A $20,000 lottery grant to help students at Olds College find volunteer opportunities with non-profit groups is a good investment. Olds area charities may not harvest many long-term members, but other communities could find new leaders, who already understand how non-profits work and the challenges they face.
When you take a close look at the volunteer sector, you begin to see a lot of familiar faces. The adage that 80 per cent of the work is done by 20 per cent of the people still holds true, in small meeting rooms or in a citywide effort that calls hundreds to work.
In this year’s United Way campaign, we are told there are very few families that do not have at least one extended family member who requires the services of an agency funded by the United Way. But we all know that the same family participation rates do not hold true in terms of volunteerism.
Also, when you take a broad look at the volunteer sector, you see a lot more grey hair than you would find in the general population. Agencies that make use of volunteers can definitely use the infusion of energy and altruism that young people bring.
So if a $20,000 grant can introduce significant numbers of students into a short-term volunteer commitment, the lessons learned will be as portable — and as useful — as a college diploma.
Blair Strocher, project manager for the Hands Elevating, Leading and Providing (HELP) project being run through the Olds College Students Association, has planned HELP’s first forum at the college on Nov. 4.
Beyond taking the opportunity to introduce themselves to potential volunteers, here’s what non-profits need to bring:
• Real work: Agencies should put student volunteers as close to the front lines as possible. There should be specific programs waiting for volunteers before they arrive, and agencies should be ready to tie up regular volunteers to do mentoring, if that’s what is needed. You only have a short time to pack in an experience that makes an impact in the community, but gaining real experience is the first goal of this kind of project.
• A seat at the policy table: A college student may not bring the leadership of an experienced business person or professional on your board, but the more students in the room to see how non-profits struggle with policy papers, budgets, decision-making procedures and shortages of resources, the better.
• A chance to see the big picture as well as the small picture: Students should be able to work individually with people who need help. But they also need the overview to see how diverse our community really is, and how the connections between government agencies and non-profits create the social safety net.
Here’s what students need to bring:
• Enthusiasm: It’s hard to describe how a tired volunteer force picks itself up when a few really eager people walk into the room. But the energy is real.
• Commitment: Come willing to give it a real shot. Take one project and see it to the end, if at all possible.
• Awareness of your own passions: Volunteering is much more enjoyable when people have at a least an idea of where they want to help. Where do you want to make a difference?
It’s asking a lot of one part-time project co-ordinator to match college-age energy to a beleaguered volunteer sector. But we’re looking down the road here. This is where we show tomorrow’s community leaders what it is we expect them to do.
Not a bad return on $20,000. If we use it.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor