Category Archives: Not for profit organizations

Community Engagement Three Ways

While the events of the past year have inspired some folks to write about current events, I needed to spend time experimenting with and reflecting on how best to change what I was doing. According to Ghandi, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” With this in mind, I looked for opportunities to contribute in new ways and came up with three channels:

  • Professional–advocacy for community engagement in academic libraries
  • Political–joining a local Indivisible group active in The Sister District Project
  • Community–joining the boards of two not for profit organizations

Like pork (or tofu) three ways, each channel has a different flavor and texture. Each set of activities challenges me to learn and change in different ways, sometimes by leading and sometimes by following.

Professional  advocacy for community engagement is at the “meta” level and involves more writing and speaking than direct service. The challenge and change for me is to move from the neutral position I have taken in my work with academic library clients to one of promoting active involvement of academic libraries in community engagement–in particular, the types of activities that prepare students for engaged citizenship in a democracy. In this activity, I take my lead from a committed group of academic librarians whose work in this area is exemplary. In particular, Jennifer Nutefall at Santa Clara University launched The Colloquium on Libraries and Service Learning in 2014 and has provided leadership and focus for those of us committed to promoting community engagement in academic libraries to follow.

Engaging in politics has required me to move from passive activities such as voting, donating money, and even joining marches, to action-oriented activities such as developing strategies to raise funds for candidates, and writing post cards encouraging people to vote. Again, I take my lead from an organized and committed group–in this case, a chapter of the Sister District Project for the 13th District of California that operates through our local Indivisible group. The Sister District Project is committed to turning red states blue. What I really love about this activity is that it recognizes that we’re dealing with systemic problems here. However, instead of collapsing into a heap of despair, the Sister District Project breaks down the problem and provides activities that can shift the system (such as working on state level elections that could shift the gerrymandering trend).

Board service for two not for profit organizations involves different changes and learning for each. One organization is a neighborhood association. Although the organization has existed for over six decades, its processes and procedures are largely undocumented and passed on through oral tradition. The change working with this organization requires of me is to apply what I know about research and experimentation to discover whether or not this organization is the right vehicle for creating the kind of changes I think are important in my community (e.g. engaging youth, seeking ways to involve younger people in setting priorities for the neighborhood, etc.).

The primary function I serve for the other organization is to support its technology and social networking needs. Soon after I left academic library work, I made a conscious choice to move away from engagement with technology except as a tool for my own work. So, the change here has been for me to revisit my decision and figure out how to get the support I need to re-engage.

The two board positions create the greatest challenge. In addition to the specific changes required for service to each, the level of commitment they require (or that I have decided to provide) has changed my relationship to bringing home the bacon (trying for the pork three ways tie-in here). In fact, I’ve put such a priority on my community engagement activities that I have been neglecting my own web site and social networking presence!

Think of this as a reveal, and the first of more posts about community engagement. The choices I have made are not for everyone. I invite you share your own stories of changes the events of the past year have inspired you to make.

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Working with Volunteers

The outreach coordinator and a board member of a not for profit organization contacted me for advice about working with volunteers. Like many similar organizations, their organization relies on volunteers to accomplish much of the work they do. They were wondering what they could do to insure that the relationship between their organization and their volunteers is positive and beneficial to both parties.

The advice I gave them was based on my experience with two different types of organizations. One was a membership-based professional organization and the other was a cultural heritage initiative. Despite the differences in the organizations, the principles and practices I used for engaging volunteers were similar. These principles and practices are applicable to any organization that recruits individual volunteers for specific jobs. Organizations that recruit large numbers of volunteers for events (e.g. coastal cleanup days, etc.) might take a somewhat different approach.

The first step is to develop a volunteer program. This means using a standard approach to recruit volunteers whenever a position becomes available, just as you would if you were filling any other type of position. For the professional organization, I worked with my colleagues (mostly other board members) to create position descriptions. We figured out who would be responsible for mentoring the volunteer. We posted the positions on our web site, recruited volunteers at the events we hosted and went through a lightweight interview and selection process.

For the cultural heritage initiative, my methods were less formal. Generally, I contacted people I knew who I thought would be interested and were qualified. If there is a trick to recruiting volunteers, it is to learn what sparks a person’s interest in volunteering. Do they want to learn, or build their resumes? Try to find a match for their interests that are aligned with the organization’s goals.

Once volunteers were in their positions, I checked in with them and with their mentors periodically to see how things were going. Sometimes we needed to make adjustments to duties or time commitments. Sometimes the volunteer needed a reminder or some coaching about expectations or some training on how to accomplish a particular goal.

Occasionally, things don’t work out as planned. Sometimes people are reluctant to fire volunteers because volunteers are not getting paid. However, it is a mistake to allow a person who is not performing or is not a good match for the job to continue in a volunteer role. Organizations rely on volunteers for critical work and use resources to mentor volunteers. In addition, volunteers are often seeking experience to explore a career change. They should be able to rely on an honest appraisal of their abilities to help them decide whether or not the career they are exploring is right for them.

Creating a volunteer program can be rewarding and an effective strategy to accomplish organizational goals in not for profit organizations. In the membership-based professional organization, volunteers staffed our board, ran our events, and updated and maintained our web site. For the cultural heritage organization, volunteers developed a new set of standards and created a web site for access to primary resources for scholars. How can creating a volunteer program help your not for profit organization meet its goals?

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