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Recognizing Racism in Volunteer Engagement

Published: Jul 27, 2020 @ 9:19 AM

VolunteerConnector is publishing this article with the permission of Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) and Lisa Joyslin, the author. Thank you for your generosity. To learn more about MAVA, follow the links below. 


Recognizing Racism in Volunteer Engagement

By Lisa Joyslin, Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, followed by protests and riots across the nation calling for racial justice, many people are experiencing discomfort. Discomfort at the unfairness and injustice experienced in the Black community. Discomfort in our own actions, or lack thereof. Discomfort regarding how to move forward. 

Discomfort is a vital part of growth and change. Systems and structures across the nation – from law enforcement to education and everything in between – need to change. They need to be centered around equity.

But for nonprofit leaders and, in particular, volunteer engagement leaders, discomfort should not be something we only feel about other systems.

Volunteerism needs to change, too. Small tweaks to our already-existing structures are not enough. Big, overarching change is needed. Why? Because volunteerism is built on systemic racism.

That’s not comfortable. But it’s true.

How do we know that systemic racism is embedded in volunteerism? Because modern volunteerism – the formal structures and processes by which most organizations engage volunteers – is built upon multiple characteristics of white supremacy culture.

Consider the following characteristics, originally developed by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in 2001 and outlined by Okun in her essay white supremacy culture, and how they are embedded in volunteer engagement:

Sense of urgency

Okun describes this characteristic as a “continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to be inclusive,” and a practice that “frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results.” 

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • ·       Acting upon demands of organizational leaders or program directors who need “more volunteers now,” forcing quick recruitment instead of thoughtful outreach
  • ·       Recruitment goals that call for an increase of volunteers over a course of months or one year when building authentic relationships with new communities takes much longer than that


This characteristic appears when “the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person.”

How it shows up in volunteerism:  

  • ·       Strict risk management practices centered on protecting the organization and its power/reputation, not on bringing out the best in each individual. Examples include rigid background check rules, requiring multiple references, paperwork not easily completed by a non-native English speaker, etc.

Worship of the written word 

Okun describes this characteristic as “if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist,” and “the organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information is shared.”

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • ·       Insisting on a written application as the first step to volunteering
  • ·       Heavy reliance on written rules and regulations, as outlined in volunteer handbooks, policies, performance reviews, etc.
  • ·       Expecting written memorandums of understanding to define partnerships

Quantity over quality:

This characteristic appears when “all resources of an organization are directed toward producing measurable goals,” and “little or no value is attached to process.”

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • ·       Individual and department goals are centered on measurable outcomes such as volunteer recruitment, retention and evaluation
  • ·       Volunteers who “don’t work out” are seen as a waste of time instead of a learning opportunity for both the volunteer and the organization
  • ·       Building new relationships and growing trust are not recognized as successful until volunteer numbers increase

Only one right way: 

Okun describes this characteristic as “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it.”

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • ·       The volunteer engagement field is filled with “best practices” that are held up as the one right way to do volunteerism
  • ·       Most programs have one pathway to becoming a volunteer (perhaps with an abbreviated pathway for episodic volunteers that eliminates a few steps)


This characteristic is described as, “those with power think they are capable of making decisions for and in the interest of those without power.”

How it shows up in volunteerism:

  • ·       Nonprofit and volunteer engagement leaders make decisions about the volunteer program without consulting community members and those who receive services from the organization
  • ·       Those with money are provided special treatment as volunteers; i.e. creating a customized volunteer opportunity for a funder’s employee group. For more examples see Sue Carter Kahl’s recent blog post Power, Privilege, and Volunteerism
  • ·       Prioritizing the feelings or reactions of donors instead of the community when making decisions about programming, volunteer services and messaging.

Any given volunteer program may not be guilty of all the white supremacy culture characteristics listed above. But chances are good that you recognize at least a few that are prevalent in your organization and those you work with. (And if your organization does not take part in any of the actions listed above, please reach out to MAVA as we would love to learn from you.)

It has been said about other systems in our society, but it’s also true here: Volunteerism is not broken. It is working exactly the way it was designed. It works well for those with privilege. It pushes away those without.

So, what can we do about it?

Here’s what I think. Start with the idea that there is only one right way to do things. Throw it out the window. In Vu Le’s recent blog post on Nonprofit AF, he discusses how lack of imagination is a barrier to equity and justice in the nonprofit sector. You can’t imagine new possibilities if you believe you’ve found the one right way. And when it comes to volunteerism, there are so many ways.

Consider, for example:

  • ·       Neighbors helping neighbors within a community. People don’t often call this volunteerism, but it has the same spirit of care and compassion.
  • ·       Protestors. Those going to a protest probably didn’t say they were heading out to “volunteer.” Yet, they gave of their time for a cause they were passionate about.
  • ·       Community organizing. Again, grassroots efforts aren’t often labeled as “volunteerism.” They are simply people coming together to make things better.

