- Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 November 2012 13:49
Rethinking volunteer engagement: From sympathisers to activists
By Ehon Chan, a researcher for Project Australia, co-founder of YES Brisbane and author for Digital for Good. Ehon has worked with several non-profits across Australia on community engagement, social media strategies and using technology for social change. This article continues a series of guest feature articles written by inspiring young people reflecting on differences in working with young people as volunteers.
For each world summit, we’re pulled into signing numerous petitions from different organisations. Every petition is for a good cause, and managed to peak your interest to sign your name. What is next though after signing the petition or adding yourself as a fan on Facebook?
Maybe you’re an activist for an organisation that does great things for the community, for society and the world. However, getting enough people to share the same passion and commitment to campaigning is often very difficult. Every organisation that deals with volunteers would know this scenario very clearly.
Looking at the level of engagement diagram, to the left, there are sympathisers who provide us with marketing and content feedback occasionally, sign a petition, write testimonials when we need and become a fan on Facebook. These people do simple actions and are harder to contact or mobilise when we need them for big events. To the right are activists who organise their own campaigns and projects to help us in our work. They stick with us through thick and thin and go out of their way to help us achieve our strategic plan.
Typically, 80% of volunteers will be ‘Sympathisers’, 15% toward the middle and only 5% ‘Activists’. If we could move more of our volunteers to the right, we can establish a community of deeply engaged members helping us achieve our mission and strategic plan easier, and helping us ease our workload. I’ve thought for a while, and explain below, as to why it is so difficult to get the majority to participate at the activist level.
Social accounting for small and volunteer-based organisations
By Associate Professor Jenny Cameron, Academic in the Geography and Environmental Studies discipline in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle, and the Community Economies Collective, an international network of scholars and activists.
In August 2008, John Pearce from the UK presented at a small workshop with food-based community enterprises from different parts of Australia. John is a highly-regarded practitioner interested in the social economy and a founder of the Social Audit Network. At the workshop, John made a big impact by talking about how we don’t think twice about keeping financial accounts, but generally don’t have a systematic way of tracking what’s probably far more important to community initiatives - our social impact and progress.
John’s words kept going round in the minds of a few of us from the University of Newcastle and two community initiatives in Newcastle who attended the workshop - Fig Tree Community Garden and The Beanstalk Organic Food. In July 2009, we secured the help of two terrific third-year students who were doing a project management and placement course to work with Fig Tree, Beanstalk and myself to devise a social accounting system that would work for these two small, volunteer-based community initiatives.
Out of the students’ project a practical guide to doing social accounting in small community organisations and community enterprises has been put together. The guide is based on three overarching steps: Scoping, identifying key elements of an organisation or enterprise; Accounting, designing and conducting a social accounting system; Reporting and responding, reporting back to stakeholders and responding to the findings. The guide goes through the thinking that needs to occur at each step in order to design a simple social accounting system that will work for small, volunteer based organisations and enterprises.
The guide is based on the idea that social accounting gains more meaning the longer you do it. Over time you build up a record of how your organisation has progressed and changed, and the sorts of impacts you have had. Social accounting can be used to report to funders and other outside agencies, but the primary purpose is to track for yourself how your organisation is going - and to make changes based on this information.
The guide recognises that volunteer organisations have no time and no money, so it recommends starting small, perhaps only tracking a couple of activities. To make things as easy as possible the guide includes examples of the surveys and other tools initially tested with Fig Tree and Beanstalk - but of course organisations are encouraged to experiment and develop tools that will best suit them. The guide is being further “road-tested” with Fig Tree and Beanstalk and the intention is to update the guide based on this ongoing work.
The Community and Corporate Engagement Program (CCEP): An innovative approach to student engagement
By Mark Creyton, Director Education, Research and Policy at Volunteering Qld and Melissa Sullivan, the director of The Green Intern and Lecturer at CQUniversity Brisbane International Campus.
CCEP is a small but successful extracurricular program at CQUniversity Brisbane International Campus. This program focuses on building confidence and skills for international students to help prepare them for active volunteer roles in community and not-for-profit organisations, with a view to gaining employment in their field of expertise. The program also provides a substantial orientation to working in and with community. The link between connecting with community and employment is an important one for international students, and CCEP has been designed to help international students to take the first step into the communities where they live in a professional way.
CCEP was developed to prepare CQUniversity’s international students for integration into the Australian workforce through developing an understanding of and connections with their local community. This program focuses on the development of skills and confidence to enable students to undertake voluntary work placements under a service learning methodology. Students are also given the opportunity to meet with relevant organisations to facilitate this goal. The importance and scope of volunteering are also explored, and students are advised on networking skills and techniques. To be eligible for the program, students are required to submit a 300 - 500 word essay outlining their reasons for wanting to take part. It is important to note that the students must demonstrate a willingness to engage and give back to community. This is important in distinguishing CCEP as different from other career development approaches, and identifies the program clearly as a service learning program.
