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  • Writer's pictureJessica

Early Career Volunteer Engagement Professionals #AskMeAnything: Cisil Inan

Cisil stands in front of a yellow background with a big smile. She is wearing a black top with a beige blazer.

I recently made a career move to consulting and entrepreneurship. This move involved learning new things, which prompted me to look back on how I learned new things in the very early days of my volunteer engagement career. I learned by watching colleagues perform their work. I learned through constructive feedback from my managers. I learned by trying, failing, and reflecting on what worked and what didn’t. I learned through professional development workshops. All of these ways of learning allowed me to build skills and confidence.


But what allowed me to get answers to my burning questions and to imagine what a career path as a volunteer engagement professional could look like was one-on-one conversations with more seasoned professionals. Shoutouts to Christine Martin, Erin Spink, Faiza Venzant, and Adriane Beaudry for answering my questions and sharing your knowledge with me! 


And now it’s my turn to answer the questions! In December 2023, Cisil Inan connected with me via LinkedIn. Cisil moved from Turkey to Canada in 2022, bringing with her a psychology degree and two years of experience as an HR professional with an oil and gas company. Cisil earned a Human Resources Management Postgraduate Degree from Humber College and did a co-op placement at SickKids Foundation. That’s where she got bitten by the nonprofit bug! She knew that she “wanted to be in a place where she could feel her work overlap with the mission”.


Cisil currently works as the Manager, Volunteer Engagement at Ronald McDonald House Charities Toronto (RMHC Toronto). She came incredibly prepared to our #AskMeAnything chat and generously allowed me to share some of our conversation with you! 


JPP: What’s on your mind today? 


CI: I signed up for a few info sessions with volunteer manager professional associations: VMPC and TAVA. I’m a bit confused though, because I see that being part of some associations gives you discounts to others. What’s that all about?


JPP: That’s a great question, and yes, it can be confusing. There are three levels of professional associations for volunteer engagement professionals in Toronto.


The first level is TAVA (Toronto Association for Volunteer Administration), which is the local group for volunteer engagement professionals in Toronto. They are fully volunteer-run and their membership is very affordable. 


The second level is PAVRO (Professional Association of Volunteer Leaders- Ontario), which is the provincial group for volunteer engagement professionals in Ontario. They are also run by volunteers but are incorporated as a non-profit organization. Their membership is a bit more expensive, but they have group rates for people working at the same organization. A membership with TAVA gives you a discount to PAVRO membership. 


The third level is VMPC (Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada), which is the national group for volunteer engagement professionals across Canada. This group is also run by volunteers. Their membership fee is reasonable, and membership with PAVRO gives you a 50% discount! 


CI: Ahh… it makes sense now! Tell me more about what the memberships get me…


JPP: Each of these organizations has different member benefits, like workshops, conferences, job boards, online forums, bursaries, and networking opportunities. I find that membership pricing reflects the benefits available. Most employers will have a professional development budget for each team or employee that will support or cover membership fees. If membership fees are not supported by your employer, we can have a separate conversation about advocacy for this.  


CI: So if I join these organizations as a member, what opportunities should I take advantage of first?


JPP: It really depends on what your priorities are. Most workshops and networking opportunities are held online for an hour or so each month. I encourage you to set aside the time in your calendar to attend these events. 


Conferences will take you away from your desk for a bit longer (from half a day to several days) and may involve travel. Start with checking out a local conference or an online conference that doesn’t require travel. Bring the ideas you learn back to your employer, and you’ll be more likely to have support for conference-related travel expenses. 


I also highly recommend getting involved as a volunteer with these organizations, either on a committee, working group, or as part of the board. TAVA has an Executive Committee and a DEI Working Group and are recruiting for volunteers on a rolling basis. PAVRO has a Board of Directors and several committees, which are also seeking volunteers. VMPC has an Executive and various committees and leadership roles; I believe they recruit on more of an annual basis but if you stay tuned to their newsletter, an opportunity that interests you might come up.


CI: This is very interesting to me! I volunteer with an organization called TEPAC (Turkish Entrepreneurs and Professionals Association of Canada). We conduct professional development activities for career enhancement like tea talks, mentorship programs, networking, and business cases. It’s an organization helping mostly newcomers, and our community is very diverse - it’s expanded beyond Turkish-Canadians. Right now, I am the Communications Team Lead where I handle all external inquiries as well as being a liaison between the Board Members and our volunteers.  


JPP: Wonderful! So you have experience with a similar type of volunteering already. One thing I would note is to be mindful of your capacity to take on a new volunteer role, especially for a fully volunteer-run organization (like TAVA, PAVRO, or VMPC). 


I can tell that you are a go-getter: you have a new role at RMHC Toronto, you are already volunteering, and you are still relatively new to Canada and Toronto. Make sure you take time for self-care, to get to explore things in Toronto that are not related to your work- like sports or arts, and to just have some time to chill. 


Burnout and compassion fatigue in the non-profit sector are very real. I wish I had been more aware of these things earlier in my career. 


CI: Thanks Jessica. I’m also in the Volunteer Management Program at Fleming College- which I think you teach for? 


JPP: Yes- I’ll be your course facilitator for the Spectrum of Engagement course. I’m glad you’re enrolled! The program will provide you with a solid basis for your day-to-day work.


You’ll also get a taste of how volunteer engagement works in other sub-sectors through the other students.  I’ve seen students with roles at academic institutions, animal welfare organizations, health charities, arts organizations, and social service organizations. If you ever decide to go for your CVA Certification, those perspectives are very helpful. 


CI: That was one of my other questions. Should I register to get the CVA Certification now? Or wait?


JPP: I would recommend finishing up the Volunteer Management Program at Fleming College first, and while doing that, maybe get some volunteer experiences with the professional associations too. All the while, you’d continue to grow your professional experience through your work at RMHC. 


The application for the CVA exam is based on a points system. Completing the Volunteer Management Program at Fleming College, being in a volunteer engagement role, and serving as a volunteer for a relevant professional association will give you the points you need. You’ll also be more prepared to pass the exam because of your knowledge- but I still recommend studying! 


CI: I get what you’re saying. Having real experiences - both successes and challenges is part of what will prepare me. So, what are the common challenges a volunteer engagement professional faces? I know it’s not always roses and flowers. 


JPP: What I like to say is: volunteers are people, and people are complicated. You’re coming to this sector from HR, so I know that's something that you inherently understand. 


I find that some people, when they come into this sector and they're like, “Volunteers are always going to be good people and they’re always easy to work with.” 


But we both know that’s not true. Volunteers come to organizations with different intentions and different lived experiences. Sometimes those intentions and experiences don’t always align with the organization’s mission. 


CI: I see this for sure when I’m doing recruitment. Sometimes they just want to put volunteer experience on their resume. Sometimes they only want to get a foot into the organization to become an employee. Sometimes they have a personal connection to the mission. It's like a full spectrum of different experiences.


JPP: Yes, and speaking of recruitment… I think some people who work in nonprofit, but not closely with volunteer engagement, they sometimes misconstrue volunteer engagement with volunteer recruitment. They think our entire job is just to recruit volunteers. 


But there is a whole cycle for volunteer engagement! At the end of the day, aside from “selling” the role to volunteers and making sure they are a good fit, our work comes down to setting and managing expectations. Boundaries are so important in our profession. And boundaries are difficult because we want to be nice!


Another challenge specifically related to volunteer recruitment is that sometimes we will work with people who just want “warm bodies”.


CI: What do you mean by that?


JPP: I’ve been in situations where more senior staff will question why the number of volunteers available has not hit a certain target, or they are looking for a large number of volunteers to be available within 48 hours to do a seemingly easy task (e.g. registration at a golf tournament). 


CI: Ahh… quality over quantity. You’re talking about matching the volunteer’s needs to the organization’s needs too. 


JPP: Exactly! Those things don’t happen overnight. 


CI: So how can I help my colleagues who don’t work closely with volunteers better understand these things? In my role, I recruit, onboard, and place volunteers, and manage large-scale recognition opportunities. My colleagues who work on the operations side (e.g. with the families or at the front desk) are the ones who connect with volunteers most frequently and supervise them day-to-day. 


JPP:  That's generally the model most organizations go with now. Our colleagues who are running the programs, doing the fundraising, they are the subject matter experts in their areas. At the same time, we are the subject matter experts in volunteer engagement. 


One idea I can share is from my time at the Heart & Stroke Foundation. We had different programs in different communities, and I wanted a way to share best practices with my colleagues who were all fundraising employees, without being like, “I'm Jessica, I know best. I know what to do. You need to listen to me.”


So what I did was I put out a bulletin - it was a PDF I sent out monthly to all the colleagues I supported. My goal was to “catch people doing good things”. For example: If I found out a colleague did something very meaningful to recognize a volunteer’s contributions, I would tell that story. Their peers would see the good work they were doing and want to mirror that. 


I also made sure this bulletin went to their managers because I was peers with these colleagues and I needed a way to influence without authority. One thing my manager encouraged me to do was bring each story back to the organizational goals and team goals so that doing great at volunteer engagement was directly tied to being a great performer. 


CI: Thanks Jessica - that’s a good idea! Okay, my next question is, how do you see technology influencing and transforming volunteer engagement?


JPP: I think we are way behind with technology, especially compared to for-profit corporations. They put a lot of money into basic things like websites and databases. This means they can easily get the data they need to make business decisions.


For non-profit donors, they really want to hold organizations accountable and they want to make sure that their money is going into the services (e.g. a place for families to stay while their children are getting medical care, food for people who don’t have enough, counselling for people living with mental illness). Putting their money into something like databases isn’t very exciting, and can be hard to understand. 


What I see in the non-profit sector is: the fundraising team is using one database, the volunteer engagement team is using another database, and the client services team is using a third database. And, none of those databases can talk to one another! They’re not connected.


So, you might have a donor who makes monthly donations, but also recently applied to volunteer. This person may have been a client twenty years ago too! But unless they tell you, you can’t give them that personalized experience they deserve because you don’t truly understand their entire relationship with the organization. 


CI: It would be so nice to know all of those things. 


JPP: Yes. Sadly, it would take a lot of time and money to get that off the ground. Or, it would mean these software companies start working with one another.


Another thing I think we can do better with technology is using AI to provide better customer service to volunteers and volunteer candidates. 


CI: You mean like with ChatGPT?


JPP: This is actually something that predates ChatGPT. I was at a conference five or six years ago.


At that conference, a presenter said, “Wouldn't it be nice if you go to an organization's website and you want to volunteer, a chatbot appears? The chatbot says, ‘What can I help you with today?’ and you type in ‘volunteer’. And then it says, ‘How would you like to volunteer?’ giving you a list of open opportunities.”


Instead of filling in an application that needs to go to a human to review, the chatbot directs you to opportunities that are a good fit and answers the most frequently asked questions that a volunteer candidate has. It’s all personalized!


It is similar to experiences I’ve had with booking nail appointments. The chatbot on the salon website asks me what type of service I want, what time, if I have a preferred nail artist, and reminds me about salon policies. Then the scheduled time goes into my digital calendar and I automatically get a reminder. 


If a nail salon can do this, why can’t a non-profit? Why can’t volunteer interviews be booked based on the schedules a bot pulls from our digital calendars? Instead, we go back and forth with candidates over days and days. 


CI: Yes, I feel we lose candidates when this happens, especially for my work which includes vulnerable sector screening. Candidates can wait weeks and weeks for this information to get back to us. 


JPP: I know. It’s frustrating and the technology is there. It just needs some adaptations for our needs. But we know that involves investments from donors and advocacy from us. 


CI: Yes, hopefully we can get there soon. To end on a happier note, who are other people in the sector with writing that inspires you? I like staying up to date through reading.


JPP: Two of my favourite volunteer engagement writers are Meridian Swift and Rob Jackson. Meridian is based out of the US and has some awesome books. Rob is based out of the UK and comes to Canada from time to time to speak at conferences- including the upcoming VMPC Conference in Vancouver


CI: I’ll be sure to check them out!


JPP: Thanks so much for spending time with me today! I had a lot of fun. You are a shining example of the emerging talent in our sector and it is such a pleasure to know you. 


CI: Thanks Jessica! Talk again soon! 

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