a force for positive change
I was fresh out of college and working at a long term care health facility in the newly formed public relations department when I was assigned a marketing task for the volunteer services department. I wrote the kind of drivel only a greenhorn would write and was promptly given a course correction in context about who volunteers are.
“Our volunteers represent some of the best and brightest minds and hearts in our community,” said the volunteer services director. “Our volunteers represent a mass of expertise, experience, acumen, compassion, ideals and actions that serve, support and enhance hand in glove what we get paid to do — and they do it for free.”
In my inexperience, I’d envisioned, (and naively wrote about) volunteers serving coffee and playing card games … things maybe some volunteers do … but I’d missed the essence of volunteerism.
“When people ask me about volunteering, I always say that not-for-profits aren’t looking for all of your time and all of your money; they’re looking for all of your passion and all of your energy. And it doesn’t cost you anything to give these things,” says Alison Archambault.
Alison’s day gig is director of communications for First Calgary Financial, and her volunteer roster includes serving as vice-chair on three boards of directors — National Service Dogs, Southern Alberta Rottweiler Rescue and Cochrane & Area Humane Society — as well as raising puppies and/or fostering dogs with the same three organizations. She’s also the head screener and volunteer visitor with the Pet Access League Society (PALS) in Calgary.
“It sounds cheesy to say you get more than you give when you volunteer with any organization,” Alison says, “But this is especially true with pet-centric organizations. I truly get so much more out of volunteering than I give.”
Alison is not alone in her sentiment about volunteerism. Alberta leads the national average in a country with an already high volunteering rate of 47 per cent — a statistic that translates to some 13.3 million Canadians over the age of 15 reporting to have volunteered in the last 12 months. (Interestingly, the 2010 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating reports that Canadians aged 15-24 volunteer more than any other age group at a rate of 58 per cent, 11 per cent higher than the overall rate, which would seem to dispell the myth of disengaged youth.) In 2012, 55 per cent of Calgarians reported volunteering, a number that reflects the provincial average, which has risen steadily from 48 per cent in 2004.
When I wrote my ill-fated marketing drivel on volunteering, I confess I had no personal experience with volunteering. I came from good European stock with a strong work ethic, but from a family that hadn’t yet found its volunteering stride. Though I’d worked since I was 10 years old, (my first job was delivering morning newspapers on my bike, six days a week, a job I held for three years before graduating to babysitting) it took until my mid 20s for me to find my volunteer calling. Though I liked the idea of offering myself in voluntary service, I just didn’t know where to start.
“What we always suggest to people who are interested in volunteering is to think about what you’re really passionate about or connected to,” advises Karen Franco, director of communications with Volunteer Calgary.
“You may have friends or relatives involved in causes, or impacted by a particular issue you feel drawn to support, or you may just know you’re the kind of person who has a love of animals or a fondness for a certain kind of organization that shares your values. That’s where to start.”
Family and friends involved with charitable organizations are great resources and a natural place to start to learn more about opportunities that may be a fit. But if you’re searching blind, the Volunteer Calgary website, www.volunteercalgary.ab.ca, provides a customizable search engine that allows you to search by incredibly diverse and specific criteria.
“You can look for opportunities based on specific areas of interest and then start narrowing your search categories,” says Karen. “For instance, if you’re a family wanting to volunteer together, you can search for organizations that specifically state they provide family-friendly volunteering opportunities.
“You can narrow your search by cause, by type of activities, by skills you bring to the table or would like to develop. Your search can be as specific as stating you want to serve on a board, or to provide childcare, or coaching, or to work on a computer, or in trades, Karen explains. “There are a lot of ways to narrow your potential fit down to five or six positions that are most suited to you as opposed to the 500-600 opportunities we have posted on any given day.”
Above all, remember that volunteering is supposed to be fun. It’s an addition to the commitments you hold in the rest of your life, and so you want volunteering to be fulfilling and something you look forward to getting to do. You can volunteer once, once in a while, once a month, once a week, or once a day. (Or, as Alison demonstrates with her ever revolving door of foster pets, every day all day.) You get to choose. Volunteering is a liberty
“I was raised in a family where volunteering is really important,” Alison says, “So having that ground to begin with made me search as an adult for those opportunities to volunteer in my community. If you’re looking for volunteer opportunities, you find them. If you hear in the dog park of a person who’s rescuing a breed that’s near and dear to your heart, you find a way to help.”
And that’s kinda how Alison eased into her volunteerism with the many pet-centric not-for-profit organizations she now serves to the tune of about 45 hours a month on board commitments alone. Over the years, Alison and her husband have fostered over 100 Rottweilers, not to mention the many other puppies and dogs they’ve raised, trained, evaluated and fostered on behalf of the organizations they support.
As for me, volunteering found me. Eventually, the right convergence of opportunity, passion, time and energy created the perfect forum … and in time, forums … for me to shine in ways that were playful, meaningful and heartful.
I’ve since served coffee and served on boards of directors, (and everything in between) providing countless hundreds of volunteer hours to organizations I’ve loved. I’ve gained as much or more than I’ve given. I never forgot the words of that volunteer services director all those years ago, and I’ve come to appreciate, first hand, the significance of the expertise and experience volunteers bring to organizations that rely on volunteer manpower — many of which simply would cease to exist without volunteers.
“Volunteering is in my heart 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Alison says. “You make time to do the things you love and that’s the gift you give back to your community. We all have a choice to give to our communities and to take from that giving what is meaningful to us. And really, who doesn’t want to make their communities the best they can be? We who volunteer have the power to make our city the best place for everyone — four legged and two legged — to live.”