Latest News | Nathan Ahamed

Volunteering In Panama

Published: Aug 24, 2023 @ 10:32 AM

I recently had the opportunity to chat with a friend about volunteering in Panama.

As an expat living in Panama, she wanted to volunteer in an area she was passionate about. After landing at Ronald McDonald House, she started volunteering without speaking much Spanish. In recent articles, I've talked about the value of volunteering, not just for the community, but for the volunteer. As Dr. Wayne Dyer put it, “The more we give away, the more is given to us.” For Caleigh, this rang true. Her outlook and positive experience encouraged me, and I thought it would be great to share her journey with our followers here at Volunteer Connector.

N: How did you go about finding a place to volunteer?

C: I wanted to do something in health care, but that's one of the protected industries in Panama. So, getting into health care was quite tricky. There were many barriers. So naturally, the second thing was to volunteer in that same space. That's how I got connected to someone at the Ronald McDonald House.

N: Can you talk a little about what it was like to volunteer in a place where you don’t speak the language?

C: I was super nervous about going there. Many of the families coming there are from the country's interior, so they don't speak English or, if they do, it’s very limited—and my Spanish isn't very good either. So, I was nervous about how I would connect with these people. How am I going to do anything with them? That was intimidating to me. But I quickly realized that people just want to be understood and heard. The basic needs of people are the same, whether you can communicate with them or not. My experience is that most people are friendly and will try to connect with you even if you don't speak the same language. Smiles are universal.

N: Did you find volunteering helpful in your journey to learn Spanish?

C: Yes. In my journey to learn Spanish, I find you just have to figure it out. I would practice a lot with my Spanish teacher. If I was bringing an activity, game, or puzzle, I would practice explaining it with my Spanish teacher before going. The more I started coming to the Ronald McDonald House, the more people interacted with me and made an effort to speak slowly and more simply. It was very endearing. Through volunteering, I could help them in a way, and then it was like they were returning the favor by speaking slowly or practicing with me. It felt like a give-and-take relationship. It was symbiotic. That definitely helps with the Spanish.

N: If you could give advice to someone looking to volunteer in a country or a place where there might be barriers such as culture or language, what would you say to push them to do it?

C: Don't let the barriers overwhelm or stop you because, at the end of the day, all humans in their basic needs are the same. And across different cultures and different languages, you'll find that we're more alike than we are different.

Honestly, there's little for me to add. Be encouraged. Whatever barrier you thought was between you and volunteering, there’s a way to overcome it. If you believe something disqualifies you from serving in a field you are passionate about, don’t let that stop you from trying. There will always be a way.



Better The World By Bettering Yourself

Published: Jun 29, 2023 @ 11:44 AM

Is it possible to change the world? Some days it takes more convincing than others. Our world is a big place with a long list of needs. The task feels rather daunting. Yet, we can often quantify change through compounding small actions. If you want to change the world, challenge yourself to shrink your scope. Look to better yourself first, and by doing so, equip yourself to change the world around you. All it takes is one person to impact a community. If you want to start the journey of self-improvement, here are three intentional behaviors to engage in.

Practice gratitude

Practicing gratitude is a great starting point to self-improvement. Research has shown that practicing gratitude can improve emotional and mental health—even going so far as to have long-lasting positive effects on brain chemistry and behavior. There are two ways to make this a regular practice in your daily life.

  • Journaling. Every day, write down a few things you’re grateful for. If you are someone who already journals, add this to your routine. Set a static number and challenge yourself to reflect on new things daily.
  • Meditation. Set aside time each day and meditate on what you are grateful for. You can also take this a step further and say them out loud. Use sticky notes or a reminder on your phone to help make this a regular practice.

As a chef by trade and someone who enjoys good food, I remind myself to be grateful every time I open the fridge. It’s a simple practice that keeps me mindful that having food to eat and access to clean drinking water is a privilege. Practicing gratitude daily can increase your positive impact on those around you by increasing empathy and compassion for those in need.

