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I had a 2 hour transit commute in order to volunteer for 53 minutes. Actually, I probably volunteered for 30 min and stood around for the rest waiting for instructions. Did I mention that there were 5 other women doing the same thing? This was supposed to be a 6 hour volunteer shift.

Panic, cry for help, help arrives only to watch you bumble around until little bits of usefulness seem to surface. That seems to be the sequence endured by volunteer envelope stuffers on a regular basis.

Where’s the plan, the checklist, supplies, who’s in charge, what about a briefer, let alone a greeter. The idea of using volunteer staff to get masses of details done means that the staff of the event/charity need to be managers not doers. They need to plan the activities, manage the volunteers, respond to questions and monitor the work.

The good news is that volunteer envelope stuffers are generally easy to find. They are good natured folks and want to contribute. They come with a variety of skills – if you ask them. Courtesy of social networks, you can find clusters of them. They are a free workforce to do all kinds of tasks.

But if you ask for help, you must be prepared to make use of that help when it arrives. You wouldn’t start packing for a move when the moving truck arrives, or would you?

I continue to allocate a portion of my volunteerism in a university setting. After completing my term as Entrepreneur in Residence at Laurier University in Waterloo, I am returning to my alma mater, the University of Toronto and working with their Alumni association (in addition to the International Students Centre).

For those of you looking for volunteer positions, the Alumni office at your school is a gateway to opportunities big and small, local and international, individual and organizationally focused, monetary or service oriented.

Nothing like working in these environments to open you up to new ideas or at least the struggle to bring new ideas into education. While at Laurier I led the initiative to introduce BlackBerry devices for learning and teaching at the MBA level. Talk about a challenge to conventional learning pedagogy. Now at UofT I have been introduced to yet another new-ish idea: Service Learning.

Service-learning is a method of teaching, learning and reflecting that combines academic classroom curriculum with meaningful service, frequently youth service, throughout the community. As a teaching methodology, it falls under the philosophy of experiential education. More specifically, it integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, encourage lifelong civic engagement, and strengthen communities for the common good. (Wikipedia.org)

Co-op vs. Service Learning

Many of you will be familiar with co-op programs. They are pervasive in business-oriented learning streams providing on the job experience and exposure for students, and an entry level workforce plus a chance to find the best and brightest for employers. The actual relationship between teaching and the co-op program more like a relay race with students alternating between learning on the job and learning in the classroom.

Reflecting on the work experience

Service learning has similar benefits to co-op for both the student and organization, but the focus is community service. The organizations involved are non –profits, social enterprises and I’m sure, the corporate social responsibility centres of businesses.

Aside from the focus of the work, service learning takes the learning a step further than a traditional co-op program by incorporating a reflective stage where the teaching acknowledges and encourages examination of the experiential learning.

See your university’s community partnership centre

Like all changes in educational methodologies, adoption takes time. But for those who work in community or social oriented organizations there is great opportunity to work with educators in developing the next generation of social activists. For more information on these kinds of programs see the community partnership centre at your local university. For those in Toronto, take a look at http://www.ccp.utoronto.ca.

It has come to my attention that some non-profits are sweat shops. I’m not naïve so I figured there would be great variability once you peeked inside a few charitable organizations. While I can rationalize, although not condone, the pressure cooker environments of the profit driven corporate world, I find it contradictory to see charitable organizations that treat their own people poorly while focusing on doing good for those outside of their organization.

I can understand the pressure of too much need and too few resources. I can understand the cumulative stress of dealing with human tragedy. I even believe that politics is part of human nature. But I would expect that those who chose a career in the social arena would want work environments that are similarly supportive.

I’m looking to give back in a meaningful way to organizations that can and are making a positive difference to our world. I’m looking to put criteria around my choices and one I didn’t expect to have to add was that the organization treat their people well. Now this doesn’t have to be big salaries, it won’t be, or donuts on Friday but it should be a level of responsibility of management to team, and among team members to nurture each other.

I know there are many wonderful non-profit organizations out there and I am constantly uplifted by the great folks that work in these places. So as I seek to give back, and to establish metrics that guide my social investing, I’m going to peek inside and see how polluting the internal machine is.

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