There are far more people of color engaged in the three activities above than there are in formal volunteerism with a nonprofit organization. Communities of color are volunteering. Communities experiencing poverty are volunteering. Immigrant communities are volunteering. They’re just not doing it with formal programs.

And the reason why should be pretty clear by the characteristics listed above. Formal volunteerism has built up countless barriers to keep people of color away.

So let’s learn from these other ways of supporting communities. Let’s learn from the people of color who are giving of themselves every day to make this world better. Let’s have hard conversations but, more importantly, let’s take action that we never thought possible. 

I can’t tell you what that looks like. It’s going to look different for each organization and each community. No right way means more work. But it’s the only way volunteerism has a chance of becoming equitable. And if volunteerism – a field that prides itself on helping others and making the world better – isn’t about equity…then, honestly, THAT should be the source of our discomfort.


Lisa Joyslin is the Inclusive Volunteerism Program Manager at the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA).  Her work is focused on learning how to address systemic inequities in volunteer engagement systems to better engage communities of color as volunteers at nonprofit and government organizations.  Lisa has worked in the field of volunteer engagement for nearly 15 years, including 4 years as the Volunteer Services Officer for the Red Cross Minnesota Region and positions at multiple volunteer centers. She holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Minnesota.

Lisa is a white woman. While MAVA’s work is done in partnership with communities of color, it is vital that you also read the viewpoints of those with lived experience as people of color. We recommend the following as a starting point:


The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) connects, educates, strengthens and advocates for volunteer engagement leaders and their organizations to positively impact communities. Learn more about MAVA and our Inclusive Volunteerism Program here.

We’ll be exploring racial equity and volunteerism further at MAVA’s Virtual Conference this November on “Re-Defining Volunteerism: Dismantling Inequities.” Learn more and join us!



Rotary - Continuing to make a Big Impact in the Voluntary Sector

Published: Jun 25, 2020 @ 1:46 PM

Rotary has been around since 1905, when a small group of men came together with the intention of sharing ideas and different perspectives that would lead to lifelong friendships. Long term friendships were only a small aspect of what has emerged from Rotarian efforts. From all around the world the deep impact of Rotary can be observed. 

Rotary is a household name, and some might even suggest that Rotarians are the original volunteers. Rotary has never been a group to settle for less. The issues they are tackling are robust in scope to say the least. They work towards solving complex problems such as providing clean water, supporting education, and eliminating gender inequality. Working towards the eradication of polio is one of Rotary’s greatest success stories, as they can say that their efforts over the last 30 years have led to 99.9% eradication of the deadly disease. 

Rotary continues to adapt and change to best support our modern, ever shifting, technology driven world. Their priorities have shifted over time and they care deeply about diversity, equality, and inclusion. Rotary knows that to serve their communities best, they must have equal representation of all people among their members and this is something they will continue to strive towards. 

Another way Rotary is continuing to grow and adapt is with technology. In order to provide the best support to their communities and members, Districts 5360 and 5370 are partnering with the VolunteerConnector. To say Rotarians are passionate about volunteerism would be an understatement. These Districts consist of thousands of individuals that are keen to support their communities and they recognize that using the VolunteerConnector is the most efficient way to make these essential connections. 

We are so proud to be partnering with Rotary Districts 5360 and 5370 to connect their members to communities across Western Canada. We know that connecting a Rotarian to a community organization will lead to a lifelong bond, and deep impact for both the organization and the Rotarian. 

Welcome to the VolunteerConnector, Rotarians!  


VolunteerConnector Supports Black Lives Matter

Published: Jun 10, 2020 @ 9:51 AM

We strive for for an anti-racist approach to volunteering. What does this mean? We examine our practice and our platform and work to reduce systemic barriers and practices that keep people from engagement getting involved. Our staff are committed to continuing our learning journey and making improvements to our platform support anti-racist practice. Our view on volunteering is broad. We are here for volunteering in all of its forms including activism, and protesting. 

Black Lives Matter

Are you looking to organize a protest, get people engaged in a letter-writing campaign or awareness? Get started here and check out this list of resources.

Canadian Organizations to engage with support that are doing Anti-Racist work:

CommunityWise – Anti-Racism Organizational Change (AROC) - http://communitywise.net/aroc/

ActionDignity - https://actiondignity.org/programs/indie-albertanonprofits/

Centre for Race and Culture Edmonton - https://cfrac.com/training/anti-racism-workshop-series/

Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan - http://mcos.ca/anti-racism-101/

Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants - https://ocasi.org/

Books to Read:

  • Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo Lodge
  • How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
  • Me And White Supremacy – Layla Saad
  • White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo
  • The Skin We’re In – Desmond Cole
  • Highway of Tears – Jessica McDiarmid
  • They Call Me George – Cecil Foster
  • AfricVille – Jeffrey Colvin
  • Frying Plantain – Zalika Reid-Benta
  • The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

More … https://chipublib.bibliocommons.com/list/share/204842963/1357692923

Films to Watch:

  • Seven Seconds
  • 13th
  • Fruitvale Station
  • When They See Us
  • Teach Us All
  • LA 92
  • Get Out
  • Selma


  • Floodlines
  • 1619
  • Intersectionality Matters!
  • Throughlines



Holding Your Employer Accountable - https://www.patreon.com/posts/37737054

The Anti-harassment Policy - https://www.chrc-ccdp.gc.ca/eng/content/template-developing-anti-harassment-policy


 Questions? Comments? Email us at info@propellus.org



Mayor Nenshi - AGM Greetings

Published: Jun 4, 2020 @ 6:40 PM

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi sends along his appreciation to all the volunteers supporting the community right now.




