By: Susan Alger, Jeannine Purdy, Francesca Watson
We were graciously given the opportunity supported by NVAVA to attend this past years VA Conference on Volunteerism; we being Jeannine Purdy, from Fairfax County Department of Family Services, Adult and Aging Volunteer Solutions, Susan Alger, from a local large non-profit, Cornerstones Virginia, and Francesca Watson, also from the Department of Family Services, Children Youth and Families Division, Volunteer and Partner Services. We are all extremely grateful for the opportunity and are excited for others to learn more about the conference. All three of us had different experiences and perspectives to share. In this article you’ll learn about our individual experiences and thoughts having attended this incredible event.
From Jeannine’s perspective, one important take away this year was a workshop presented Tuesday, May 7, at 9:30 a.m. As a member of the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Ethics (EDIE) Council with Fairfax County Department of Family Services she was excited to attend a workshop offered by Anne Gibbons from the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities in Richmond VA. Anne was joined by Mercedes Kirkland-Doyle who works with the federal government. The workshop was titled “Pressing Pause on Unconscious Bias.”
Anne and Mercedes shared that we all have Unconscious or Implicit biases. These occur in both our personal and professional lives. The presenters shared questions and research (see previous link) and a tool adapted from Northcentral University and Dimensions of Diversity Wheel by Marilyn Loden. The Diversity Wheel guides us to look at various dimensions of Identity including Internal, Community, Social Life Experience and Institutional. They also shared 10 steps to identify and address unconscious bias (adapted from Unconscious Bias and Blindspot).
When we personalize our connection with others, we seek to understand and be understood. Think about a time you have felt discriminated against, left out or seen as different than others. Remember that personal experience, share and learn from it and change to be more inclusive. Be invested.
Inclusion also requires intention and examining our lenses. We can do this by asking tough questions. We can observe who isn’t getting a say and purposefully see that all are invited to the table or conversation. Think about what you can accomplish with your left hand. It is most likely different than what you can accomplish with your right hand. Left-handed persons are more adaptable because they must be to live in a right-handed world. Persons not included often have learned to be more adaptable. Our collective goal should be to work to have everyone at the table with equal access. All this will lead us to develop empathy and create comfortable space to identify and change our biases.
For Susan, her expectations for the conference were somewhat reserved after talking to folks who’d attended before. She was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of presentations offered. She opted mainly for the volunteer administration track but took a few classes in other disciplines as well that had to do more with leadership, boards, and other aspects of non-profit management. She took lots of notes in each class and expects to incorporate them as she works to improve the volunteer program at her agency.
After 30 years of attending conferences in her past profession, she knew that great information could be shared in workshops, but the REAL opportunity lied in networking with other attendees between sessions. Sadly, most people were engrossed in their phones and Susan found it was difficult to engage them. Susan shared that attendees were most likely missing out learning by answering routine work emails instead of being present in the moment.
One session Susan attended did help remedy the loss of networking power. Members of the Greater Richmond Association for Volunteer Administration GRAVA, our counterpart in Richmond. It was presented as their version of speed dating. They had tables set up with various topics-things like “Recognition” “Technology” “Recruitment and Retention.” A member of GRAVA was stationed at each table and led the discussion. Attendees picked a table, asked a question and shared ideas with these small groups on the topic. After 15 minutes, we switched tables to another topic. At the conclusion the GRAVA members shared their take-aways from all the discussions with the group at large. This was a great way to get advice and answers to our own challenges and to share our experience with others. Susan obtained lots of great advice on what volunteer management software NOT to use!
The conference also had a small vendor and resource fair with exhibits by some of the sponsoring businesses, state agencies, and Virginia non-profits. Susan visited this between sessions and came away with some great information, plus thoughts and ideas for volunteer gifts. Her favorite was a reusable silicone straw, coiled in its own carrying case the size of a half dollar coin (guess what her volunteers are getting next year!).
Susan also talked with the manager of the Richmond Area Toolbank. What a great resource! They loan out tools and equipment for all kinds of volunteer projects. There is also one in Baltimore. If you are working on a construction or beautification project and need a tool for every hand, including power tools, hand tools and other equipment, these folks may be able to help.
She also spent some time with the GRAVA leadership, and we talked about perhaps joining forces to put on joint training or other sharing of resources. They were very interested in this.
A bonus to the conference was that breakfast and lunch were provided each day in addition to coffee service. The food was basic, but plentiful. They advertised having vegetarian options, and did in some cases, but somebody forgot that spinach salad with bacon kind of missed the mark! Still, these meals kept participant costs low and allowed folks to stay on site. All in all, it was a very valuable and well-run event and we recommend others attend as able.
Francesca shared her experience and she found the most value, outside of the above noted highlights (networking, tools, and the food), in a specific workshop that really resonated for her. The workshop was Strengthening Volunteer Relationships Through Storytelling (Volunteer Management) and was provided by Sue Kindred, from SK Consulting. The presenter elaborated on the fact that story brings us together, solidifying our place in the world and helping us identify a common purpose and meaning to our work of creating social change. Instead of highlighting facts and data in order to justify our programs or raise funds, we should infuse our narratives with meaningful and effective storytelling. In doing so, we help our stakeholders and volunteers to achieve their own goals for contributing to their communities. The presenter suggested the use of real stories, testimonials, quotes and the power of persuasive storytelling in our narrative reports, marketing materials and websites; even in our conversations with new volunteer recruits and donors.
The presenter also highlighted the salience of treating volunteers and donors correspondingly, as the difference in the two was minor and they are interchangeable. Looking at individuals as contributors and seeing the contributor relationships as symbiotic – helping them reach their goals while simultaneously achieving our own agency’s goals. Sue emphasized that we can grow our impact in our communities by using compelling and effective stories to strengthen these crucial and valuable relationships. Francesca’s particular program publishes numerous narrative reports throughout the year and pushes a lot of marketing materials, and she found this workshop extremely valuable in the specific suggestions provided, some of which she has already started to implement in her program’s materials and reports.
Overall, the VA Conference on Volunteerism is highly recommended. We believe this conference offered a plethora of resources and insight that was otherwise unknown. We will utilize the tools and information learned in our programs and are thrilled to share the appreciated material with other volunteer coordinators. Thank you again, NVAVA, for supporting us and giving us the opportunity to attend this rewarding conference.