Lessons in Volunteerism, from the Volunteer Capital

By Danielle S. Russell, CAE

If you know me, you know I’m a proud Golden Hawk and, despite learning (and now teaching) at other post-secondary institutions, Wilfrid Laurier University remains my second home. It all started on March 17, 1999, when my student tour guide declared that “Laurier is the Volunteer Capital of Canada”; it was my “you had me at hello” moment in my search for a University to call home for four years.

In my four spins around the sun, living and working on that one city block in Waterloo Ontario (it’s larger now), I volunteered for a Student Service (ERT we’re the ones who save your… you know), was a member of the Judicial Affairs Committee, served as a Student rep to Faculty Meetings, and at one point was Treasurer of two campus clubs.

When I left Laurier, I took the lessons, experience, and enthusiasm for volunteering that I had built on campus and continued to look for ways to make an impact and contribution. Then in 2015, LinkedIn ranked Laurier #1 in volunteerism, with students and alumni listing volunteer responsibilities in their profiles more often than any other university.

We have the data that tells us that my experiences on campus are not unique, at least when you stack me up against my fellow Hawks. I even got a chance to kick the bumpers a bit more that same year, when I worked with the Career Centre to assemble a panel “Careers in the Not for Profit Sector” and all of the Alumni I invited home answered my “come home to Laurier with me?” email with an enthusiastic chorus of “I’m in!” messages.

So, what did I learn about volunteerism that I carry with me today?

Decisions Are Made by Those Who Show Up

Yes, yes, I’m a Political Scientist (also thanks Laurier), and this can apply to voting as well. But the real secret sauce as a volunteer is that showing up to lead, to advise, and to help govern gives you the opportunity to help shape direction, and to ensure that diverse perspectives are considered.

As a student, I served for a year as the Student Rep to Political Science Department faculty meetings. Along with a fellow student, I was charged with ensuring that when the Faculty made decisions the student voice and perspective was thoughtfully presented. I’m not going to say that my ideas held many a day, but I saw firsthand how advice and advocacy could impact outcomes.

Years ago, I heard that the secret to happiness is ‘Something to Do, Something to Look Forward to, and Someone to Love.’ One of the great powers of the Not-for-Profit and Association Sectors is that we have the power to harness our missions and purpose to give people something to do, and if we can show them how their contributions are considered when decisions are made, we can show them how they made impact by showing up.

Learning and Growth

We all know that expression, “garbage in, garbage out” and while this is usually used to talk about the impact of our diets on our well-being, it can also apply to volunteer (and paid) work – you get out what you put in. If you come to play, with a growth mindset, and a (at least moderate) tolerance for risk; you can stretch and grow your skills.

There are skills I use almost everyday that I learned and developed during my time volunteering in University, or that are strengths today, because I built on foundations from my undergrad days. I showed up at Laurier with my NLS (National Lifeguard Certification) and used my lifesaving skills to earn my way onto the Emergency Response Team; but I took from my experiences, basic budgeting (treasurer of two campus clubs), the basics of bylaw development, bylaw amendments, and a love for Robert’s Rules of Order.

Laurier is also a place where you need to apply – and be interviewed – to volunteer, there is simply too much interest to engage every volunteer in every role that interests them. Just last week I was interviewed for a role on a Charity Board that I’m very excited about; I may not get the gig, but I went in relaxed and ready to talk about how I can make a unique contribution and impact.

As Not-for-Profit and Association Professionals, we often look for ways to amplify our organization’s social good, we encourage participation by Young and Emerging Professionals, and provide people with opportunities to leverage their potential. We recognize that if we can’t pay people in money for their time, we can pay them in fulfillment, growth opportunities, and the challenge to learn new skills.

Common Interest Builds Community

As a single-young(ish)-professional, I am often the recipient of lots of advice, solicited (and not), and a common theme you often hear is to seek out partners of common interest by doing things that you enjoy or that matter to you. In the same way that you could potentially find a romantic partner by volunteering for a charity you both care about; you can often find friends, professional connections, and a broader network by engaging in your Industry’s Association, or another Not-for-Profit that speaks to your professional or personal interests and priorities.

A couple of weeks ago I got a chance to spend a few hours with one of my oldest friends from University; we maintain a friendship that has grown beyond our initial connection from those days on the Laurier Campus, but we’ve built on our days serving together on the Judicial Affairs Committee, and on the Executive of a campus club. Our volunteerism led to meals shared, and even a few road-tips full of memories.

Association and Not-for-Profit professionals will do well to be mindful that, especially in our increasingly distant world, our committees, task forces and boards offer our volunteers opportunities to make meaningful connections with like minded people; and we need to think about how we build in opportunities to make and strengthen bonds. You never know, we might even get to play Cupid and give volunteers their Someone to Love.

The Power of Thank You

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky to be invited by the Quebec City Convention Centre team to join them for MPI Ottawa’s GMID (Global Meetings Industry Day) session delivered by Dave Delaney on the ROI of Nice. We were reminded of the incredible impact we can have on people simply by saying “Thank You”, or even just acknowledging someone and their contribution.

I should probably mention that CSAE’s Talk Tuesdays, have given me a great opportunity to build on my connections with the team at the Quebec City Convention Centre, an IRL (In Real Life) example of how common interest has built my community.

As a Laurier Alumni, who has continued to contribute my time, and talents (and now money) to the institution I love, I see firsthand how the volunteerism spirit also drives a culture of acknowledgement and relationship stewardship that inspires me in my work. From (dairy free) baked goods and flowers that arrived in the days following my Dad’s passing, to the opportunity of a lifetime (twice so far, and counting?) to deliver an address at Convocation, to the cards and pens, and socks (which I love), I am constantly reminded of how much greater my connection is when my contribution is acknowledged.

This one is simple, we know this, it’s practically in our DNA. We need to say “Thank You” to our volunteers. This goes not just for paid staff, but for Volunteer Leaders. Even simple gestures, when consistently delivered, will give our volunteers their Something to Look Forward To, as they continue to lend us their time and talents.

My final thoughts, as a Board Member of CSAE, I want to personally thank all of the Network, Committee, Task Force, and occasional volunteers for the contributions you make to our Association and our Sector. A special thank you to the Awards and Recognition Committee, the Awards Program Review Task Force, my fellow committee members on the Governance and Government Relations Committees, and of course my fellow board members.

Danielle S. Russell, CAE is an award-winning Association Executive who drives impact and value through her volunteer and paid work. She is an Experienced Association Leader and Industry Builder, in addition, she works part-time as a Governance Consultant and College Professor. Danielle publishes a Weekly LinkedIn Newsletter – Tuesday Thoughts, and her LinkedIn feed has been featured in Ignite Magazine’s Rise and Shine.