Engage in selflessness

If you genuinely desire to see a change in the world around you, shifting your focus from inward to outward is vital. A National Library of Medicine study links selfless behavior patterns with happiness. While many other factors can weigh in and findings should not be considered definitive, their conclusions about relating selflessness to distinct happiness are fascinating. While selflessness is easier said than done, you can start by applying two simple practices in your everyday life.

  • Random acts of kindness. There are opportunities to meet needs around us every day. These acts can be as simple as helping someone carry groceries, shovel the snow, or offer to babysit, housesit, or dog walk. This practice will train you to become aware of the needs in your community and city.
  • Uplift others with words. An encouraging word to a friend, romantic partner, co-worker, or stranger can be a monumentally positive boost in their day. The more we learn about verbal encouragement, the more research shows the massive positive impact it can have on our lives.

While these two practices are theoretically simple, they might be new learned behaviors. Start off easy by practicing with trusted individuals you consider a safe space and slowly gain the confidence to make them commonplace in your everyday life.

Increase generosity

The third and final behaviour for self-improvement is generosity. While directly benefiting others, this practice has a significant positive impact on those who engage in it. One study out of UC Berkeley found that generosity activates the same reward pathways as food and sex. If you desire to be more generous, you can put generosity into action in two main ways.

  • Give your money. People, communities, and organizations require money to exist. There’s no way around it. Some simple ways to engage in generosity with your money are to buy someone a coffee, donate to the food bank, or find an organization that serves in an area you are passionate about and contribute to them.
  • Give your time. Time can be equally or more valuable than money. For some without means, it can be easier to give—but sometimes, it can also be scarcer. You can be generous with your time by visiting an elderly person, participating in a neighbourhood cleanup, or finding a local organization needing volunteers.

Generosity in both areas is a significant step to making the world around you a better place. In theory, any need can be met by one of these two things. If you want to start practicing generosity, consider what you can offer, research causes you are passionate about, and decide how to best give.

Be the change

The exciting thing about gratitude, selflessness, and generosity is that these three behaviors are wildly contagious. Others will notice what you are doing and the way it is changing how you go about life. The positivity from these three practices will be noticeable, tangible, and highly effective in enacting positive change, both within yourself and the world around you.

We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi.



Election Time - Prioritizing What Matters

Published: May 25, 2023 @ 12:42 PM

It's election time in Alberta. Many feelings surround this event, and not all of them are positive. For some sectors in the non-profit world, an election can mean uncertainty. A new government could mean new priorities, budgets, and funding. As a result, there is a level of fear and concern, not just for agencies that do good in many communities but also for the jobs and livelihoods they provide. It’s a shame that issues surrounding volunteerism, or even meeting basic needs, have become partisan instead of just being about helping people. Sometimes it's hard not to feel discouraged.

At times, it can feel as if we care more about the colour of the campaign billboard than the greater good. It's no longer about doing what's best; it's about being right. More than ever, we need to learn, or relearn, how to have healthy discourse. When we stop trying to understand where others are coming from, when we stop caring about opinions and perspectives different than ours, we lose our ability for empathy. Regarding politics, astrophysicist turned pop culture personality Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Without rational discourse among ourselves and our elected representatives, we are non-interacting stovepipes on the brink of burning down the house.”

Committing to learning and understanding is vital if the goal is to better ourselves, our province, and our country. So let's get into the habit of hearing each other out. Let’s get into the practice of having compassion for each other's struggles and perspectives. Let’s make empathy commonplace in our discourse. If you're struggling with your decision to vote, I would encourage you to do two things. First, use the Vote Compass tool to see where you might lie on the political spectrum. Second, do your research. If you value community building and support for those in need, research different parties' policies surrounding those topics.

So where can you go from here? Find the needs in your community and equip yourself and those around you to meet them. How can you make a difference? Don’t wait for someone else to tell you where you should serve. VolunteerConnector exists for this very purpose, a way to connect volunteers to causes. If you are passionate about something, about helping somehow, there is more than likely a space for you to serve.

As always, I wish to encourage everyone reading to remember our privilege. Our privilege of democracy is the freedom to choose our leaders and not feel threatened or afraid to go out and vote. So honor this privilege, don’t take this freedom for granted, and go vote.



What Are The Numbers Saying?

