East Scarborough Storefront – The Little Community that Could

I just finished reading East Scarborough Storefront’s book – The Little Community That Could – http://www.thestorefront.org/ourbook/, and it was very inspiring! I must admit, I only knew a little bit about this organization before I read the book, even though its in my backyard and it embodies the community development ideals that I care so much about. I knew that it was a hub model, where many agencies provide services under the same roof so that individuals can access many diverse service in a ‘one-stop shop’. I knew that the storefront was the first hub model, and now that is being replicated all across Toronto because it is effective and cost-efficient service delivery. I knew that the Storefront was a project of Tides Canada, meaning that it isn’t a legal charity on its own and therefore is released from the burdens of many administrative/legal/operational duties that come from being a registered charity.

    What I didn’t know, and what inspired me the most, is the depth of its commitment to community collaboration and development, seen through its decision-making model, HR policies, community engagement strategies, and work in partnership with residents. East Scarborough Storefront exists to foster collaboration leading to collective impact! Collaboration is critical to solving complex social problems, and so the role of ‘relationship-building’ is needed to keep this process moving.

   I especially LOVE the volunteer model. Most traditional volunteer coordination is done to support the organization. East Scarborough Storefront does volunteer recruitment/retention/coordination to support the COMMUNITY! One of the ‘services’ they provide is a pool of quality volunteers who can help out at any community events or activities that a resident is organizing. Therefore, if you are a resident needing some volunteers to support your activity, you don’t need to start from scratch in terms of recruiting, screening, training, retaining volunteers. This makes it much easier for a community resident to take the first steps in starting a project, knowing this support exists.

   Anyways, I can’t say enough great things about this book. Read it!

Candy Chang again – Philosophers Library …

Another post about Candy Chang, because I have become very interested in her work. I love this project of hers, to turn this old abandoned gas station into a ‘philosopher’s library’ and she’s using a crowdsourcing strategy to select books and have them personalized. Of course, I couldn’t resist! I love books and I love reading, so it was very difficult for me to pick the one book that has inspired me. I finally did pick one, which you can see if book #259 – http://thephilosopherslibrary.com/library/?success=1. Maybe its a little bit cliché in terms of it being a ‘self-help’ book, but I have read it over and over again, and whenever I feel restless and stressed, as soon as I start reading it, I find myself and feel grounded. It has been a book beside my bed, now for 10 years or so, and I go to it time and time again.

So I only picked The Power of Now for this project, but here are a few other books that have inspired me greatly:

-Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels – I love this book and have read it three or four times. I’m not a huge fiction reader, but I love the metaphor and writing and the description of Toronto.
-Night – Elie Wiesel – amazing story of resilience during the Holocaust
-Born to Run – Christopher MacDougall – I just read this past year but I felt so inspired that I know I need to read it again. I’m not really a Runner in the capital R sense of the word, but I still LOVED this book

I love libraries, and I am most definitely a super-user of our most fantastic library in Toronto – the Toronto Public Library. Most people don’t know that our local library has the highest circulation rate per capita and is the largest neighborhood-based library system in the WORLD. I am proud to be contributing to this statistic. I love the library for many reasons – not just the books, but also the community space, the accessibility as a space where people can go for free and be comfortable together. But most importantly, I do love the books – the holds system is amazing where so many books can come through the system and into your hands within a few days to a week. Another library project that inspires me and is so local/neighborhood based is the Little Library movement – these have been popping up in Toronto and several in my neighborhood – http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/.

On that note, I am on holidays and have brought many fun books to read – I must say goodbye and get started reading!

Universal Declaration of Volunteering

I remember reading the Universal Declaration of Volunteering back in 2004 (almost 10 years ago!) when I started by first volunteer coordinator job at a large social service agency. I was so excited to be engaging and working with volunteers in this role, and yet everything I read in the ‘volunteer management’ field was so operational and boring (I wrote a paper on this topic way back then that was published in the Nonprofit Quarterly – http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/management/1029-volunteer-management-once-more-with-meaning.html). I remember reading the Universal Declaration of Volunteering and it felt like my mission statement – http://www.iave.org/content/universal-declaration-volunteering. I wanted to put it on a big poster on my wall in my office, memorize it, bring it to all the volunteer management meetings that I went to and quote from it, etc, etc.

I just re-read it and I feel exactly the same. And I feel frustrated that the practice of volunteer management continues to be so far from the ideals in this declaration. This declaration really points out the power of volunteering as a community development strategy, as fostering connection across difference, fostering opportunities for community leadership and development, learning new skills etc.

I am still asking the same questions 10 years later. What would non-profit organizations look like and what would volunteering look like, if we took these points seriously? If organization leaders took seriously their responsibility to foster volunteerism as a social inclusion and a citizen engagement practice, rather than just a way to fill gaps and keep services going in the short-term? 

I continue to see that the majority of discussion in volunteer management forums, blogs, conferences etc is very operational in nature – short-term focussed, questions about operational strategies of recruitment and tracking and having fun parties to thank volunteers. I’m not saying that these questions aren’t important, and as someone who has been a volunteer manager, these questions are very important in a day-to-day context. BUT, I feel (and have felt for 10 years now) that the dialogue needs to move to the bigger picture, and context of non-profit leadership. Perhaps the issue is that volunteer managers/coordinators are usually positioned at the operational level in an organization, and then whoever the executive leader who is responsible for the volunteer area knows very little (or cares little or both) about volunteers. Volunteer managers are usually in either HR or in fundraising, and both executives feel that volunteers aren’t the highest priority (HR – paid staff are highest priority and Fundraising – donors/making money is highest priority). So maybe it is a structural issue, why the dialogue is not at this deeper level.

