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  • Writer's pictureJessica

Early Career Volunteer Engagement Professionals #AskMeAnything: Michael Nelson

Updated: May 3

Michael is wearing a pinstripe blazer and a black collared shirt with red detail. He has an elegant short hairstyle. He is smiling and looking at the camera.
Michael is wearing a pinstripe blazer and a black collared shirt with red detail. He has an elegant short hairstyle. He is smiling and looking at the camera.

Welcome to the third and final post in this series where I sit down with early career volunteer engagement professionals and encourage them to #AskMeAnything! Michael Nelson works as the Coordinator of Volunteer Programs & Administration at the Philip Aziz Centre for Hospice Care & Emily’s House. The Philip Aziz Centre and Emily’s House operate jointly with a unique “hybrid” hospice palliative care model, offering in-home care to individuals with life-limiting illnesses and around-the-clock pediatric hospice care in a home-like environment. 

When Michael reached out to participate in the #AskMeAnything series, I knew it would be a great opportunity to learn about hospice volunteering (a subsector I’m not too familiar with) and to hear about his experience as someone who switched careers to join the volunteer engagement profession.  

JPP: Thanks Michael for taking the time today! 

MN: Thanks for having me! I didn’t plan to ask this question, but I have to: how does this AI notetaker you’re using work? 

JPP: Great question. It’s a tool called You can try it for free but I use the paid version because I find that being able to save conversations helps me a lot. It records audio only and generates a transcript. So, when we’re finished this call, it’ll send you an email where you can access the transcript and some call notes. It usually provides an overview of what was discussed, a summary of the conversation by topic, and action items for each party. I mostly use it for the transcripts because I find them to be mostly accurate.

MN: The world of AI, it’s really changing the way we work! I recently experimented with using ChatGPT for help with a volunteer role description. It blew my mind!

JPP: Did it work well?

MN: It worked well beyond what I thought it could do. I was testing out a revamp of our photographer role. We engage volunteer photographers to capture events and do memory sessions for families that have children who are actively at the end of life. It’s an opportunity for them to get some last family shots.

So I entered in info about the memory sessions and the need for volunteers who are sensitive, and ChatGPT pushed out a very good role description. I had to make a few edits and add in details about our organization, but it saved me a lot of time! This is a whole new world for us! 

JPP: That’s awesome! It’s helpful when technology can provide us with improved starting points. Speaking of starting points, I see from your LinkedIn that you started as a volunteer engagement professional after almost 30 years of work at a church. Tell me more about that.

MN: Yes, I worked at the Agincourt Pentecostal Church in Scarborough. It was one of the biggest churches in Canada and we had over 44 programs. 

I was not a reverend or a pastor. My role was administrative and I was involved in our community outreach programs. For example: we bought an old school bus and made it into a kitchen so we would go into communities and feed people. We had metro housing, children's programs and after school children's programs. 

We also had a big Christmas turkey basket program where a number of agencies would partner with us to give out Christmas dinners and gifts to families of recently incarcerated men, single moms, and people who lost their jobs. One of our partners was the Philip Aziz Centre, where the baskets went to families of people who were about to die. 

JPP: Wow, so you started your relationship with Philip Aziz Centre as a community partner. 

MN: Exactly. So over just over five years ago, Philip Aziz Centre reached out and they said, “We are developing a new Volunteer Coordinator role. We have a Volunteer Coordinator on the team, but the work is too much for one person. We are expanding the team and distributing the work amongst two roles.” 

And, they asked me to submit a resume. So I did! I was ready for a change after almost 30 years and it was good timing. I gradually onboarded, working two to three days a week, which meant that I could also work part-time at another church in Pickering.

And after about a year, I was working full-time at the Philip Aziz Centre and Emily’s House. I get to work with Amanda Maragos, who is one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. 

Those 30 years of working in churches really prepared me in many ways for my current role. 

JPP: What do you mean by that?

MN: I was never trained to lead volunteers professionally. Within the church world, it’s all about building relationships and I had to build lots of them because we were a congregation of almost 2,700 people. All those people had different personalities. 

Back in the day, it was normal to be thrown in the deep end and to learn as you go. Today we know better but those experiences really prepared me to talk to volunteers.

I think I have an instinctual strength towards talking with volunteers and being aware of their roles outside of volunteering, their free time, and their capacity for giving. Now working at the hospice, I’ve upped my game around learning from people who have different opinions and being diplomatic. 

My mindset is to always be open to learning. Sometimes when I get frustrated, I’ll say to myself, “Mike, you don't have to agree, but listen and learn.”

JPP: What you just said reminds me of a book that I just started reading called How to Know a Person by David Brooks. He talks about how we make a lot of assumptions coming into conversations and getting to know a person for who they are, their soul, rather than their outward values, the way they look, who they hang out with, their job etc. 

MN: I feel like you're talking about, really the concept of whole person care, which is part of what we train volunteers on at the hospice. We let them know that when they commit with a client, you can’t just see them in the moment of, “This is John Doe or Jane Doe and they only have so long to live.” You need to be aware that there has been a life lived. 

They carry with them a lifetime of relationships and experiences that have molded them into the person they are. They are not their diagnosis. That's what's happening to them. 

So to your point, it's like, recognize there's a soul there. There's a human being that has lived a life, and even if that's a seven-year-old, they have lived seven years. 

JPP: Thank you for sharing that. I haven’t worked or volunteered in a hospice before so it’s new learning for me. Can you tell me more about the volunteers that you work with at the hospice? What are the different roles that volunteers can do? What are some of the challenges they face?

MN: We work with volunteers who are dedicated support persons to clients at the end of life. I say to new volunteers, in a comical way, “You’re shopping for your client.” We provide a client list with non-identifying details. 

For example: woman, 48-years-old, diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, lives in X area and is looking for Tuesday visits from 6-9pm. She wants to go for walks and to go grocery shopping. 

There will be a list of these clients that we send out to all volunteers who are not yet matched. They go through the list and email back which person they’re interested in supporting.  

JPP: Okay, interesting. Do they get to test it out first?

MN: There's always the understanding that the first visit can be tough and it's a learning curve. 

You've never met this person before. It may be awkward. The onus is on the volunteer to be flexible and fluid in their visit. We ask that volunteers give it a couple of visits before we make a decision to end the relationship. It happens very rarely. 

And then the reverse is we say, your client may not jive with you. There is a chemistry that's created in any relationship. However, Most of our clients are eager to have a volunteer come into their lives because they have a year or less to live. 

JPP: How do you manage boundaries? 

MN: We tell volunteers that it will work like a friendship, but you are not their friend. You are their volunteer health care support worker. 

In one case, a volunteer became very close to the family when the client died and they wanted to stay friends. As an organization, we were like, okay, if you're both on the same page, you have to sign some documentation.

And then a few months later, the same volunteer wanted to become friends with the next family.

That’s when we had to ask them to reflect on why they wanted these friendships. We engage about 200 volunteers and it’s very rare for anyone to request to stay in touch with client families. 

For people who want to make friends, we encourage them to go to other organizations where that goal is more aligned with the mission. We can’t just placate volunteers. The focus is on the client and family experience, making sure volunteers have growth and resolution through boundaries. 

JPP: It sounds like you have to have a lot of difficult conversations. I mean, I'm sure it's not constant, but it's something you always have to be prepared to do because of the environment you're in. 

MN: It’s funny because sometimes the difficult conversations I need to have are the less obvious ones. 

JPP: Like what?

MN: When we are training new volunteers, and someone isn’t participating as much as I am hoping they would, I need to make sure that they understand the material. Any advice on how I can approach that conversation? 

JPP: How long is each training session? 

MN: They are three hours long with a 15-minute break. 

JPP: And you do knowledge checks during the session?

MN: Not formal knowledge checks but I look for participation and I’m very aware of who is not speaking. 

I try to encourage quiet folks to speak by saying things like, “I haven't heard anybody from the back half of the room. I’d really like to hear from you!”

JPP: I would recommend building in another break closer to the front half of a class; even five minutes would work. 

If someone hasn't spoken, whether it's a language barrier or a cognitive barrier, then you can pull that person aside during the break. You can say something like, “Hey, can grab you for a few seconds? I notice that you haven't been participating. How can I help you participate more? I don't want to make you feel embarrassed. Are you shy?”

I get that you need people who are willing to speak with people who are very vulnerable and can’t always speak for themselves. But some people are just nervous speaking in a classroom setting. Sometimes giving them an opportunity to write can help. 

Maybe you can turn a learning activity into a private brainstorming session. Then you can ask people to do a think-pair-share where they chat with a partner, and each person shares their partner’s ideas with the rest of the group. 

MN: I love that- it’s a way to get that information without creating embarrassment or shame. Thank you! 

Our priority is when that volunteer graduates from their training, they're reasonably prepared to support a client. The classroom learning is just one component of our training, and I agree that not everyone's an extrovert. Not everyone wants to be speaking. It's not that they’re poor conversationalists who can’t help the clients- it’s just the classroom environment.

So here’s another thing that I’ve come up against recently during volunteer training. This individual had really deep responses to my questions but during one class they were on social media the whole time. So I said, “You certainly can do what you need to do, but I'm concerned that you're not taking in the content.”

JPP: Interesting… To be honest, if that person is used to multitasking, it could be part of how they focus. 

MN: True- when I’m in a classroom I like to doodle. But my concern is that the volunteer will be on social media while working with a client. This is a risk we’re always trying to mitigate at Emily’s House because kids will look at your phone if you leave it out and it’s important that clients don’t find you on social media. 

JPP: Maybe that’s something you can work into the training session structure. For example, you can say, “One of the things to know when you're at Emily's house is you have to put your phone on vibrate and go into an isolated area if you need to take a call. Let’s practice that for the next few hours…”

MN: Once I chatted with that volunteer about using social media, they stopped and they were very engaged going forward. But I think what I’ll do now is be more intentional about taking a break and having those conversations privately. 

JPP: Yes! Having those check-in conversations will help a lot. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help them feel more comfortable in the space. Tell them if you notice them checking social media and ask if everything is okay. 

Some people don't have people's phone numbers anymore. So maybe their friend is in crisis and they're messaging them over social media.

You can also tell them, “Doodling helps me focus when I’m in a classroom so do what you need to do.” I was recently at a conference where they had markers and Play-Doh in a basket at every table, encouraging people to pick their fidget props. 

MN: Those are great ideas. Thank you. 

My last question is about my own learning as a volunteer engagement professional. I love learning and meeting others in the sector. But there are so many events and I only have so much time. How can I prioritize when everything is beneficial?

JPP: Well, you're always going to get something out of going to a webinar or discussion. One way I decide on what to attend is to see if the session will be recorded. 

If it is recorded, you know that they will share the recording and slide deck. If you know that you need to finish a project or have a conversation with a volunteer urgently, you can take a look at the slide deck afterwards. When you review the slide deck, note what you’re curious about and go to those sections in the recording so you can maximize your learning time. 

There’s also a lot of topics that you’re going to know quite a bit about already, like building relationships and having difficult conversations. You’ve also been in the sector for almost five years and have a good understanding of basics like the parts of the volunteer engagement cycle. So, those are also sessions that you can pass on. 

MN: But I’ve gone to sessions on difficult conversations with Sammy from Volunteer Toronto, which were super helpful because I learned new perspectives! 

JPP: You make a good point. Sometimes it's like, yeah, I'm really good at this, but let me just check out someone else's perspective. Because we both know that there are many paths to get to the same objective and one is not better than the other. 

It's tough because I'm in the same boat. I see all these learning opportunities and I can't attend them all because I just have stuff to do. So think it's a combination of looking at:

  • Is it recorded? 

  • And, am I actually going to make time to watch it? 

That’s something I did last week. I have a bunch of webinar recordings to watch in my inbox and I scheduled a time to watch one while I ate my lunch. Because I put it in my calendar- it happened. 

MN: Well, that's something I never thought of before- so thank you.

JPP: You also have to think about in-person learning opportunities like conferences. Connecting with others in real life and in real-time is an investment of your time and your organization’s professional development budget. So, if there’s a conference with speakers or a topic you’re really interested in, make sure that recorded sessions aren’t taking you away from those opportunities. 

MN: Thanks Jessica, it was a pleasure to chat with you!

JPP: The pleasure was all mine Michael. Thanks for the wonderful work you do and for taking the time today!

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