Published: May 2, 2023 @ 8:50 AM

Earlier this year, Statistics Canada released their 2022 fourth-quarter data on volunteering. It is essential to understand the results and see what trends might be appearing. The numbers convey the narrative that volunteerism is down, but they may not be accurately telling the whole story. Nevertheless, we can use these statistics to gauge trends, and if organizations pay attention, it's possible to increase volunteerism in areas that might be experiencing a lack.

The Generation Gap

Gen Z boasts the highest rate of volunteering across Canada. Young people are passionate about helping and have developed an understanding of the personal benefits that accompany it. Volunteer recruitment needs to learn to engage every generation to volunteer at all levels. Organizations should determine the demographics of their volunteers and assess why they are attracting or lacking in specific areas. Take time to learn the motivations of different individuals. For example, many younger volunteers surveyed cited increasing job prospects or college applications as the reason for volunteering. We must understand what motivates other generations, such as the social benefits of volunteering, the valuable service to a community, or religious causes. Once an organization understands these motivations and how to apply them to recruitment, it can see growth in those demographics.

Needs of organizations run by visible minorities

Over 90% of Black and West-Asian-run organizations surveyed in Canada stated a shortage of volunteers. What does that actually mean, and how do we address that need? First, it's vital to understand that those living within a community are the best equipped to serve their respective communities. They have knowledge and experience of the struggles unique to those communities. Therefore, it's crucial to support those communities that are experiencing a lack of help by supporting those organizations that already exist within them. A big step towards decolonizing volunteerism is understanding that racialized communities don't require others to "save" them. Understanding racial barriers and how formal volunteerism may not be the right path for every community and organization is crucial. These communities have the ability to empower their own, and those organizations within the communities should be supported, not replaced.

Grassroots AND established organizations

Another trend from the data is the difference in volunteer engagement between older and younger organizations. The survey stated that only 3% of organizations under two years old were experiencing volunteer shortages, while 63% of organizations over 20 experienced the same deficits. There are two possible reasons for this trend. First, individuals might overlook long-standing institutions because, sometimes, the “crisis of the day” takes priority over long-term work. The news cycle often dominates where our time and money go. Sometimes timely and immediate support is necessary, but sustainability is crucial to meeting many community needs. Long-term organizations and volunteering can be a massive help to the stability of specific communities or advancing structural change.

The second explanation for the volunteer disparity is that individuals deem these older organizations out of touch. Grassroots initiatives are on the rise, which can lead to the decline of formal volunteering institutions. Research has shown that the pandemic exposed the gaps between traditional volunteerism and the need for grassroots organizations in some sectors. Determining what needs exist in communities and how individuals wish to meet those needs is crucial to the success of organizations that rely on volunteers.

Going forward

It is vital for organizations seeking volunteers to properly communicate the value they give to the community and the volunteer. The benefits of volunteerism can change the life of an individual as well as positively impact a community in need. The needs of communities within Canada are significant. How we attempt to serve communities and meet those needs will be dictated by those who wish to make a difference and how they wish to volunteer. If you're not listening or paying attention, that is when you will feel the decline in numbers. Not because there is no one out there to give of their time.



Be Selfish, Volunteer

Published: Mar 1, 2023 @ 8:56 AM

The benefits of volunteerism

Volunteering is often heralded as an act of selflessness—a way of serving your community. Give of your time and make the world around you better! On many levels, this is true. Of course, we should do what we can to help others in need and contribute to our community. But what mustn’t be overlooked are the secondary benefits of volunteering — self-improvement and personal growth.

What's in it for me?

Volunteering is a way to give back to your community, build relationships, and improve your well-being. It can also provide personal development and growth; volunteering can be a tremendous building block, personally and professionally.

Additionally, if you are an organization that relies on volunteers, you should be conscious of the personal benefits of volunteering. The volunteer retention rate is significantly higher when individual volunteers are engaged personally, focusing on their skills and interests.

