A participatory action research project
undertaken by the Strategic Volunteering Advisory Group and volunteers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside
sponsored by the Strathcona Community Centre's
Skills Connection,
Vancouver, B.C., Canada
and funded by
InVOLve B.C.
(The Ministry of Community Development, Co-Operatives and Volunteerism)
Report by
The Strategic Volunteering Advisory Group
and Isabella J. Mori

June 2000 - July 2001

With special thanks to
Christiane Bordier, Steven Breeze, Nancy Cameron, Jael Emberley, Kai Erikson, Leith Harris,
Susan (Shanna) McFarland, Haedy Mason, Susan Mundt, David Ng,
Terri Olewinski, Linda Ostrum, May Sem
and everyone else who made this project possible.


– Living and Volunteering in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside
Mission Statement

    Advisory group meetings
    Suggestions by volunteers
        Volunteer volunteer co-ordinators
        Volunteer benefits
         “Day in the life of ….”
        Paid Work
    Volunteer careers / professional volunteering
    Volunteer-staff relationships
    Volunteer co-ordinators
    Volunteering to work
    Volunteer appreciation
    Other items
    The worth of volunteer work
    Volunteer policies / manuals
    Volunteer representative
    Skills inventory workshop
    Job descriptions
    Resume writing service
    Volunteer participation
    Other actions
    Unanticipated consequences
        Volunteer motivation
        What keeps people from volunteering?
        Volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators
        Comparison of Round 1 volunteer and volunteer co-ordinator responses
        Volunteering in the DTES
        Volunteer appreciation
        Volunteer support by staff
        Volunteer/agency problems
        Overlap between volunteer and volunteer co-ordinators responses
        Understanding the roles of volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators
        Advisory group
        Participation – general
        Mission statement design and evaluation
a vision for volunteering in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside
    Learning and training
    Staff-volunteer problems
    Support by volunteer co-ordinators
    Volunteer co-ordinators’ work load
    Volunteer appreciation
    Helping and being asked to help
    Volunteer to work
Appendix A - Protocol for analysing conten
Appendix B - Interview Questions for Volunteer Co-ordinators
Appendix C - Example of a consensus process to draft a volunteer policy
Appendix D - The Volunteer Representative
Appendix E -
    Sample Agenda
    Sample Minutes
Appendix F - Some thoughts on Assistant / Volunteer Volunteer Co-ordinators

This participatory action research project had the aim of identifying the characteristics of volunteering in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside ("Canada’s poorest postal code") and Strathcona areas, determining the ways in which volunteering can lead to paid work, carrying out experiments to test the viability of suggested improvements, and making recommendations for a vision for volunteering in the area. The research part consisted of interviews, focus groups and meetings. Themes that emerged as particularly important included volunteers’ perception of not being treated respectfully; volunteering as a learning experience; the heavy work load of volunteer co-ordinators; the influence of an environment of poverty, substance use and housing problems in the area; and volunteering as a way of forming and keeping relationships within the community. It was also recognized that "volunteering to work" cannot be seen in isolation from other aspects of volunteering. Volunteers stressed the importance of daily, small forms of appreciation whereas volunteer co-ordinators stressed formal appreciation events. Actions taken as a result of the research part included forming volunteer policies, having volunteers assist with volunteer co-ordination, having volunteers write job descriptions, and making training for volunteers more accessible. Recommendations included more training for volunteers, improving staff-volunteer relationships, more support for volunteer co-ordinators, and putting in place mechanisms that help unemployed volunteers towards employment. The project was directed by an advisory group and carried out by a project co-ordination team and community volunteers.

The Strategic Volunteering Project, a project funded by British Columbia’s Ministry of Co-operatives, Community Development and Volunteerism, ran from June, 2000 to July, 2001. Its goals were to assist volunteers and volunteer agencies in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in creating better volunteer experiences, to begin fashioning an overall vision for volunteer organizations in the area, to investigate the "volunteering to work" phenomenon, to find out what motivates low-income persons to volunteer, and to extend volunteer opportunities to volunteers in the area.

