By Marisa Gelfusa and Shaminda Perera
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015 by the 193 member states of the General Assembly to improve social, economic and environmental conditions around the world. They provide shared goals and a common language so that we may work together locally and globally to create a more just and sustainable world for ourselves and generations to come. This article explores how a social purpose organization can align with the SDGs and how to mobilize volunteers toward the SDGs during a volunteer shortage.
Canada has agreed to work towards the SDGs and has set targets to achieve by 2030. The SDGs address Poverty, Hunger, Health, Education, Gender Inequality, Clean Water, Energy, Work, Industry, Reduced Inequalities, Sustainable Communities, Consumption and Production, Climate, Life underwater, Life on land, Peace and Justice, and finally, Partnerships to achieve the SDG goals.
We know that volunteers are a powerful force for change and have been moving the needle on issues around equity, inclusion and social justice for a long time. So why is it important to understand and position the contributions of volunteers within an SDG framework?
The UN Secretary General’s synthesis report draws the link between volunteers and the SDGs, “The SDGs cannot be achieved without people’s engagement at all stages, and without new partnerships, including with volunteer groups. Volunteers can be brokers of and provide spaces for engagement, connecting institutional initiatives with volunteer action at community level.”
According to Volunteer Canada’s report “The Sustainable Development Goals and the Volunteer Factor”, integrating the SDGs with volunteering can achieve important goals both for volunteering and for the SDGs. It can:
• Promote specific types of volunteer opportunities that align with each goal
• Build the capacity of organizations to recruit volunteers to work towards the goals
• Focus on the impact of volunteering to help achieve each goal
• Collaborate with volunteer centres to mobilize local communities
• Encourage businesses to include the SDGs in their employer-supported volunteering programs
How to get there
The first step to bringing the SDGs into your organization and your volunteer program is to start a conversation and share information about the SDGs with leadership, staff and volunteers. Social Purpose organizations are basically driven by values related to the SDGs and are already carrying out local actions that affect the global SDGs, so it’s not a stretch. A great way to start the conversation is to collectively identify the SDGs where you can have the most significant impact. Which are most closely related to your mission and activities? It’s best to select 2-3 main SDGs to target as this will make it more feasible and focused.
If you work with volunteers, you can lead from where you are, begin the conversation within your volunteer program, and integrate some aspect of the SDGs into the Volunteer Engagement Cycle as it plays out in your organization.
Integrating the SDGs into your volunteer program and into your organization has many benefits. In addition to aligning local efforts to a global goal, working together on SDGs has a very mobilizing effect on staff, volunteers, and other constituents.
Volunteer Canada has a selection of tools and documents that can help you explore the SDGs and bring them into your organization.
SDGs during times of volunteer shortages
We already identified that social purpose organizations are significant in mobilizing action towards the SDGs. Volunteer engagement plays a big part in that effort. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 65% of social purpose organizations in Canada are facing a volunteer shortage (Canadian Survey on Business Conditions, 4th quarter, 2022). The SDGs are not intended as a framework to address a volunteer crisis. Yet, it provides a useful framework for organizations to prioritize efforts and maximize impact with their current volunteer force. The scope of this article does not address any fund development challenges, which is undoubtedly a significant challenge for social purpose organizations. The article focuses on steps to take from within your existing volunteer engagement strategy.
Here are a few ways to optimize volunteer engagement toward SDGs during a volunteer crisis
• Foster Collective Impact: In times of shortages, sharing resources pays off. Partnerships and collaboration can maximize the impact of volunteer engagement, share resources and expertise, and create solutions that benefit everyone involved. The key is ensuring each partner has an equitable share of the responsibilities, resources and impact.
• Invest in Volunteer Management: Review and revise the volunteer engagement strategy and incorporate volunteer engagement into your strategic priorities. Support the leader of volunteers and provide them with the necessary mentorship, training and tools to adapt to rapidly changing environments.
• Meaningful Volunteer Experiences: Attracting and retaining volunteers is more than just resourcing programs and service delivery; it is about creating meaningful volunteering experiences that inspire people to contribute. Review your existing volunteer positions and identify any aspects of the role that may need revision to meet the current trends. Such as, consider revising the role where parts of the role are done remotely in combination with on-site tasks. Consider how the role allows for flexibility during challenging economic and social circumstances. It is understood that some roles are pure place-based roles. In such cases, consider re-organizing the existing volunteer force to prevent overburdening an individual or a volunteer team. This point directly connects with the previous point of providing professional development to your leader of volunteers.
• Connect with Expertise: Connect with organizations such as Volunteer Canada and your local Volunteer Centre. These organizations can provide you with the expertise, tools and support with your volunteer engagement strategy. The Volunteer Centres are well equipped to provide you with volunteer recruitment support.
• Leverage Technology: Today, organizations can reach a wider volunteer audience using technology. Pivoting to technology does not always mean heavy financial investments. Many available low-cost or free versions of such tools can significantly boost volunteer engagement. Of course, implement them where and when possible. Leveraging technology also provides an opportunity for skills-based volunteer engagement where you can engage skilled volunteers and internationally trained professionals to train the organization to use specific tools and to develop a strategic technology framework.
In conclusion, the SDGs can provide a useful framework for social purpose organizations to guide their efforts in addressing pressing social issues and achieving a sustainable future. Social purpose organizations play a significant role in mobilizing volunteers towards these goals. They can mobilize volunteers by fostering collective impact, investing in volunteer management, creating meaningful volunteer experiences, connecting with experts such as volunteer Canada and Volunteer Centres, and leveraging technology – to inspire volunteerism.