Three benefits to the volunteer

Personal Fulfillment

Some individuals spend their whole lives in search of meaning and purpose. The ultimate question then becomes — where do you find it? Are you fulfilled by your job and success in your career? Do purpose and fulfillment come from family or community? Do you derive purpose from a religious belief? Research suggests that in the same way we find fulfillment at work, we can find personal fulfillment and meaning through volunteering (Caraveo, 2022). If you are considering volunteering or wondering where to serve, consider the things that provide you with personal fulfillment and look for an opportunity to serve in a related area.

Skill Development

Have you ever tried to get a job that requires more experience than you have? How are you meant to obtain said experience? Volunteering is the answer. In a Deloitte survey, 86% of respondents stated that putting volunteer activities on your resume improves your chance of getting hired.

Even if you’re not looking to bolster your resume, if you are a person committed to life-long learning and growth, volunteering can be an excellent tool for personal development. Research on skill-based volunteering tells us two things — volunteers are more fulfilled when they serve based on their skill set, and there is an opportunity in volunteering to learn or develop more skills. (Dempsey-Branch & Shantz 2022).

Building Community

If you are part of a friend group, religious group, or co-workers who have volunteered together, you understand the camaraderie of serving together. If you want to find a community or make friends, volunteering can be the perfect place. If you want to spend time helping at an organization you are passionate about, the odds are high that you will meet someone there with like-minded passions and interests. Meeting new people can also provide an opportunity to grow your professional circle. You never know whom you are going to meet when you volunteer.

The privilege of finding purpose

Remembering that we volunteer out of a position of privilege is important. Not only do we volunteer out of our spare time, but we can also seek meaning, purpose, and community through these activities because we can meet our basic daily needs. Because we don’t lack the necessary support to help us meet certain responsibilities. Because we don’t live under the threat of famine and war. We must understand that it’s out of privilege that we can seek out and ponder the answers to these existential questions of self-fulfillment and growth.

So next time you want to better yourself, learn a new skill, or make a new friend, consider finding a place to volunteer and do some good in the process.



Time Is Money - Guest Blog

Published: Jan 25, 2023 @ 8:18 AM

Understanding the privilege of having more time

The saying ‘time is money’ has been around for ages. Benjamin Franklin popularized the term in his 18th-century essay “Advice to a Young Tradesmen.” Since then, there has increasingly been a shift in the mindset around time and how to spend it. In general, societal and technological advancements have given us more spare time. The question then becomes: how do we spend it? In the volunteering sector, we can go one step further and consider how one’s spare time compares to others.

Being aware of your privilege

Much of our view on privilege centers around money. Growing up without having to think about money is a privilege. If you grew up without worrying about where your next meal came from, that is a privilege. If you didn’t need to get a job to support your family as soon as you were old enough to work, that is also a privilege. If you can retire and live off a pension, investments, or savings, that is also a privilege. If time is money, we should consider having spare time a privilege.

All the time in the world

How do we gauge this privilege of time? You might get a different answer for every person you ask. But to get a general idea you can look at the American Time Use Study (2022). This study found that 96 percent of people aged 15 and over, spend an average of 5.25 hours a day on leisure activities. This includes things like exercise, watching TV, and socializing. Social media drives a lot of our modern culture. It's no surprise that the Canadians Internet Report (2022) reveals that on average, Canadians spend one hour and fifty-three minutes daily on various social media platforms. The purpose of highlighting these statistics is not to shame anyone — leisure time is important. The purpose is to understand that in general, we have an excess of time for leisure. But that is not true for every person.

Volunteering is a privilege

In 2021, almost one million Canadians held two or more jobs (Statista 2021). The number of single-parent homes in Canada has risen to almost two million (Statista 2022). If you were to survey these families, a common theme you might find would be a lack of time. It's important to understand that when a person volunteers, they do so out of the privilege of having spare time. It is out of this privilege that individuals can give their time to local non-profits, schools their children attend, or religious institutions.

Volunteering with humility and purpose

Too often, volunteering is not only a way of doing good but to be seen as doing good. Volunteering can be a good thing. It can provide invaluable support to communities that lack certain resources, while also providing a sense of purpose or fulfillment to volunteers. What it should not be, is something that elevates your status over others. Specifically, those who do not have the privilege of time to volunteer similar hours, or volunteer at all.

Instead of thinking about how being a volunteer can serve you best, shift your mindset. How could you change your community if you sought out the most practical ways to serve it? How can you champion community initiatives that best support those without the privilege of extra time? Grocery delivery, meal-sharing, and after-school programs are all practical ways of giving people more time. Just something to think about when deciding how and where to serve. And remember — a little awareness and humility go a long way.



Wakanda Forever - Guest Blog

Published: Dec 5, 2022 @ 2:09 PM

Our Heroes and Why Representation Matters

With Halloween fresh in the rear-view mirror, and Wakanda Forever taking over the box office, it feels like an appropriate time to talk about heroes. When I recall the painstaking process of choosing a Halloween costume as a kid, one issue sticks out: I had no clue what I wanted to be. Often I ended up dressing up as a chef (after my dad), a ninja, or a pirate. It was always something generic that could be easily thrown together. Looking back, I realize that a major contributing factor was not feeling that I looked like my favourite characters – Superman, Batman, or those in the Star Wars universe at the time. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has begun to change this in a big way. With Black Panther, Shang Chi, and most recently Wakanda Forever, there now exists superheroes for Black, Chinese, and Mexican kids (and adults) to see themselves reflected in.

What does this have to do with volunteering? When I look back at the lack of representation on the big screen, I also am reminded of real-life heroes. Closer to home, other than my father, whenever there was someone to look up to, there was a lack of people who looked like me. To be clear, it’s not something I could have communicated to anyone at the time. Looking back, I realize that there was a lack of diversity in volunteers at the schools, community events, and churches I attended. When I think about the “role models” like policemen, firemen, or musicians who came to speak at a school assembly, I can’t recall a single person of colour among them. As an adult, I can now see the community around me lacked diversity. But as a child, you are often unable to choose the adults that surround you, and potentially influence you.

This is my experience. And I know I am not alone in this. Representation in volunteerism gives people—especially children—role models they can picture themselves being like. It provides an example of a person they can model themselves after. It gives them a hero—someone they can act like, someone they can dress like, and someone they can serve like. Proper representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) volunteers in communities will increase the likelihood of inspiring people of all ages to serve their communities. Representation in volunteering has the potential to support communities in organic service rather than traditional charitable or philanthropic efforts.

I did not live in communities with large numbers of BIPOC individuals growing up. Organizations must increase representation on every level and in every community because it's not just important for the BIPOC kid to see themselves reflected in a role model, but because it’s also imperative to seek diversity across communities to increase inclusion and social cohesion. It starts at the grassroots with volunteers and ensuring barriers for racialized individuals to participate are meaningfully addressed. Therefore, organizations must increase representation on every level, in every community—not just those with higher BIPOC populations. We must also set out to encourage people of colour to seek out places to serve and provide a positive influence for the next generation. Because in the end, everyone needs heroes.



Developing An Anti-racist Approach To Volunteering - Guest Blog

Published: Nov 17, 2022 @ 10:40 AM

Strategies for inclusion and empowerment

It’s important to shape and equip volunteer-driven organizations and campaigns to serve diverse communities. To do this, organizations must commit to concrete actions that address structural and systemic racism and a lack of representation among volunteers. Dismantling racism takes more than words, thoughts, and prayers. True transformation in volunteering requires a commitment to address the structural and systemic barriers perpetuated by racism.

Data on diversity and racialized communities

Data and research, or the absence of it, are often cited as reasons not to act. There is a glaring need for more data surrounding racialized communities. The deliberate lack of data collection, or the weaponization of data (Milner & Traub 2021), have been tools for perpetuating racism in racialized communities. As Mutamba and Rock (2022) note, “A larger and disaggregated data set will give us better insight into the experiences of racism and colonization in the volunteer sector.” While there is a great deal of learning ahead regarding the challenges and barriers faced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), we must forge ahead, and use the information we have available to take steps toward anti-racism today.

