteers who could contribute in professional or strategic ways. Our promise to the attendees was to introduce them to new ideas, interesting organizations and opportunities to give back in meaningful ways. And aside from under estimating how much food social innovators can consume, our surveys showed we did well.

If you have an idea – seek out these spaces, places and communities.
If you want to give back and have a business skill set – seek out these spaces, places and communities.

Two days later I was at an OCAD pitch competition and was surprised to see many of the same people that I had seen at my event. Of the 19 organizations pitching for mentorship or funding, about 3 were members of the Centre for Social Innovation.

What was interesting is how startups social or otherwise fluidly move between the constructs of shared workspaces, mentor programs, incubators of various organizations as their companies move through life stages. As their organizations evolve, they need to be around different resources. As they become clear about their goals, they want to be in a community of people doing similar things. It’s an interesting phenomenon to observe.

Never before has there been such a resource-rich time to be entrepreneurial with so many opportunities, some funded by governments and many supported by successful folks that are looking to both give back and revitalize their careers by being involved with young or new entrepreneurs.

 

Get enough of us progressive Boomers in places that need help and we’ll push for reform. We’ll make room for others to participate to their fullest. We’ll demand more of non-profits as we demand more of ourselves.

It’s starting to work. There are roles where experienced folks can do more than sit on boards; they can affect change, they can put all their skills to work…now I need you to put up your hand. The door has been opened and we need to continue bringing in new ideas and all kinds of mindsets, skills and experience. Okay my fellow Boomers, get involved – volunteer.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here because somehow I went from frustratingly idle to overwhelmed with “work.” I am pleased to say that I am fully engaged as a Strategic Volunteer with multiple projects and ongoing initiatives on my plate. So many, that I can now be selective about what I take on.

DeskI am still on my quest to redefine volunteerism models in the non profit space so that Boomers can put all their skills to work when they choose to give back. There is a lot of work to be done here.

I have managed to find an anchor from which I can expand my reach, involve others and in so doing, provide myself with fulfilling challenges.

This has taken 5 years. It has been a journey of patience and persistence. The patience to wait for the opportunities to surface. The patience to wait for others to understand your value proposition. The persistence to keep looking, asking and offering to help even when the response is uninviting. The non-stop faith that you can add value, that you can make a difference, and you can do it using all the tools you have.

Things come in threes. Good things and bad things. This week I was hit with 3 things that reinforced that work needs to be done to change perceptions. It’s not reality that runs the world, it’s our perception of how things are and how they should be.

1st thing

A newly retired person was referred to me for suggestions on what to do in volunteer capacity. Again, I heard that the volunteering had to have value, to be meaningful. This person would rather be working but an accident triggered a begrudged retirement and from there a series of disappointments in her efforts to volunteer.

Hoops to jump through, time consuming training programs of little value, certifications that would have cost a bundle and a general approach that said “we don’t really want you.” I referred her onto a community non profit in her neighbourhood that I had heard good things about and asked that she share her findings.

2nd thing

I was approached to join a board for a volunteer organization. This organization is in trouble and yet it had a mandate of great value. A badly administered board lead to a bumbling recruitment process, a rushed timeline and concurrent but uncoordinated recruiting.

On top of that, the time crunched board balancing the demands of young families and hard driving careers, seemed more like an exclusive club than a fully functional team. I haven’t heard from them since the interview.

3rd thing

I was idly listening to a CBC radio interview with Chris Hadfield, the retired Canadian astronaut. A good portion of the interview focused on questions of what a retired astronaut does. I can’t remember his answer other than a chuckle that this was his second retirement. He retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force and joined the Canadian Space Agency. But I do remember his definition of retirement.

Retired
‘You used to be useful and now you aren’t.”
Chris Hadfield, the astronaut, reflecting on society’s definition of retired.

So far Mr. Hadfield (a Boomer having been born in 1959) is in “Post-retirement” according to Wikipedia. An author, a professor at the University of Waterloo, and undoubtedly a list of other activities.

So maybe the terminology I should use is “I am in post retirement.” I came through a period where I was not useful (retired) and now I have regained my “useful” status.

Another successful gathering of folks, this time to discuss volunteers in the context of non-profit organizations. Questions included: where to find volunteers, how to attract and retain them, holding volunteers accountable, and providing value and getting value.

Ideas generated discussion on:

• Volunteers as partners

• Providing role descriptions with expectations, just like employees

• Recognizing what volunteers want and need such as learning opportunities / experience, and metrics on their impact

• Volunteers do what they do partly because of their passions

“… organizational structures/supports that exist for paid work, also need to apply to non-paid work, and just as paid work organizations don’t always meet the needs of all staff (and therefore they become disengaged or leave), the same holds true for volunteer organizations – which was all reinforced for me last night.” – Salon participant

It’s a huge topic and one that is worthwhile revisiting, perhaps with a deep dive on a facet of the issue.

But for now having covered boards and volunteers, the last Salon in this series will be focused on donors. This will include individuals and corporations, sponsors and funders. We will examine the donor management process from acquisition through to retention, and dive into the challenges of balancing the needs of the non profit and the demands of donors. Timing probably in April 2013.

I have the chance to interact with some student leaders recently and I’ve been amazed by the skill they use to move their organizations and initiatives forward. Sometimes these leaders are founders or presidents of their organizations and other times they happy to take make their contributions without the explicit title.

These leaders seem to have common traits. They are inclusive, solicit opinions, seek out experts, have a guiding vision and move forward continually and quickly. They are intuitive and not afraid to follow that intuition; they are curious and engage with questions. They’ll follow up opportunities whether those are events or introductions. They do all this with a grace that I wish I had more of.

I don’t know why I should be so fortunate to meet so many of these leaders. I just wish more leaders were like them. But then you can’t teach this, or can you?

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