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I was recently part of a professionally moderated salon (discussion) on the value of data analysis in deriving customer insights. I suggested that the topic was also interesting in a non-profit perspective if you look at donors or volunteers instead of customers. The moderator was equally interested in this direction and so the two of us are collaborating on a series of salons focused on the non-profit world.

The first salon is a discussion of the role of boards for non-profits. I have invited board members, executives from non profits and relevant consultants in this area. The format is informal with 12 or so people around a table for a couple of hours, with the conversation guided and light snacks provided.

I’ve been surprised at the uptake on this first salon with folks coming from across my city to a central location to be part of the conversation. Big causes and small, experienced board chairs and new board members are represented and I’ve been careful about the mix. Effective boards for non profits is a hot topic. I am hopeful that my follow up topics on volunteerism and donor management will be equally popular.

The interesting thing about working in this field is how fast and wide the invitation spread. It even reached some folks who do something similar and maybe I can just meld into theirs for efficiency.

So I write this not to solicit more attendees but instead to say, “it’s easy to stoke a conversation” and maybe we need more of these informal ways of sharing challenges and exchanging ideas.


I’ve been a university volunteer for a decade or more. Initially it was board level involvement (read that as bored level) and then more engagement through speaking gigs to students, judging competitions and finally as the resident entrepreneur offering advice to the curious and committed.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been volunteering at a larger university. I’ve ended up doing things that I would have never thought of. It’s only when you get deeply involved in an organization and you spend enough time to show folks that you are committed, that the combination of timing and creative thinking results in interesting opportunities.

Sure I’ve helped students – lots of them – domestic students, international students and visiting candidates. Mentoring, connecting them with opportunities and providing a venue for them to meet fellow students and grads allowing experiences to be shared.

I’ve helped more graduates than I thought I would. Helping them make the transition to the workforce or more likely helping them make a more informed choice for their next job or even a career switch.

Unbelievably I’ve helped professors and not by adding some real life to their class material but in helping them with their research, connecting them with industry contacts.

My recent trip to India was a catalyst to connect local alumni with each other and back to the university. Once home, I was asked and able to reconnect one of the alumni to his classmates from the 60’s. I can hear the global chatter of men reliving their younger years. An impressive bunch they were – many retired professors and a couple of famous authors.

And I’ve helped management and staff operationally whether that’s at a strategic level, with team structure and roles, hiring or process improvement. All this borrowing from my operational experience.

But based on feedback, the most important value-add has been motivational. My “of course you can” attitude and creative approach to problem solving combined to lift spirits and reignite passions.

Whether it’s a local school or your alma mater, consider sharing your time and skills to an educational institution and see where it can take you.

Children supported by Paper Kite

I had a chance to sit down and chat with Tarik Kadri the founder of Paper Kite Children’s Foundation, one of the many charities in India. This one uses Canada as a home base to gather volunteers and funds, then does yearly trips to the Bihar region of India to help designated orphanages.

My recent and first trip to India has brought a few folks to my virtual doorstep to find out more about traveling the country and volunteering so I was eager to chat with Tarik about his perspective.

First things first

If you’ve never been to the country, go see it first before committing to volunteering. You need to experience it to get a feel for what’s there and how things work. And I’d suggest going with a minimal plan so that as you discover things of interest you’ll be free to explore them rather than bound by a schedule.

Do your research

While you’re there talk to folks, both locals and foreigners about their experiences. Follow leads that will take you places and people that can inform you. Ask questions on how things work and see them for yourself. There are a lot of ashrams in India and many of them will have a variety of ways you can help. There’s a lot of corruption in India and in the charity world, but there’s a lot of good work going on as well. You just need to do your research.

Then when you’re home you can follow up, as I did with Tarik and others I met along the way. You can also help by simply sharing your experiences with others.

There are many forms of volunteering

I did a deep dive with Tarik on his needs for Paper Kite and he identified these:

  • In Canada there are 3 things: give funds, advocate (raise awareness and fundraise), and volunteer (help with events or the organization). The best volunteers do all three. As little as 5 hours a month makes a difference.
  • In India – You can join one of their trips and help in many ways. Their trips are generally 2-3 weeks but the longer you stay the more value you can provide.
    • Purchasing – they take board-approved funds are taken to India to purchase goods and services needed by the orphanages. Local purchasing is done and the logistics are supervised. You can help with purchasing (especially if you speak the language, understand the customs and can drive a good bargain) or the logistics.
    • Teaching – teachers of almost any subject are needed. Short or long term teaching can be accommodated. If you can stay for 6-12 months, the school will provide housing and food.
    • Translation services
    • Research – studies of orphanages, local needs, assessments and more
    • Marketing and public relations – gathering of stories and images/videos that can be used for marketing campaigns as well as ongoing marketing and PR support

Next trip to India for Paper Kite is December 2012. To find out more see or visit them on Facebook.

I’ve written this from an India-centric perspective and using Paper Kite as an example but there are many causes and many countries including our own that can use your help. I just hope that my quest has helped inspire yours.

There is a shortage of mentors. It’s hard to believe given that this is such a high value volunteer opportunity for the minimum investment in time. It’s a chance to share experience, give guidance, and be a sounding board.

What pains me is that some of our top students in this country are unmatched in the mentor programs they are part of. These students have asked for mentors, the programs that they belong to promise a mentor and yet they remain unmatched.

I have seen a few issues:

  • The programs are not well publicized or are not well known as opportunities for the target mentor audience
  • Programs recycle their own lists of mentors leading to volunteer fatigue and a rather stale list.
  • Many potential mentors don’t know what’s involved. They may have a inclination to volunteer but it’s not easy to find a program, get through the process and the expectations are seldom really clear.
  • A bad recruitment process or an unfulfilling/unsuccessful mentoring program will cause mentors to drop out.

The good news is that there are some real superstars out there just looking for a little support. There are future leaders, cultural gems, international spirits and the next innovators. It’s inspiring to be among them and rewarding to be able to give back. As in most volunteering, you get back far more than you give.

Inspired to help? Here’s just a couple of places I volunteer that need you: (contact

There are a few professions where elders rule and there are other fields where anyone over 40 is set adrift. Marketing seems like one of those areas that loves their young but which leads me to wonder where the veterans are. This field is large and it attracts a huge number of people so where do they go when their best-by-date has long expired?

While a few hold on to agency life, probably because they own the agency, and few more manage to maintain their corporate office working client side, the rest seem to disappear. And yet I’ve found an endless need for their experience, creativity and skills in the non profit and volunteer world.

Needed: Good basic marketing for causes, done well and provided by a reliable, talented veteran.

This is a world that relies on communication and generally does it rather poorly. Yes, there are the big brands with big budgets to hire outstanding marketing talent but there are thousands of smaller organizations, projects and movements all needing a solid brand positioning, a messaging hierarchy and some creative expression, let alone a media plan to amplify the message.

So if there are any old marketers out there that are feeling a little unappreciated, please contact me. You are needed desperately.

We’ve made it to step 1 in our committee efforts to raise awareness of the many opportunities to mentor students at the University of Toronto.

Whether you are an alumnus or not, I invite you to visit our mentor page and review the programs that we’ve found so far. You’ll find programs organized by college, faculty and a general category. This is just the first step as we continue to uncover the many opportunities to provide a valuable contribution.

You can be a mentor at any age
There is a great contribution to be made regardless if you just graduated or graduation seems a lifetime ago. Students need help making career decisions, understanding the transition from school to the workplace, deeper insights into industries and roles, they need contacts, and most importantly a good two-way conversation. Some of them may be thinking of starting their own business – for profit or maybe socially oriented. So there are lots of roles to fill and perspectives needed.

You can mentor anywhere
Just because you’re not in Toronto, doesn’t mean you can’t mentor a student. Students come from everywhere to study at UofT and many students are quite used to communications through internet tools. I’ve had many a mentoring session with teams of students via Skype even when we’re in the same town! So don’t let distance get in your way of adding value.

More opps
While you’re on the website, take a look at the other opportunities to volunteer: hosting dinners, community service and participating in regional events.

I am knee deep in mentoring programs at the University of Toronto at the moment. Discovering them, being part of some, helping to promote others. If ever there was a high value use of Boomer experience and wisdom, it’s mentoring.

I’ve been doing formal and informal mentoring for years. Sometimes with a career focus, other times an entrepreneurial focus and the rest are usually helping with self discovery.  I always considered it a duty as I had been helped greatly and so it is my turn to help others.

Mentoring or being a mentor or having a mentor became the popular label 10-15 years ago for a basket of characteristics and offerings that has been around forever.