Diversity and representation as a starting point

A simple way to begin is by researching the demographics of the communities you serve. You can then take steps to mirror them in your organization's diversity. Information on diversity within communities is available from the Government of Canada (2022). Take time to investigate and understand the immediate needs in those communities. Different municipalities like the City of Calgary (2022) have outlined community needs and made this information publicly available. Develop an understanding of how the needs of a community and the demographics of racialized individuals within that community are often correlated. This will provide a framework to understand whom you are serving, ways in which you can ensure their voices are heard, and how best to serve the needs of a community.

Four keys to adopting an anti-racist approach to volunteering

Education and implementation are important when developing an anti-racist approach to volunteering. The journey towards anti-racism is a cultural shift. This requires an understanding of what equity, diversity, and inclusion mean. It is important to acknowledge how each individual may contribute to racism and how our systems and structures perpetuate racism and inequality. This will inform you how to change your organization's approach to volunteering. Here are four keys you can focus on to start on the right path.

Move away from a colourblind approach

Historically, to promote equality, harmful and reductive “colourblind” practices were developed around the inclusion of racialized individuals.  “Not seeing colour” has the opposite effect regarding inclusion. It fails to acknowledge the individual by not understanding their unique and intersecting identities, experiences, or trauma. Further, “[diversity and inclusion] is more complex than just numbers. Simply adding more ‘colour’, does not create inclusive cultures in which BIPOC people can be authentic and thrive” (Roche & Passmore 2022). To empower any volunteer, regardless of race, it’s important to shift from a colourblind approach and acknowledge the unique identities of every individual.

Research intercultural definitions of volunteering

The more you develop an intercultural understanding of what volunteering means, the more you can have an impact in serving diverse communities. In his book Perspectives on Volunteering, Mario Roitters outlines the importance of understanding how different cultures perceive what it means to volunteer. An excerpt from the chapter on volunteerism in Latin cultures sheds light on the cultural differences that exist surrounding volunteering, “In Latin America, the problem lies in the fact that a certain number of these types of actions performed are considered merely good manners. Such actions rarely evoke the notion of volunteerism, as they do in the context of developed countries. Therefore, a voluntary act differs from one cultural context to another.” (M. Roitters 2017). Understanding these cultural differences will set your organization up for success in recruiting and retaining diverse volunteers.

Understand the barriers encountered by BIPOC volunteers

It's important to understand your volunteers' cultural and racial identities, the situations they are stepping into, and the communities they are trying to serve. This will allow you to navigate the risks of harmful and triggering situations. As Mutamba and Rock (2022) observe, “People across racial identities experience barriers to volunteering. BIPOC participants reported facing more barriers across every single category. There is not a single step in the volunteer screening practice that does not impose significant barriers for BIPOC participants.” In their study, Mutamba and Rock list several barriers, including police checks, access to first aid training, and owning a personal vehicle. Studies have shown that race and poverty often intersect to prevent social integration[NA1]  (Lin and Harris 2009). When we talk about seeing colour and understanding racial trauma, it is important to consider how your organization can help address these obstacles or explore alternatives that acknowledge the barriers racialized volunteers often face.

Develop anti-racist volunteer strategies through collaboration

Partner with BIPOC individuals within your organization. Empower them by inviting them to lead the change, yet be mindful of how it may contribute to their overall responsibilities and workload. Respect the choice of racialized individuals to abstain from driving this work. Offer education on topics surrounding racism, making sure to create a safe space for discussion. “The cornerstone for a productive and respectful conversation on racism or other related issues is centered on ensuring the psychological safety of everyone who is part of the conversation.” (Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion 2020). Awareness is grown through workshops, guest speakers, and BIPOC-written educational material.

Find local BIPOC-led organizations and learn from them, ensuring fair compensation. If your goal is to understand racialized communities and adopt strategies to better partner with and serve them, try to engage organizations already doing this work. Racialized individuals have been serving their communities for a long time. Partner with them, learn from them, and support the work they are already doing.

Set yourself up for success

The more you understand the complexities of racial identity and trauma in light of structural and systemic racism, the more you can equip your organization to take an anti-racist approach in volunteering. The success of any organization striving to take an anti-racist approach in volunteering will depend on how well it educates those in the organization, seeks out representation, and empowers BIPOC individuals to help drive change.