We have heard it before when it comes to multiculturalism; that the US is a melting pot and Canada is a mosaic. Personally, I love the visual of a colourful mosaic creating a larger Canadian identity that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Since today is Canadian Multiculturalism Day, it’s the perfect opportunity take a minute to reflect on how we can make volunteerism more diverse!

Canadians are proud of our reputation of being welcoming to other cultures; though it’s not always clear how we can practice that in a meaningful way. To help us, I reached out to some volunteer centres that support multiculturalism in volunteering and asked them to share their insights into how volunteer managers and organizations can better engage with volunteers from different cultures. Here’s a little about who they are and how they support diversity in volunteering:

Gina with Volunteer Ottawa – Diversity in Leadership

Non-profit boards of directors are seeking highly qualified people from diverse backgrounds, and people from under-represented communities don’t always have the networks that allow them to play leadership roles within the community. The Diversity in Leadership Ottawa (DLO) program addresses the diversity gap in governance structures by connecting qualified and trained candidates from under-represented groups to non-profit boards across the city.

Ingrid Brand, Intercultural consultant for Volunteer Action Centre – Waterloo Region

The Volunteer Action Centre developed online resources with a view toward increasing the capacity of the non-profit sector to be more deeply inclusive and to provide volunteers, volunteer managers, and staff with tools and tangible steps to enhance understanding in diverse settings. These online modules were designed to foster understanding around key concepts associated with the ability to mindfully bridge cultural differences.

Find these free resources here:

  1. Cross-cultural Connections
  2. Building Bridges Through Authentic Interactions & Ancillary module

Why did these volunteer centres decide to start these initiatives?

While each had different specific reasons, the common thread in these initiatives is that they benefit the whole community. When everyone feels that they belong, are valued and welcome, the entire community becomes more resilient. As our society becomes more diverse, we need to proactively ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to be involved, have their voice heard and contribute.

How is this different from engaging with other volunteers?

Ingrid from Volunteer Action Centre told us:

Most of us tend to be on cultural cruise control when interacting with others. Most of our automatic responses are guided by unconscious culture-bound scripts. Based on these scripts, we tend to interpret and evaluate the behaviors of cultural strangers. As a result, we can easily misinterpret the behaviors of others.

For example, think of when you cross someone on the street. You exchange hellos saying “Hi! How are you?” and keep going. Nothing to it, right? Well, “How are you?” is a polite pleasantry to Canadians, but for someone from another culture it can feel rude or dismissive for you to ask how they are but not take the time to hear their answer.

So, how do we turn off our cultural cruise control? Ingrid recommends mindfulness and self-reflection, accompanied by the knowledge and skills that develop intercultural competence. When you interact with someone from another culture, Gina from Volunteer Ottawa says that two key things to remember are to:

  1. Check your biases
  2. Don’t make assumptions

I’m in! Where do I start?

Diversity isn’t a checklist. To create a welcoming environment where people feel that they can be their whole selves, it goes deeper. Here are some of the tips that Gina and Ingrid shared to help you create that environment:

Ingrid, Intercultural consultant for Volunteer Action Centre – Waterloo region

  • Start with your own mindset.
  • Bring your cultural lenses into your awareness.
    Understand how your culture determines your attitudes, beliefs, behavioral expectations, and how you interpret other people’s behavior.
  • Identify your own biases.
    We all have biases. They exist on an unconscious level and although they may be out of our awareness, they can be quite visible to those we interact with in diverse settings. Understand and challenge your implicit assumptions about groups of people from backgrounds that are dissimilar to your own.
  • Cultivate an attitude of curiosity.
    Don’t assume you have the answer. Ask open ended questions.

Gina, Volunteer Ottawa – Diversity in Leadership

  • Encourage an organizational culture where individuals are aware of their own biases and able to be genuinely open to different perspectives.
  • When looking for new team members, think about a “good match” rather than a “good fit”.
    Someone who fits in will be just like the everyone else on the team, and while that might be comfortable, it won’t stretch thinking or approaches. Someone who is a good match, will complement the team by bringing new perspectives and/or filling capacity gaps.
  • The culture and practices of the team must be genuinely welcoming of diversity in the shared task of building something new.
    To be truly inclusive, it’s not enough to have people from different backgrounds at the table if they are asked only to “fit in” with the way things have always been done.

Some other tips I gathered in my research for this article include:

  • Go beyond the word “volunteer”.
    In many cultures, the word or the concept of “volunteering” as we know it doesn’t exist.  Include different words like “helping”, “giving”, or “supporting” that can feel more familiar for people from other cultures.
  • Ask them.
    Reach out to cultural groups and build a relationship. Get to know their culture and their values to find the common ground between your organization’s mission and that community’s priorities.
  • Be aware of hidden barriers.
    Review your internal policies to see if there are any hidden barriers like dress codes, scheduling or police record checks preventing people from other cultures from getting involved.

These are only a few tips you can use to be a more inclusive and diverse organizations, but they can make a world of difference. To learn more, access the online modules from Volunteer Action Centre, or reach out to a volunteer centre for where to find programs like Diversity in Leadership Ottawa to support you.

Now, ask yourself:

What am I doing as a volunteer manager to make sure that we are reaching out to people from different cultures to get involved? Are we creating a healthy and welcoming space for them?

Take a few seconds and keeping all the tips and recommendations above in mind, write down:

  • Something you can do today to make your volunteer program more inclusive.
  • A practice you can include in your work over the next month.
  • A goal for your organization in three months.

Happy Multiculturalism Day!