I love the field of volunteer engagement and have the utmost respect for my colleagues who choose to do this work. Personally, I owe much of my personal and professional development to this sector and still, as a woman of colour, I’m compelled to call us out. We have huge gaps within our community. The latest Volunteer Management Progress Report details that 87% of respondents identified as female and 84% identified as White/Caucasian/European. As volunteer engagement professionals we’re not a diverse group of people. We know that when there is a lack of diversity innovation can be slow, solutions tend to be homogeneous and let’s face it, we lead by what we know. And if we all have similar experiences, we’ll continue to lead in a very steady, consistent way.
I’d also like to call us in. Here’s why I am hopeful and why I commit to lift my colleagues up and invest in our profession – when you voice a concern amongst volunteer engagement professionals, there are always people willing to listen, willing to learn and wanting to understand and act. That’s what we’re good at and that’s how we mobilize communities every day in our work.
Health and performance expert Dr. Gary Wells questions our mindfulness when he says “Use technology with intention not compulsion.” When thinking about how technology can make us more inclusive and equitable in our work, intention is a vital first step.
I will be the first person to tell you that I think technology is wonderful. It’s made my life easier. It keeps me organized and oriented. It frees up time for me to be efficient at work and a present mother. It keeps me connected. Technology is also easy to replicate with many out of the box solutions that have not been created with intentions that are motivated by equity.
When it comes to strengthening inclusion through technology we can all be part of creating equitable solutions and I am excited to have that conversation here. I have four invitations for you:
First, commit to practicing inclusion. Commit to a lifelong journey of curiosity to consider and involve other perspectives and experiences. What we can learn from people who are not like us in infinite. Make these discoveries habitual and champion this commitment. When it comes to conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion, we can be hesitant and fearful of saying the wrong thing, using the wrong words and being offensive. Making these mistakes is the only way we can move towards a more equitable world. We will make mistakes. We can also acknowledge them, apologize and move forward. As a result of our own privilege, we don’t know what we don’t know, and people get left out of the solutions we try to create with our limited experiences. Let’s stop leaving people behind.
Get up to speed or you will be the one getting left behind. If you are not using technology to communicate your cause, broaden your volunteer base, communicate more effectively and be more inclusive, start where you can and begin immediately. Millennials are now the largest cohort of our work and volunteer force and technology is the norm for the way they work and interact with the world around them. There are lots of free tech tools that you can use to start down this path. Use them with a curious mind, consider who the creators are, how they were designed, who they were designed for and how you will enhance or modify them to create equity.
Remember that technology is not only about the internet and the online world. Plan for multiple ways for people to interact with you such as the phone, email, text and my favourite – face to face.
Innovate – As a volunteer, one of my favourite apps is called Be My Eyes. It connects sighted volunteers with users who have low vision or are blind. Innovating on the technology of video chatting through smart phones a user can call a sighted volunteer and ask for assistance. Worldwide, there are 200,000 users of the app and more than 3.5 million volunteers ready to take a call. On the last call I took, I helped someone with low vision distinguish between purple and navy blue apparel she was purchasing for a friend.
Uber has also used the car sharing economy to innovate by partnering with Meals on Wheels to provide free rides to volunteers dropping off meals. Uber drivers are also volunteering to drop meals off themselves.
I am excited to see how the nonprofit sector will innovate with drones, AI and countless other tech solutions to involve volunteers more broadly. My hope is that equity drives this progress forward.
My final invitation is to share your failures and your successes when using technology to be more inclusive in volunteer engagement. I have often experienced our community to be small, spread out and fragmented. At the same time, the connections we make through local professional associations, volunteer centres and volunteer engagement networks strengthen our profession and allow us to share and learn from each other.
There is a famous line from the movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” It’s simply not true. If it was, volunteer recruitment would not be the consistent challenge that it is and our volunteer base worldwide would be diverse in thought and representation. When considering technology and intention think of this, “If you build it, the people you build it for will come.” Who are you building for and who will come forward as a result?
Faiza Venzant CVA, CVRM is the General Manager, Volunteer Development at the YMCA of Greater Toronto and a Board Member with the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration. With 20 years of leadership experience in volunteer engagement, she was a Canadian recipient of the inaugural IMPACT award for Exemplary Volunteer Leadership in 2019. She is passionate about inclusion in volunteerism and a big cheerleader of volunteer engagement professionals. . In 2018, Faiza published her first children’s book entitled, My Mamma Wants to Eat Me Up! As a mother of two young boys, she has not actually eaten any of her children up.