The Downtown Eastside ("DTES"), Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, consists of several diverse communities, including Chinatown, Gastown (an increasingly more gentrified tourist attraction), most of Vancouver’s port, and a "skid road". Strathcona is a residential area immediately neighbouring the DTES and is often seen as part of the DTES. Once a bustling area, after the Great Depression in the 1930’s, the DTES became heavily populated with unemployed workers. Since then it has become known for welcoming and providing support for many disadvantaged people. Now the area has Canada’s lowest per-capita income (the highest being West Vancouver, just across the harbour).

The DTES, especially the "skid road" area, has become the centre of a very active drug trade, with an international reputation for an almost out-of-control open drug market and use. The DTES currently has the highest rate of HIV infection in the developed world. The various forms of hepatitis, as well as syphilis and tuberculosis, are also serious concerns. Effective support for drug users, especially in the form of detoxification facilities, is dramatically insufficient. A newly proposed "four-pillar" approach, consisting of harm reduction, prevention, and crackdown on drug dealers, might bring some relief.

The population has a relatively high rate of aboriginal persons, ethnic Chinese and Chinese immigrants, persons with physical and mental disabilities, single households, sex trade workers, and older persons. Adequate housing is a serious problem, with many persons living in significantly substandard single-room-occupancy ("SRO") rooming houses or hotels. Vancouver’s very high standard-of-living costs complicate the issue. Related to the housing problem is transiency, caused in part by a gentle climate that attracts people from other regions in Canada with harsher weather.

Much of the media and public attention has focused on negative elements, speaking of the area as a "war zone", a "disgrace", an "armpit", even "The Killing Fields". However, despite its serious problems, the community is vibrant and has enormous strengths – in neighbours who truly care for and take care of each other, persistent community activists, a tolerant and welcoming attitude towards persons who do not feel comfortable in mainstream society, and support workers who go well beyond the call of duty. In the words of DTES poet Bud Osborn, this is a community of "brave souls fighting for their dignity", who have often nothing left but their humanity.

Even before the results of this project were known, there was a general consensus – at least in the area – that volunteering in the DTES is somewhat different than in other, healthier, more affluent areas. Area demographics are represented among the volunteers, perhaps even more so than in the area's overall population – i.e., most volunteers live far below the poverty line (usually on income assistance), many live in severely substandard housing, have a disability, etc. For many, their volunteer jobs are an important part of their social lives. A good portion of volunteers performs their jobs with the hope of eventually finding employment through it.   BACK TO INDEX 

The project was carried out within the framework of participatory action research. Participatory action research belongs to a family of research methodologies that pursue action (or change) and research (or understanding) at the same time. It is a process which takes shape as understanding increases, converging towards a better understanding of what happens. It is participative because, among other reasons, change is usually easier to achieve when those affected by the change are involved. It tends to be mostly qualitatitve.

The project was directed by 14 advisory meetings attended by volunteers, volunteer co-ordinators and the project volunteer. Some 35 volunteers ("project volunteers") were part of this, as well as 9 volunteer co-ordinators. For the most part, project volunteers received modest honoraria. Agencies that participated in the project were First United Church (a mission that provides advocacy, fellowship programs, basic education, food and general support for residents and homeless persons); YWCA Crabtree Corner (a women’s centre with a drop-in daycare, several support groups, food services and outreach workers), Carnegie Community Centre (a large community centre providing sports, recreational and educational opportunities, and food and library services), Strathcona Community Centre / Lord Strathcona Elementary School (a community school initiative with an emphasis on serving the area’s ethnic and immigrant Chinese residents) and the Skills Connection (an organization responding to employment and employability needs of unemployed and underemployed residents). Informally, Community Directions (an organization using a grassroots approach to community revitalization) became quite involved, as well.

The first task of the project (Round 1) was to conduct research on the current state of affairs of volunteering in the area (the "research" part). Project volunteers were trained (partly by project volunteers, partly by the project co-ordinator) to conduct Interviews and focus groups with volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators. Armed with the information from this research, project volunteers and the project co-ordinator then surveyed volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators regarding their reactions to the survey and any suggestions they might have. In Round 2 some of the suggestions were carried out (the "action" part). Project volunteers carried out tasks whenever possible. This, and the fact that the project was guided by the above-mentioned advisory group, make up the "participatory" component of the project.

As is often the case in participatory action research, this is an experience report. Not only are we reporting on our research and action findings but also on the processes used to arrive at them. We hope, thus, that this report will be useful for others not only in learning about our findings but also in carrying out similar endeavours.

As can be expected with a task of this magnitude, the goals of the project went through a number of development stages. In the early development phase, the stated goals were to gain knowledge about volunteering in general, to help agencies design volunteer programs that better suit their needs and move participants forward to employment. Another goal at that stage was to create dialogue between agencies about clients’ needs with respect to volunteer opportunities that might lead to employment, and volunteer infrastructure and services that may help them accomplish this. Lessons learned in this process would be exchanged. The project also had as a long-term goal the development of the employability skills and credentials (e.g. documented work experience, working within a structured environment) that would assist residents in moving to their employment goals. It would develop opportunities for individuals to participate in the volunteer sector, and design a general plan for the area for using volunteering as a stepping stone for employment.

With these initial goals in mind - which were somewhat narrowed down and specified by funders - the project was started. Participants then formed a mission statement, as follows:

  • With the overall vision of supporting a strong and healthy community, we aim to be part of building an overall volunteering strategy for DTES and Strathcona that is committed to celebrating and developing volunteering by

  • Our goals are to

  • Please see the "Evaluation" section for how the funders' deliverables and mission statement points were met.

    This section will first explain the research methodology, then present results from volunteer/prospective volunteer interviews and focus groups, then those from interviews with volunteer co-ordinators.

    Research Methodology

    Focus groups
    Participants were invited via posters and through the volunteer co-ordinators at their agencies. Focus groups lasted about two hours and participants were offered meals during the groups. Participants were briefed on confidentiality. Responses were noted in point-form on flip charts and focus group facilitators asked participants throughout to give feedback regarding the accuracy of the points noted on the charts. All interviewees were invited to give feedback about the interview and the project at all times. The flipchart notes were then typed up and subjected to a text analysis. Each point was categorized under a theme; as points accumulated, common themes started to emerge. The thematic analysis was repeated several times, until each point was categorized under as many themes as necessary. Each theme then had a certain number of points categorized under it; this is how we arrived at the most frequently discussed themes.

    Volunteer interviewees were approached by project participants at the various agencies. Since interviews were usually "on the fly" – i.e. at a food line-up, at a coffee room, during a program, etc., interview protocols were extremely simple. All interviewers received orientations to the interview process. Because interviews with volunteer co-ordinators were much longer, the protocol was more formal. All interviewees were invited to give feedback about the interview and the project at all times. Interview notes were typed up and subjected to the same thematic text analysis as described above.

    Advisory group meetings
    All advisory group meetings were recorded in minutes. For analysis purposes, these minutes were scanned for non-process content (i.e. for content that would contribute to the research questions); this content was then subjected to the same thematic text analysis as described above. For information on text analysis methodology, please see Appendix A.

    Volunteers' and Prospective Volunteers' Responses
    Altogether, we conducted some 120 interviews with volunteers. In Round 1, we held four focus groups with volunteers, as well as a number of one-on-one interviews; altogether we polled 36 volunteers. Perhaps the most frequent theme was that most of the time, volunteers did not feel to be on an equal level with staff. At times, volunteers did not find this problematic, especially when they saw themselves as "still learning" (either specific skills or general life skills). In numerous other situations, volunteers felt that they should be seen more as equals. Sometimes that was seen as a systemic problem: "Agencies are part of the poverty industry (people are used and abused)". Often, volunteers addressed it more as a problem of not having a voice: "Volunteers are told they have a say but really they don’t."

    Many stressed the value of volunteering as a learning experience – be it lifeskills, learning about oneself, employment skills, etc.: "I have learned more here in a year and a half than in the last twenty years of my life."

    Other themes that were mentioned frequently were:

    In the Round 1 focus groups and interviews, volunteers were asked six questions. What follows are the most frequent answers to these questions. We have listed the three most frequently cited types of answers each, with one example each.

    1. What are the challenges of volunteering in the DTES?
    Volunteers do not feel appreciated or do not feel they have a voice:

    Working with the complex DTES population:

    Learning something new:

    2 Why do you volunteer?
    To help others

    Be with the community

    Build/enjoy/maintain relationships

    3 Volunteering and your hopes and dreams: Is volunteering what you hoped it would be? Does volunteering help you achieve your overall life goals?




    Confidence / self worth / esteem

    4 What are the biggest challenges in your organization’s volunteer program – from your point of view and that of other volunteers you know?
    Volunteer / staff problems

    Not too many problems

    Volunteer / agency problems

    5 Do you feel part of the organization? How?


    Volunteers feel appreciated



    6 From what you know about volunteer co-ordinators, what do you think are their biggest challenges in the volunteer program?

    General program co-ordination, supervision and training

    Funders & "higher-ups"

    Stress / Pressure / Burnout / Chaos

    Suggestions by volunteers
    Following Round 1, volunteers were presented with a report on the project's research efforts. They were then asked their opinion about it, and particularly what their suggestions for improving volunteering in the area were. It was at that stage that we attempted to bring in feedback from other than the participating agencies. The rationale for this was that since the project was to inform not just the participating agencies but also other agencies in the area, it would be important to pull in information from those agencies, as well. About 30 agencies were approached for feedback; in the end, we polled volunteers from 8 agencies (Dugout, Sheway, Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, VANDU, Community Directions, Portland Hotel Society, Neighbourhood Helpers, RayCam Community Centre).

    Some 40 volunteers were polled on these questions. Volunteers had concrete suggestions for improvement, many concerning self improvement and changes to the volunteer program. We will mention all ideas that were raised by more than one person. We will start with those that had some action responses.

    There were fifteen responses that dealt with workshops or training. Respondents were interested in workshops dealing with issues such as burnout, abusive clients or difficult situations in general. Practical matters such as dealing with HIV, Hepatitis and used intravenous needles and First Aid for overdose victims were also mentioned. Several people identified a need for more skills and training in general. One person mentioned meditation and massage for stress management to prevent volunteers becoming violent; another was interested in a workshop given by someone who did not look down on participants - someone who had experienced problems and improved their life. There was also an interest in skills inventory workshops. Respondents also mentioned mentoring as important to them for learning new skills. (See the "action" section for a description of the responses, namely a skills inventory workshop that gave rise to other workshops, and individual training efforts by another agency).

    Volunteer volunteer co-ordinators
    Several respondents were interested in the idea of training volunteers to become volunteer co-ordinators; one person thought it was not a good idea. One person responded that rewarding volunteers with advancement opportunities for a job well done shows that volunteers are valued. Another person believed that it depended on the skills and abilities of the volunteer whether it is a good idea to train them as a volunteer co-ordinator. (See the "action" section for a description of relevant activities by two agencies).

    Some respondents directly expressed they wanted volunteers to have more of a voice in how their agency is run. One person suggested input at staff meetings. Another person felt that volunteers needed to be asked what they want to do. (See the "action" section for a description of a volunteer representative initiative by one of the agencies).

    Volunteers mentioned the importance of guidelines. One person wanted guidelines and not rules so the volunteers would be in control of decisions affecting them and their neighbourhood. Some were in favour of written job descriptions for volunteers. One felt that a handbook for new volunteers (including job description, expectations, rules, who to talk to in case of problems) is essential. (see the "action" section for a description of the work of three agencies in this area)

    The following have not had an action response:

    Many mentioned volunteer appreciation as important to them stating, among other things, that being appreciated means being recognized as hard workers. That recognition includes letting them know they are doing good work. Appreciation can also mean being identified as potential candidates for paying jobs in the organization. Volunteers value formal appreciation events such as volunteer dinners; however, the form of appreciation that is most essential to volunteers is for staff to pay attention to volunteers on the job on a day-to-day, task-by-task basis.

    Volunteer benefits
    A number of volunteers expressed opinions about benefits. Some believed that volunteers should be paid for their work. One person felt that volunteers unable to attend formal volunteer appreciation dinners should be offered meal tickets so they could have their free dinner at another time. Another person felt that a light lunch and coffee are important to them.

    "Day in the life of …."
    Some had the opinion that "a day in the life of …" would be beneficial, perhaps depending on the job. This would be an event where either a volunteer observes a volunteer co-ordinator or a volunteer co-ordinator observes a volunteer, to get a better view on the other person’s day-to-day reality.

    Paid Work
    Three people expressed the wish to be offered a job as recognition for years of volunteer experience and hard work in one or many areas.

    Finally, we also briefly polled 53 persons who were not currently volunteering on what it would take for them to volunteer, and, in the case of those who had volunteered in the past, what had prompted them to volunteer at that time. 30 (57%) had volunteered in the past; 3 (6%) stated they would not volunteer again. 23 (43%) had never volunteered, 3 (6%) stated they would not want to volunteer in the future. Interviewers had been instructed to achieve as equal a ratio as possible between those that had volunteered before and those that had not. The fact that this similarity could not be achieved supports the hypothesis that most users of DTES services do volunteer at one point or another. Below are the most frequently occurring answers:

    In general, the three most important motivators for volunteers were a) helping others (29 replies), b) having enough time (29 replies) and c) volunteer benefits such as transportation, honoraria, childcare, etc. (20 replies).

    When people who were presently not volunteering were asked what it would take for them to volunteer, the most frequent answer (14 replies) was, simply, to be asked to volunteer:

    "A place where I can help and feel appreciated for it."

    "[If I was] approached and asked to help out with anything in the community."

    "Just ask if you need a volunteer. I’m willing to do it."

    When those who had volunteered previously were asked why they had volunteered in the first place, the most frequent answer (15 replies) was very similar – people simply wanted to help:

    "To … give back to the community that helped me out when I needed it."

    "I saw a need"

    "[I wanted to deal] with problems in the community"

    The wish to help was the foremost motivator when interviewees were asked why they had volunteered in the first place, and the second most important motivator when asked what it would take for them to volunteer in the future.

    When asked why they had volunteered in the first place, time was mentioned as the second most important factor. This is a multifaceted factor – having too much time on one’s hand can be a heavy burden: "I'm an alcoholic and [volunteering] keeps me from drinking." It was the third most important factor in terms of volunteering in the future

    Receiving benefits ("Transportation – a ride here and back; childcare") was the most important factor (25 responses) in terms of volunteering in the future. While this must be seen against the backdrop of a long public transit strike, we should point out that even if the 8 replies regarding transportation were taken out, benefits still remain as the first motivator. Interestingly enough, benefits played only a very small role in the replies about volunteering in the past – only 3 responses.

    There were also a number of issues that were mentioned in the responses about volunteering in the past but not about volunteering in the future, and vice versa. For example, there were 8 responses by those who had volunteered in the past that pointed to building relationships and making community connections, e.g. "I needed to be around people because I was new to the Vancouver Eastside." This theme did not come up in the responses about volunteering in the future. Similarly, 5 responses dealt with getting experience. However, 3 of the responses regarding future volunteering that explicitly talk about training and learning (e.g. "Some help learning a job") might be related to this topic.

    Volunteer co-ordinators
    In Round 1, we interviewed 9 volunteer co-ordinators, asking them 15 questions (see Appendix B)

    One-on-one contact between volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators and general support to volunteers was the most important theme for volunteer co-ordinators: "All the staff looks for the good in the volunteers and tries to bring out their skills and aptitudes. With such close and constant contact, they build up a relationship that allows for this to happen."

    Issues specific to the area were very important to volunteer co-ordinators, as well: "We help people come out of their isolation and their SRO’s etc. Over half of them have a disability, visible or not.", and "The biggest challenge is to have enough to eat, clothing, decent housing, and the basic necessities. To have a voice and control their lives. "

    The wish to formally show appreciation to volunteers came through strongly in the interviews. This topic came up particularly in the question of how volunteers are helped to feel part of the organization. The types of volunteer appreciation mentioned were appreciation nights, formal and "intimate" dinners, socials such as movie nights, etc.

    Other themes that emerged with some frequency were

    Co-ordinators are eager to improve volunteer programs. Almost all of the improvements mentioned were improvements that would directly benefit the volunteers, especially more training. More volunteer support (probably in the form of more volunteer co-ordinators, paid or unpaid), and the need for better communication were important, as well.

    When asked how co-ordinators thought the Strategic Volunteering Project might help, they mentioned most often recruiting more volunteers, increased communication between area agencies, and securing more funding. For the project to give a clear picture of what is or not happening in the area and of what the special needs of volunteers here are, also seemed important.

    In terms of specific questions, some questions elicited a wide variety and great number of responses, others did not. Those that elicited the most answers (indicating, perhaps, the most interest) were, in order of number of responses:

    In Round 2, we then presented volunteer co-ordinators with the suggestions by volunteers after volunteers had read the Round 1 report. What follows are volunteer co-ordinators' suggestions (or "wish list"):

    Suggestions that had some follow-up are listed first. The actions that followed these suggestions can be found in the "action" part of the report.

    The part of the wish list that has not yet had follow-ups follows:

    The following comments were also made:

    (Please note that these comments reflect perceptions, which may or may not reflect actual facts. However, more often than not, it is perceptions that create barriers, not actual facts)

    Since the advisory group consisted of volunteers (including the volunteer co-ordinators and the project co-ordinator, who were all also volunteers at the time of the project or some time in the past), the meetings were also a valuable source of information. The following topics provided the richest material in terms of rounding out the research section:

    Volunteer careers / professional volunteering
    The term "volunteer career" can mean different things. It could apply to someone who volunteers every day, to someone who actually sees volunteering as a career, to someone who sees volunteering as important as paid work. Persons who volunteer every day can be persons who are close to retirement, do not have up-to-date skills and encounter difficulties retraining – but are very employable in the volunteer work force (i.e. they meet all the skill and attitudinal expectations that agencies have of volunteers). Others who pursue volunteering as a career may be people with disabilities, people who cannot find employment, or people whose backgrounds or personalities, despite many attempts, simply do not fit into the everyday work world. Persons whose main occupation is volunteering could be described as professional volunteers. Volunteer careers can be much more enjoyable that careers in paid work, there is much more control over one’s stress level, and the volunteer can learn just as much as the paid worker. Volunteering can be a lifetime commitment.

    On the negative side, regular volunteers are often taken for granted and may not get offered the type of paid positions that their volunteer work qualifies them for. Because the majority of volunteers are unemployed and many of them are hoping to rejoin the work force, once a person has volunteered for a long time, the agency should at least look into whether they can help that person find a job. Also, some "career volunteers" in the area may not do their job as voluntarily as it might seem – they might be dependent on the volunteer job for their social life, as well as the benefits such as free meals, clothing, etc. More than once, the idea of tying career/professional volunteering into a guaranteed annual income scheme was discussed. Working on changing the status of the professional volunteer in such a manner is something high on the agenda for a possible Phase II of the project.

    Volunteer-staff relationships
    Sometimes, staff is perceived to have little understanding about the experience of volunteers– "they think they know the volunteers but they don’t". Sometimes staff is perceived as acting like "do-gooders" – this happens, for example, when staff treats volunteers courteously but does not pay attention to volunteers’ experience and skills. Volunteers also feel a need to be backed up by staff, especially when problems occur with clients. When these problems are solved in a timely manner, it is a really good experience for the volunteer; when problems are not solved or brushed aside, volunteers feel mistreated and may ultimately quit. Staff needs to understand volunteers as individuals, individuals with strengths and with needs. Setting boundaries between staff and volunteers is recognized to be a difficult task for both parties involved. One reason is that volunteering is part of socializing for many volunteers but it generally is not for staff (and it is actively discouraged in some agencies). Another is that setting and maintaining boundaries itself is a lot of work, taking away time and energy from tasks that need doing. Some volunteers feel uncomfortable about some staff being "too professional" or see them as "building walls around themselves".

    Volunteer co-ordinators
    Volunteer co-ordinators are "hopelessly overworked". This is why the idea of assistant volunteer co-ordinators or "volunteer volunteer co-ordinators" came up. Someone in this role could train new people, make sure work is being done, and, in the process, develop leadership skills. There are, however, concerns about jealousy and power issues, for example when one volunteer is singled out as being higher in hierarchy to others (please see "actions" for more on this topic).

    Volunteering to work
    "Volunteering to work" (volunteering with the goal to make the volunteer more employable) is only one of the reasons why people in this area volunteer. However, as seen in the research section on volunteering, there are many other reasons. In a discussion about volunteering in the area, one cannot only talk about volunteering to work, one must talk about all types of volunteering that occur here. Because area residents are often marginalized, inclusiveness is very important. Too much categorizing is seen with suspicion, especially when the categorization is done by someone who is not part of the group that is to be categorized. Therefore, identifying who "volunteers to work" and who does not was difficult. It bears pointing out again, however, that when people are ready and willing to work because they have accumulated considerable skills and experience during volunteering, they do not always get introduced to employment opportunities by the agencies for which they volunteer.

    Volunteer appreciation
    While formal appreciation events are important to volunteers, these events need to be part of a larger, day-to-day effort of expressing appreciation of volunteer work. Otherwise, formal volunteer appreciation events such as dinners can be "boring, intrusive and embarrassing". "Formal appreciation dinners don’t do much for the volunteers to feel appreciated – it’s like ‘helping the poor at Christmas’". This might be one of those areas where volunteering in the DTES is different – in other areas of the city, volunteers may not even think of that comparison. A personal touch does wonders towards helping volunteers feel appreciated.

    Other items discussed in some detail were issues specific to the Downtown Eastside such as

    Another issue that came up was a calculation of the worth of volunteer work in the area: There are roughly 2,000 volunteers in the area. If each one of those volunteers works 4 hours a week, and their time is worth $7.15/hour (minimum wage at the time), the annual volunteer contribution in the area is close to $3 million. This is a conservative calculation for many reasons, for example because numerous volunteer jobs are the equivalent of much higher paying positions, and an amount twice as high – $6,000,000 – might be more accurate.

    Following suggestions by volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators, a number of actions were carried out. This is the "action" part of the participatory action research project. Please see the "process" section for the rationale for carrying out actions.

    Volunteer policies / manuals
    Two agencies put together volunteer policies and/or manuals. In both agencies, project volunteers authored the majority of the documents. In one agency, one project volunteer, after perusing a few manuals from other agencies in the area, wrote a draft, which was then presented to staff, board, and other volunteers for review. At another agency, volunteers and the volunteer co-ordinator had various meetings during which they created the document (see Appendix C).

    Volunteer representative
    The idea of having volunteer co-ordinators of volunteers as an action response, while discussed at some length, has not yet directly manifested (although one agency already has a person who assists the volunteer co-ordinator). However, at one agency, an already germinating idea to experiment with having a volunteer representative came to fruition. In many respects, this volunteer functions as an assistant to the co-ordinator. The functions of this representative are still under development; see Appendix D for more details. Please see Appendix F for a short discussion paper on volunteer volunteer co-ordinators.

    Skills inventory workshop
    At one agency, a skills inventory workshop ("Head, Hand and Heart", fashioned along the ideas of community organizer Robert McKnight) was held among volunteers. Volunteers were asked about "gifts of the head," or what they know most about; their "gifts of the hand," what skills they have; their "gifts of the heart," where their spirit, values, and commitments lie; and finally, how they might imagine contributing those gifts to their community. This was done at the suggestion of one of the volunteers, a suggestion that was emphatically welcome by the agency staff responsible for volunteer co-ordination, who had been wishing for workshops for volunteers for quite some time. Surprisingly, this workshop prompted a spontaneous commitment by some participants to share those skills they felt most competent in. The agency is presently engaged in setting up a schedule for the participants to do that in mini workshops.

    Job descriptions
    Two agencies designed job descriptions [what about community directions?]. At one agency, this was done by a long-time project volunteer who had done most of the volunteer jobs in the agency. These job descriptions are currently being circulated among the volunteers for their input. At another agency, a group of project volunteers who are currently engaged in a government-sponsored project that, among other things, requires skill development, were asked to develop job descriptions. They were helped with this by the volunteer from the first agency.

