Creating Change: Lessons and Advice


Lessons learned

They didn't think of themselves as social activists, but rather as people helping people.
  • When volunteers are at the heart of an organization such as the CSL, their effective recruitment and retention are essential to success. Commitment of volunteers was sustained through a number of strategies, including recognition events and a yearly garden party. Mainly, however, it was through treating them as professionals. Some stayed with the CSL for 40 years.
  • Working with staff in an organization with a large volunteer base requires direction, support, and guidance from the Executive and Board. Staff, too, require creative strategies of recruitment and retention since salaries can't possibly be competitive with government or business. Social mission must therefore be the main attraction for staff.
  • It is equally important to develop and retain an effective Board because without competent board members, the best by-laws and procedures will be worthless. Keep your eye out for possible Board members and recruit with care. As times and conditions change, be willing to review methods for recruitment and retention of volunteers to keep current.
  • Maintain your Board by being willing to thrash out all issues with them and keep the process transparent and engaged. Also ensure that committees are in good working order and appropriate topics and issues are referred to them for discussion and evaluation.
  • Always listen to Board members and be willing to meet than more than halfway. Provide refreshments for meetings and allow for a few minutes of casual conversation and personal attention.
  • A sense of humour is essential to good working relations with volunteers, staff, and other board members.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to yield gracefully when things do not go as planned.

Advice to volunteers and activists

  • Display respect, honesty and authenticity. In a small town where people know each other very well, any hypocrisy or favouritism will not remain confidential for long.
  • No matter how "humble" a volunteer task may seem to be from the outside, make sure it's done with the same consistent care and pride as any other job. This will reflect well not only on the organization, but also on the dignity of those who use or benefit from the services.
  • Identify training needs for volunteers and try to fill them.
  • Develop the ability to lead a Board and Executive so it can function as effectively as possible and therefore be meaningful to every Board member. Ensure there is no "deadwood" at your table, and that if possible every Board member is a member of a standing committee. This develops in-depth expertise on a variety of related issues.
  • Make your meeting time regular every month with no cancellations except in extreme emergencies. That way, board members know that "first Thursday" is taken. When meetings are cancelled too often, Board Members tend to drift away.
  • Stay on mission but also be alert to adapt to emerging and changing needs and opportunities. You can take on a project such as a day care centre and down the road "spin it off" to stand on its own, if appropriate.
  • You can change roles without abandoning a project if a program becomes self-sufficient.
  • Keep abreast of changes as well as constants in the lives of potential women volunteers so that the right tasks will fit in with hours of work and other obligations. Also ensure that tasks are matched to skills and education levels of volunteers to keep them involved for a few years.
  • Become an effective public speaker so you can spread the word on your causes whenever the opportunity arises.
  • Maintain a sense of humour and try to be positive.
  • Consider the likelihood that young women with children of elementary school age and/or those who are employed full time will not be a likely source of volunteers, except for specific, time-limited events.
  • Look to middle-aged, unemployed women whose children are grown or, at least, in high school or middle school.
  • Look to young retirees who have been employed to the age of 55.
  • Reach out to newcomers to town. Find out what their interests are and make a good match between the volunteer and the organization's needs.
  • Remember that the attraction of volunteering is that it helps people to learn in action what their strengths and interests are.
  • Unless a volunteer is really committed and has a strong belief in what they can do for the organization, they probably should not do it.