The first step of the program involves two one day workshops developed and facilitated by Volunteering Qld. These workshops have a maximum participant number of 22 and focus on developing crucial soft skills in aspects such as team work, leadership, rights and responsibilities, volunteering practice and conflict resolution. The program also provides a strong orientation to community and non-profits and explores cultural similarities and differences with students experiences in their own civil societies. The orientation of the program is to bring students from a variety of cultures and backgrounds into a supportive environment where they can learn the skills required to adapt successfully into an Australian workplace. A networking event is then held a week later in which students, volunteer organisations and corporates are invited. The students learn of a variety of volunteer engagement opportunities and can sign up at this time. There is also a chance to network and develop possible opportunities with employers and with peak industry bodies such as CPA. Students are then supported in their volunteer roles through the Training Employment and Career Coaching office.
There are a number of lessons that have been learned after the program has been delivered over the past six years.
- The program does offer a valuable pathway for students into both volunteer work and paid work. Several students have gained direct employment through the program, while many others are volunteering in the community. The second significant outcome has been a reported increase in confidence, increase in involvement within the university, and a greater sense of positive university experience.
- The program’s success has relied on its intensive nature and high expectations. Contrary to traditional views concerning lack of serious student commitment – this program demonstrates that students seek a serious and engaged program which both stimulates and challenges them and provides meaningful opportunities within the community sector. The program insists that the participants who come through the program are prepared for a pro-active role within community organisations which utilises the students skills and not simply in administrative roles.
- The program’s success reflects a very strong focus on partnerships. Firstly the partnership between CQUniversity and Volunteering Qld. The program has been strongly supported by the university and resourced well to ensure the students have a memorable experience. The program also relies on working with a number of community partners who have come to value the students and understand the program and who have provided meaningful and substantive volunteer opportunities.
- The program relies on a synergy between the individual participant experience and the group experience. Students often speak of their pleasure in working with students from 20 different cultural backgrounds during the workshops and in sharing the challenges and joys of being an international student in Australia.
Implications for the future
Service learning is being used more and more in a variety of education settings throughout Australia. Volunteering Qld is working with Education Queensland on a schools based service learning program, which includes the Certificate II in Volunteering. A service learning pedagogical approach is being explored in some higher education institutions in Australia. But its scope is far from being realised. Service learning has the potential to provide the impetus for ongoing and multifaceted education community partnerships. Common ground, common need and reciprocal benefits can be realised and understood at the ground level through service learning relationships.
Building volunteer leadership within your volunteer program
(A summary of “The Leadership Ladder: Fostering volunteer engagement and leadership” a report by New York Cares 2009).
There is a growing level of discussion and interest in the development and support of volunteers into leadership roles and positions within non-profit organisations. There is however little research or practical writing to assist organisations, except in building boards and management committees. “The Leadership Ladder” is the final report from work commissioned by New York Cares (the largest volunteer organisation in NYC providing a range of direct services to those in need), to evaluate the effectiveness of its volunteer recruitment and retention strategies. It is especially interesting in its successful approach to develop a program which moves volunteers from participating episodically to becoming fully engaged community leaders.
A key finding from this research, which will come as no surprise, is that the most common volunteer motivation was to make a difference in the local community, and those who stayed involved and became more engaged, were those who felt that they were making a difference and were satisfied in their work. Again it was not so much the recognition or the social satisfaction that kept people involved but the satisfaction from and impact of the work itself.
Five key approaches assisted the organisation more effectively engage their volunteers into leadership roles.
- Improving the marketing and communications program to assist volunteers more easily register and to welcome them with a more personalised and warm approach.
- Redeveloping the volunteer orientation with greater focus on explaining the issues of the community and how they could be addressed. Greater focus on organisational goals and outcomes and providing an immediate opportunity to sign up to projects.
- Specific focus on communicating personally with each volunteer (there are 43,000) with an increasing level and type of recognition as the volunteer takes on more projects.
- Moving volunteers up the leadership ladder through a range of leadership development programs and opportunities as well as focusing less on project administration and more on project management and impact.
- Building organisational capacity through placing greater resources in the volunteer engagement and support team.
As organisations set about developing more effective volunteer programs, this report contributes a fresh approach to how this might be achieved.
Collated and edited by Mark Creyton, Director Education, Research and Policy, Volunteering Qld.
We are actively seeking contributions from researchers and practitioners which provide new understandings and approaches to the field of volunteering.