Minister Aheer - AGM Greetings

Published: Jun 4, 2020 @ 1:13 PM

Minister Leela Aheer, Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women, sends greetings to our first ever virtual AGM, spotlighting our collaboration between the Government of Alberta and the VolunteerConnector.




Two Months - Four Numbers

Published: May 12, 2020 @ 5:02 PM

Two months have gone by and seems at this point that most people are kind of “done”. Making sourdough was fun in the beginning but now we are craving the normalcy of random grocery runs, gathering with neighbours, hugging family . . . all the things that made us feel like humans. In a short period of time Canadians learned a whole bunch of new behaviours, leaders appear on our televisions and radios every day and share with us the results of our new normal. But, something has stayed the same since the onset of Covid-19 though, people want to show up for other humans. Here are some things that should lighten our hearts and minds . . .


Views for five of the most popular opportunities.


The number of humans who have applied to organizations who have enabled the online application feature on the VolunteerConnector.

6 Days 

The length of time it took for a community organizer to join the Connector, create a profile, post an opportunity and recruit 127 volunteers.  

57 Minutes

The time it took for a person to search the Connector, find an opportunity, apply and start volunteering!   


Things are hard for lots of people right now but the world of humans helping other humans is looking pretty bright!



Nonprofit Technology Challenges

Published: Apr 29, 2020 @ 5:28 PM

Thank you to our great friends and regional partners, Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations for taking the lead on developing this summary report.


Challenges from COVID-19 continue to grow. Alberta’s nonprofit organizations and charities are facing loss of revenue from the cancellation of programs and events (including major fundraising efforts), as well as a decrease in donations. At the same time, they are dealing with human resource challenges related to paid staff and volunteers.The findings in this overall summary report are organized by what organizations are experiencing and characteristics of the organizations that responded.

Report Highlights - specific to technology

Organizations are currently challenged by new ways of working - staff and volunteers working remotely, adjusting to virtual platforms and the technology challenges associated with this.

  • Challenges related to staff and volunteers needing to work remotely (90%)
  • Adjusting in-person events to a virtual platform (86%)
  • Difficulty engaging volunteers (68%)

Comments included a "high cost of technology" and "managing changing staff and volunteer roles"


As a team we've been working digitally for over 18 months now. While we can't solve all your tech needs, did you know that the Connector is an all in one digital solution for your volunteer engagement needs? And during the pandemic all features of the Connector are free and easy to use. 

  • Simply sign up or sign in as an organization
  • Click an UPGRADE button
  • Use this free upgrade code "COVID19"

Signing up will also ensure you have access to the thousands of volunteers that are looking to engage your cause as well as be set for any of the new features that are released on a regular basis.

REPORT: The Impact of COVID-19 on Alberta's Nonprofit & Voluntary Organizations



Alberta Cares Connector

Published: Apr 23, 2020 @ 8:45 AM

As part of National Volunteer Week we at the VolunteerConnector are really pleased to be able to collaborate with the Government of Alberta to provide the AlbertaCaresConnector to all Albertans. 

Volunteers are the foundation for many community organizations providing social support and assistance to those in need. Alberta has more than 26,400 non-profit organizations and, each year, more than 1.6 million Albertans provide more than 262 million volunteer hours to support the non-profit and voluntary sector at a value of $5.6 billion.

Alberta Government News Release - April 22, 2020



National Volunteer Week

Published: Apr 20, 2020 @ 10:25 AM


National Volunteer Week isn't just a time to recognize and acknowledge all the formal organizing efforts out there, it's also an opportunity to applaud all the informal volunteer activities. During this pandemic we have seen a lot of that simple neighbourly care. Thanks to everyone for being willing to sit on a board AND shovel a walk. Thanks to everyone for being willing to take a shift serving vulnerable people AND organize a park cleanup! 

So we are calling on all community organizers! Did you know during the pandemic, the VolunteerConnector isn't just for organizations. It can be used by you to call out your needs to community. You can have access to all the resources along with everyone else.



CTV Calgary Interview

Published: Apr 17, 2020 @ 2:45 PM

Ahead of Volunteer Week (April 20-24, 2020) our colleague, Katie Dodd, joining the team at CTV Calgary to talk about volunteering needs on the VolunteerConnector.

You can watch the INTERVIEW with CTV here.