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Reporter’s Notebook: Keeping community volunteers engaged

Many rural activities facilities and activities are run by volunteers. Keep yours happy

Volunteers power many facilities and services in our communities. What motivates people to volunteer and how can non-profit boards engage their volunteer corps?

I spoke to two women, from different rural communities in different provinces. Both have experience as board members and in the volunteer corps.

Because I wanted them to speak openly without creating bad blood, I’m withholding their names and other identifying details.

Why do you volunteer?

“It’s mostly for the kids,” says Volunteer A. For example, the school council she’s involved with fundraises for things like playground equipment. She has also joined the board of a recreation group to bring more children’s activities into the community. She’s not currently on the recreation organization’s board, but she still volunteers frequently.

Volunteer B also volunteers with a parent-school organization. She wants her kids to have memories of her being around. She’s also joined a rural hall board. Volunteer B says many of the people involved with that hall are retirement age.

“And they deserve a break. And I think it’s time for the people my husband and I’s age to step up and take that from them. Let them just come to the events we plan and enjoy themselves and have us do the work,” says Volunteer B.

What do you wish board members and other people knew about what you do as a volunteer?

Volunteer B wants people to know that she’s not afraid to get involved, and help local organizations evolve. As someone who didn’t grow up in her current community, she brings outside experience and perspective. She wants to stay out of the community politics as much as humanly possible.

“I think it’s important to have those people come in without preconceived politics,” says Volunteer B.

When asked what she wished board members knew about volunteering, Volunteer A had a succinct answer. “Well, it’s not about the glory.” She volunteers to get stuff done.

However, she has her limits. Sometimes organizers from other communities, which she’s not involved with, ask her to pitch in. In the past she’s said yes, but also made it clear that she won’t do so regularly.

The thing is, the town she’s most active in is “crazy busy” already.

“A person can burn out,” says Volunteer A.

Do things run smoothly or could the boards do better?

When she first moved from the city, Volunteer B was on a non-profit board that seemed to tick right along. The executive director linked the board and staff, and many board members volunteered on the front line as well.

More recently, she was at a school meeting where community involvement seemed very low. But she doesn’t think she could speak to how to improve it, other than getting more people involved somehow.

“It’s the struggle that every community deals with. Everybody is just so busy,” says Volunteer B.

Volunteer A finds her school council to be very well-run. Everyone chips in, she says, and everyone is in the loop.

But the recreation board doesn’t always support it’s volunteers, says Volunteer A. The board once decided to have a volunteer appreciation event, but had the volunteers organize and work at it. Most of the board members didn’t even show up, says Volunteer A.

In all fairness, it’s not an easy job and board members are volunteering too. This non-profit is managing many activities, with many committees, and Volunteer A thinks that may be part of the problem. Perhaps some committees need to be separate non-profits.

She acknowledges that a board’s main task is to manage the organization. But board members also need to listen to the front-line volunteers, she says. They will have a better idea of what’s working and what’s not.

“It’s okay to say: ‘This didn’t work so let’s scrap it.’”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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