Tag Archives: volunteering

2012-03-30 10.44.32I’ve just signed up for 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.”

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 as a knowledge-based volunteer portal. Put yourself out there and be surprised and delighted when someone approaches you for an unmentoring session.



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.

Perhaps it’s heightened because of our winter or the shortened daylight, but it’s clear that the journey for international students can be a lonely one. With family often half a world away, minimal accommodations, cultural differences and perhaps a language barrier as well, it is a challenge to keep the faith in the promise this new country offered – a big reason that they came to Canada for higher education.

As a volunteer and mentor I am privileged to coach some very bright international students. Mine are the enterprising ones, with an idea or just the drive to make an impact both here and at home. They are braver than I ever was and all they need is a little support from time to time, to remember that they have a great potential. This is not a lot to ask of a mentor.

If you are looking for some way to add value and give back, become a mentor. Contact your nearest place of higher learning or youth-based organization and see how a little time nurtures the next generation of greatness.

Here’s a couple of starter ideas:,

I’ve been hanging around sports people lately and must say, they are a different lot. I’m speaking of people who volunteer in the area of sports.

First, they’re incredibly enthusiastic. They have energy to burn and are eager to share their passion. They come with a variety of backgrounds and skills, but a common love of sports or a particular sport.

What has been most interesting is that they will show up, pitch in, and even take over an event, in spite of the lack of clarity or organization provided by the official event coordinators. With little explanation as to the nature of an event, these volunteers will show up. They will quickly assess the situation and either join in to add people-power or, depending on their experience and expertise, get the thing going in the right direction. They invite themselves in and before you know it they are part of a core team.

It surprises me that there is little conflict with event management but it appears that in the melee that is one of these sports events, the official coordinators so quickly lose the ball, so to speak, that they are either thankful for the help or hardly aware it is happening. At the end of the day, all celebrate together the event’s success, no matter how big or small.

With my business and process background, I am distressed at the lost opportunity to do something great with these events – to maximize the impact and ensure each year benefits from the last. But then I look at these sports volunteers and think that maybe there’s merit in just getting it done for now.

The Elizabeth Settlement is one of 8 Métis settlements in Alberta, and part of a larger community of Métis in Canada. The Métis are one of 3 groups of Aboriginal people of Canada which also includes First Nations and Inuit.

First, let’s look at the location. This settlement is 32km south of Cold Lake Alberta, about 4 hours east of Edmonton, near the Saskatchewan border. It’s flat prairie land with big open skies and lots of mother nature.

Flying into Edmonton over the North Saskatchewan River

Flat land, endless roads

Big sky country, fantastic sunsets

The settlement itself is home to about 1,000 people on 25,641 hectares. The community has a elementary school, new nursery school, a community hall that also has a health centre attached and there are administrative offices. These are the buildings we saw and there may be more. They have a lot of facilities but what they have a shortage of is housing. Only 130 homes for the 1,000 people and it’s a growing population.

Health services offered by the onsite nurse

Grade 1 teacher using the Smart board

Keeping the culture in education

We got just a taste of the Métis culture and history while we were there. Métis are people of mixed heritage, First Nations and European. On the Elizabeth settlement strong French roots are felt as evidenced by surnames: Desjarlias, Lepine-Tremblay and Lagimodiere. In fact, the word “Métis” is a French word translated as “half breed.” But it’s clear that the people are of various ancestries.

What they have in common is a fairly recent sense of belonging. Talk to some of the older members and they’ll describe their family struggles being squatters, neither First Nations nor “white,” being called “road allowance people.” It was only in 1982 that the existing Aboriginal and Treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples in Canada were recognized and affirmed and there was an explicit recognition of the Métis as one of the three distinct Aboriginal peoples.

EMS council members and our liaise

Lunch in the community hall

Pictured are the formation meeting members

While the land is beautiful and the community is strong and family oriented, some of the challenges are openly talked about. Education is an issue. The elementary school is well equipped and the kids are engaged but high school is an issue and the drop out rate is high.

Equal to education is the issue of housing and one solution may be the Habitat model of home ownership. Economic development and sustainability is an issue as the federal funding agreement ended a few years ago and the Métis must become self supporting. The oil and gas industry is a huge employer but not only a tempting alternative to school, a single source of employment. What will happen if the boom ends? The green shoots of entrepreneurship have started but need to be fostered. Some are looking to better monetize the land and its raw materials. And then there are the typical issues many communities face of nutrition, addictions and teen pregnancies.

A campaign to support Aboriginal women

The village does indeed raise the children

Happy girls

During our week, we built not only houses but bridges to this community. Vice Chair of Council, Chris Desjarlias, in his closing remarks made it clear that this was not only a potential housing model for his community but for all Aboriginal groups.

So as our volunteer team returns home, may the teams within the community and outside continue to work together to build these houses and a healthy future for families.

For more info:

My week as a bannock warrior

Our part of the build is done and I’m in the car with 5 others on our way from Cold Lake to Edmonton, a 4 hour drive. It’s a good time to reflect on the week.  This was my first Habitat for Humanity build so there are certainly learnings from that.  More importantly, our team was the first to build on this site and this is the first Habitat build for Métis families on a settlement in Alberta. Which makes this a a special case for learnings.

It’s volun-travel

Traveling with a team for a global build is different from volunteering for a local Habitat build in your town. You travel with a group for a number of days rather than sign up for a day at a time. This Global Village build is more like a group tour traveling and sharing common experiences. The main common experience is the building of a home.

It’s team work, guided by a professional and coordinated by a team leader. It is also a shared cultural experience. In our case we had a chance to talk with many of the community leaders. We visited schools, the health centre, and community centre. We attended their rodeo. And we experienced even more hospitality as they cooked lunch for us each day. Good food it was too.

Like adventure travel, people are in it for many reasons but what is common between these two activities is the quest for learning and personal challenge. In this trip, there are both these elements in the build and the cultural exchange.

First team in; first build for Métis in Alberta

Habitat global trips are available around the world. Many are established centers where Habitat has been building for a while so unknowns are few. This trip was a unique opportunity as ours was the first team of volunteers for this build. And this build is the first time Habitat has built in this type of community. If it works it may become a model for housing for such communities. There are a lot of interested parties watching this from the Habitat side (Global, Canada, Edmonton), the Métis communities as well as other aboriginal groups such as the First Nations.

Home ownership is new

Culturally this is a big shift. The Métis live in a community on communal land. Home ownership is a new concept. Taking full responsibility for your home rather than being supported by community services is a new idea. How community services are affected is still to be determined. And while they do have families who meet the standard Habitat selection criteria, it is not common and those in real need of housing will probably not meet those criteria. How to identify and select the families that should get these houses needs to be carefully considered and done so collaboratively.

There is no doubt however of the need for housing. This build is on the Elizabeth Settlement, one of the 8 Métis communities in Alberta, where there are roughly 1,000 people and 130 homes. We heard of 3 families living in a single house with one bathroom. The 8 homes in this initial build is a drop in the bucket but as the start of something, its far more significant.

Why I am a bannock warrior

First what is bannock? It’s a quick bread made from flour, water, and egg. It can be baked, fried, deep fried, stuffed and shaped. Add oil if you bake it. Depending on the recipe and treatment it can taste like a biscuit or a beignet or donut.

Of our kitchen team at the settlement, Robert was the bannock master letting us explore the many uses of bannock: burger bun, chili bowl, sandwich bun, deep fried with goulash and as pizza dough. Delicious in each application we eagerly awaited lunch where we consumed far too much bannock and even took leftovers back for snacks. We feted Robert for his talent and in turn we were given the title of bannock warriors.

It’s Wednesday at 5:24am and I’m waiting for a decent hour to return to my room. I am also the first to arrive for breakfast as always, but today it was a good hour before Orest who is usually the first to join me.

Back (L-R) Heather, Mary Anne, Orest, Arundel, Hershel, Cindy
Front (L-R) Eva, Jonathan, Dave

He officially a senior citizen but you wouldn’t really know it. What you notice about Orest aside from the fact that he is a large man, is his gentle soul. He’s a nice guy – knowledgeable, experienced, humble and encouraging. He’s a team player and very much a team leader. He provides guidance or input, after he has observed and listened for a while.

His career was HR and he was a director of HR for a very large company but I think Orest is made this way and ended up in a career that suited his nature. His curiosity about people, his inclusive and respectful nature and his experience and wisdom make him a great Global Village volunteer and a natural leader.

The second to join breakfast is usually our HFH Edmonton site supervisor, Dave. Like Orest, Dave is knowledgeable, experienced, humble and encouraging. For a guy in construction (20 years) and military (a soldier for 10 years) his demeanour is surprising. He’s been with HfH for a year, loves the job and seems to be able to go with the flow, guiding all the players to success with a combination of strength and forgiveness. I trust him and thank him for his endless patience.

And then there’s the team. It’s mostly very experienced HFH volunteers, mostly folks from Toronto and a small group. Our team lead is Arundel. She is an avid volunteer and a very caring soul. She works in the non profit sector and was the Director of HR for HfH Toronto.

Hershel is a crew leader for HFH Toronto. He and his wife Mary Anne are here and they are experienced builders and a great team. Heather is long time HfH volunteer with many roles under her tool belt. That woman will take on any power tool. Jonathan who joined in last night, is a former HFH Toronto team member who has moved to Edmonton and so continues with the organization. And then there’s Eva, a medical student from UofT who was visiting her parents in Calgary. Lastly, there’s me, on the build to experience whatever it offers. Neither Eva nor I have build experience but I must say that Eva is right in there and contributes her share morning to night.

Now 5:54am and Orest and Dave are having breakfast. It’s been raining all night and continues. Cool and windy. Not the best weather to build floors as safety is an issue (I can see the reaction on Dave’s face) but we’ll wait until the team is assembled, an hour goes by and then build consensus. This is Habitat.

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.

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