I don’t want to end this post on a downer note. I think I need to seriously memorize this Universal Declaration and spend some time dissecting the points – I feel like each point is SO important in its own right. As Ghandi said – “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.”, so if I hope that even in my little blog here, I can make some kind of change on this dialogue.

Community Engagement – neighborhood signs in Toronto

I love this heart-warming story that was featured last month about neighborhood engagement on Atlas Ave. http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/06/11/chalkboard_notes_on_atlas_ave_brighten_neighbourhood.html

Everyone is blogging and facebooking and engaging online, which is great (and of course I am doing it too – connecting online) but I love that this guy is back-to-the-basics in terms of connecting with his neighbors with chalk in his window. Love it …

Time – raising, banking, dollars

I’ve been thinking about the concept and value of time, in relation to volunteer and community development initiatives. How does our feeling of a ‘lack of time’ impact on our decision to volunteer or not volunteer? Volunteering, in definition, is the act of donating ones time (and self – skills, personality, ideas etc) to a cause. While there are usually implicit and explicit benefits to volunteering (for example. networking opportunities, change to improve a skill, job reference etc), volunteering in definition is about giving ones time freely and without pay or compensation.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to some other models of citizen engagement, where time is seen more of a valued ‘commodity’. Two examples to ponder. 1 – Framework Foundation has the Timeraiser event – I am a huge supporter of this organization and initiative, which is one of the most innovative initiatives that I have witnessed around volunteering. The Timeraiser is an awesome event – part volunteer fair, part art auction, where participants meet and match with non-profit agencies where they could potentially volunteer. The clincher is that participants bid for art, but not with money but with time. If they win the art auction, they can only receive their art piece when they have completed the time that they committed to.
2. The other example is the project of ‘timebanking’ which exists in USA and Europe, but I don’t believe in Canada. I don’t know a lot about this yet, but I want to read more. It’s interesting to note that I’ve been working in the field of volunteer management for over ten years and have read widely on volunteer practices, but haven’t come across this project of timebanking. I believe that is because it is seen as almost diametrically opposed to volunteering, where time is donated freely. Timebanking is a grassroots bartering system, where time (and skills) is a valued commodity and a medium of exchange between individuals in a community. Timebanking is really built on community development concepts, that every individuals has assets, that assets are far more than just money, and that sharing assets is the key to community building. I need to read more on this to understand.
Is traditional volunteering, the idea that we give freely of our time without the expectation of anything in return, coming to an end? And is this necessarily a bad thing? Has this traditional concept of volunteering led to exploitation, a hierarchical system of paid employees versus unpaid employees within the non-profit sector that works against goals of social justice? Perhaps its time that we look at other models of citizen engagement, one where time is truly valued.

Candy Chang – “Before I die…”

I just watched Candy Chang’s Ted talk – http://www.ted.com/talks/candy_chang_before_i_die_i_want_to.html. Very inspirational, very moving. I know there is a whole movement about reclaiming public space where people are taking action over space, through street art, guerilla gardening etc. I have loved (and continue to love) this movement and always appreciated the courage that people must have to reclaim public space. 

   What I love about Candy Chang’s “Before I die” project is that is so hopeful, asking people to state their hopes for the future. Death could be at any time, and we need to reclaim the life we have, each and every day. We need to live authentically, and that will look different for each person, but it is choosing how we spend our time. I love Candy Chang’s quote – “Two of the most valuable things we have are time and our relationship with others.” Volunteering and community development is all about these two critical factors – time and relationships. In a world that feels sometimes like it revolves around money, recognizing and reminding ourselves that time and relationships are priority is vitally important. None of us know how long we are on this earth, and with that in mind, I am trying to live authentically and ethically day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute.

   And my answer? “Before I die, I want to …. see my children grow up and be successful in their life (whatever success looks like to them). Before I die, I want to …. see volunteerism be recognized as critically important to the non-profit sector and social change, see organizational practices be more inclusive and inspiring and because of this, see volunteering rates grow exponentially.

Volunteers – as agents of innovation…

I just read the book “The Power of Why” by Amanda Lang, which was a very accessible read about innovation. I have been interested in the topic of innovation for awhile now, especially as it relates to the non-profit sector. Of course, in this book, all of the examples of innovation was within the for-profit sector, where companies are investing time and resources into improving their business to make more money. The examples are fascinating and it is an excellent read.
Lang investigates the question: what are the factors that make someone innovative? One of the key factors, that Lang points out to in her book and I have read in other books, is having an ‘outsiders perspective’. The advantage of the ‘outsider’ is that they see with ‘fresh eyes’, and they are not afraid to ask new questions or try out new ideas. The ‘outsider’ is more likely to be a risk-taker and therefore an innovator, because they aren’t personally invested in keeping the status quo. They aren’t afraid of change.
When I think about this in the non-profit context, volunteers are the perfect ‘outsiders’ and potential innovators. They are often more outsiders to an organization than the paid staff, and they aren’t as invested in keeping the status quo. Volunteers come to volunteering from different backgrounds and experiences, and volunteering is usually a small (but critical) part of their life, integrated with their other elements of life. The fact that volunteers aren’t on payroll is critical and an opportunity for innovation – they are not afraid of change in the way that paid staff may be. Paid staff rely on their jobs for their livelihood, and therefore, there is good reason to be afraid of change.
My questions that I am grappling with are: what role can volunteers play in non-profit organizations, as agents of innovation? What practices do non-profit organizations need to adopt in order to allow for innovation to happen? What examples of innovation exist in the non-profit sector (I’m especially interested in Toronto, Canada, because I understand the structural context that non-profits are in here) and what are the conditions that made this innovation possible?
I would love to find and document an example (or even examples) of a volunteer who was critical in innovative change within the non-profit sector. Innovation doesn’t need to be a major overhaul, but often the most innovative change is a small but critical change, that makes a major impact.