Listening, being a sounding board, helping to evaluate choices or ideas, sharing experience, offering advice, and opening your connections are just some of things you do as a mentor.

While mentoring is usually a one on one activity, you can mentor a group or team as well. Mentorship programs are present at high schools, universities/colleges, in the workplace and in community groups. These are not necessarily life long responsibilities. They can be as short as one session or as long as you wish. Courtesy of technology they can be long distance by email or Skype or they can be in person over a cup of coffee.

So if you’re looking for something meaningful to do, just Google “mentorship” and your town and see what you find. Or start by contacting the alumni organization at your university or college and see if they have a program that needs your help.

I usually use this blog to highlight thoughts and opportunities about volunteering, but here’s a simple thing you can do for a very worthwhile little charity in the east end of Toronto. Clean out your closets and drop off the clothing at New Circles.


The shelves are bare at New Circles. I hope that you will be able help us fill them back up again. The demand for warm winter clothing is very high this year so we have decided to send out the attached press release. I would be grateful if you would please share this email with your family and friends so that once again our shelves will be filled to overflowing with winter wear for our clients. In the meantime please know how much your generosity is appreciated by all clients, volunteers and staff.


Very authentic, very simple asks

The other reason to mention them is that they do a very good job of communicating.

  • They’re not always asking for money,
  • They share stories in an authentic way,
  • Their authenticity continues when you visit their location – always abuzz with energy and filled with helpful people,
  • Their executive are up front and accessible and
  • They ask when they need something.

It’s a simple as that.

From their press release

Please Help! New Circles is calling on all Torontonians to help, by donating new or gently used winter clothing, through the month of February. What’s needed: all sizes of winter coats and boots, hats, mitts, scarves… even sweaters and vests.

  • Drop Off: at 10 Gateway Boulevard (Corner of Gateway and Don Mills Road, three lights south of Eglinton Ave. East)
  • Organize a Clothing Drive: Invite office colleagues, or family and friends to help make a difference. Go to for information on how to do it. New Circles will help!

A recent report from Social Planning Toronto revealed some startling numbers: fully one quarter of Toronto residents – that’s right, one in every four people – live in abject poverty. All Torontonians are encouraged to learn about New Circles to understand how their donations can make a difference in our community.

For more information:
Jane Craig, Executive Director, New Circles

There’s a flurry of activity as folks deal with the double demand of busy lives and the added crush of the holiday season. Gifts, entertaining, family meals and fitting in all the obligations that the season brings.

Amid all this flurry are the endless asks for donations. The money is always appreciated and it’s an easy way to do good. If you are looking to add a little more community involvement to your charitable giving here are a few ideas to get your started:

  • Pick up the kids and volunteer at a food bank, a soup kitchen or some other community centre
  • Go visit someone in a seniors’ residence or medical facility
  • Clean up your closets and drop those items off at a shelter (clothing, toys, equipment, linens are all needed)
  • Be a volunteer gift wrapper (there are lots of openings for those and I thought this was more fun than being a volunteer tax preparer)
  • Make a donation, big or small to an organization that means something to you. Make this a research project with your kids. Then make this decision to give, together.

There are lots of roles out there and a simple Google search for “volunteers needed” in your town will render a good list. For folks in my town, here’s a great list to start with.

I agree with the Globe and Mail’s caption of “Good Idea: Warehousing good intentions.”

Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (Canada) has shopping carted giving. They’ve put all the supplies they need, urgent ones highlighted, onto a shopping type website where you can make a contribution big or small. $30 will buy a cholera treatment for one patient in Haiti or spend $18,750 and buy a full kit. $60 for a 5% share of a diesel generator or spend $1,200 and buy the whole unit. $90 buys a doctor for a day, $3,780 buys a 6 week mission.

The MSF Warehouse contains real items that Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) uses in its field projects. When you purchase an item, you are making a contribution that supports MSF’s medical humanitarian aid work in general, and not just the purchase of that product. Your donation will be used where the need is greatest.

Complete with Twitter and Facebook integration, lots of pictures, stories, gift ideas this website is a great reinterpretation of giving. And just in time for the holidays.

It’s a great cause, and a brilliant use of web technology. Kudos to MSF Canada!

“Médecins Sans Frontières was established in 1971 by a small group of doctors and journalists. They were determined to find a way to respond rapidly and effectively to public health emergencies, with complete independence from political, economic and religious influences.”

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