One of the reasons I went to the Volunteer BC conference in Richmond earlier this month was because Martha Parker was speaking. There were other reasons for wanting to attend the conference, of course, but I had heard good things from more than one person about Martha and with her being the former Executive Director of Volunteer Calgary (now Propell:us) I was betting on the fact that she’d be worth the price of admission.

She was.

Parker retired from Volunteer Calgary in 2004 but she is still very much on top of her game in the volunteer engagement department. One of the reasons why I now consider myself to be part of the Martha Parker Fan Club is because she’s a reader, and she gave us a small handful of important resources to read that I had never heard of. The other is she knows what she’s talking about and what she’s talking about is very exciting.

I recently read Vantage Point’s The Abundant Not-for-Profit and Parker’s conference keynote was cut from similar cloth. She brought us the Volunteer Canada list of “Community Engagement Opportunities” and encouraged us to think about community engagement as a spectrum, not a continuum. On the spectrum lie opportunities such as pro bono/skills-based options, leadership options, service learning options, group opportunities, episodic opportunities and more. And yes, still the traditional “direct service” opportunities that we are all familiar with – these are of course still meaningful. But volunteering is not just about “extra hands” now – it can be so much more. We even have new terms to define this broader definition of what a volunteer is; for example, “knowledge philanthropist” is starting to catch on a little.

Parker tells us that many people are “bored with old conversations and old strategies” yet I still think non-profits by default turn to these because they often don’t know any other way. (As in “here are the four things you can do here as a volunteer…”) Or they conceptually “get” new ideas but there are still huge barriers to putting them into practice. New tricks for old dogs…how are we to turn them around? Reading books like the Vantage Point resource mentioned above are a start, they advise to start small. Start with engaging one person to help your organization do something high level that a volunteer has never been asked to do before. It may even be their own idea that they came and pitched to you. Expect a lot of that person. And then engage another, and another. Make engaging knowledge philanthropists part of the job description of everyone in the organization. See what happens…

We can no longer go forward under the assumption that volunteerism is the same now as it always has been. Things are beginning to shift.¬†Martha Parker and others (Vantage Point, Volunteer Canada…) are starting new conversations, and they do come with new strategies. Our dialogue is about community engagement now, not just about asking volunteers to show up to lend a physical hand. And this is much broader than “just” thinking about how non-profits engage volunteers. It asks our whole community to be involved, in non-profits certainly but also in social enterprises, businesses with a charitable bent, associations, religious organizations, students in colleges and universities, neighbours helping neighbours…meaningfully.

The question is, how will non-profits respond to the notion of community engagement instead of volunteer management? Are they ready? Are they willing?

Do they have any other choice than to be so?

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