    At one agency, the volunteer co-ordinator and the Strategic Volunteering project co-ordinator worked together to find and fund short training programs for a small number of volunteers, in order to increase their employability. Another activity in this area was a survey of volunteer opportunities at 30 agencies in the area, which included asking agencies about training opportunities they offer for volunteers.

    Resume writing service
    At one agency, it turned out that there was a permanent volunteer with considerable experience and skills in resume writing. This volunteer, who became a project volunteer, now offers this skill to agency clients; also, efforts are under way to make a resume a volunteer benefit for all volunteers. In this connection, it is recognized that resumes not only are mandatory for job searches but also function as skills inventories (and self-esteem tools) for those volunteers who may not be able to work in the near future.

    Volunteer participation
    While volunteer participation will be discussed in more detail below, it should be noted that many of the activities in which project volunteers participated, can be seen as actions that advanced the cause of the project or tested some of the research findings. For example, one of the results of the volunteer interviews was that persons who are currently not volunteering would be motivated simply by being asked to volunteer. This is exactly what the strategic volunteering project did with its volunteers.

    Other actions
    Other activities included an article about volunteering in the Downtown Eastside written by a project volunteer and then publicized at a major City web site ("Volunteering in my neighbourhood", at, a logo designed by a project volunteer, and researching government volunteer incentives.

    Unanticipated consequences
    The project also had some unintended positive consequences. Through an event for the project, the host organization – the Skills Connection – made contact with a group of Chinese speaking volunteers. This resulted in a pre-employment workshop for these volunteers, which, among other things, resulted in a lengthy but successful process in locating an ESL volunteer for them. There is now also some collaboration between the Vancouver/Richmond Health Board and the Skills Connection in regard to volunteer issues, one of them being regular presentations of volunteer opportunities to participants at harm reduction workshops, carried out by a volunteer. As well, the Skills Connection’s own volunteer practices have improved considerably due to being involved in this process. Among other things, when staff at the Skills Connection were unable to attend a conference on revitalization of the area, they asked two project volunteers to attend, both of whom, four months later, are still actively involved in committees that resulted from this conference.

    Project volunteers participated in carrying out all the activities listed in the "actions" section. Where project volunteers needed training, we tried to arrange for training by project volunteers whenever possible. Project volunteers were involved with almost aspects of the project, from decision making to response analyses to report writing to evaluation. The only aspects in which they were not involved were project proposal writing, accounting, and other small administrative functions. Project volunteers spent some 400 hours on the project.

    This section has two parts: The content discussion makes meaning of the research findings and actions, and the process discussion evaluates the project process.

    Content Discussion
    Volunteer motivation
    What motivates persons on low income to volunteer? Clearly, the most frequent answer to this was straight forward: A desire to help. That this is tied in to volunteers’ self worth is very likely. Directly, this is shown by the high frequency of the theme of self esteem/self worth in the Round 1 interviews ("makes me feel good about myself"). Indirectly, the surprisingly high number of responses to the question "what would it take for you to volunteer?" that indicated that prospective volunteers would simply like to be asked to volunteer points into the same direction – they want to feel needed and worthy of contributing. When volunteers are concerned about feeling equal to staff, we are confronted with the same issue: that volunteers want to see evidence that they are seen as human beings, equal to anyone else in worth and value, regardless of their socio-economic status, education, ethnic background, or any such characteristics. A further corroborating fact is that volunteers are seeking ongoing validation much more than formal appreciation.

    In Round 1, two other important factors in terms of motivation were: to make a connection with the community at large, and to form personal relationships. This makes sense in light of the fact that the population in the area is relatively transient and that there is a very high percentage of single persons in the area. For many single persons, the community can become similar to a family. This community/family aspect of volunteering also came up with modest frequency when prospective volunteers were interviewed. In the advisory group discussions, the social aspect of volunteering was also mentioned.

    Taken together, the volunteer motivators of wanting to help, wanting to feel worthy, wanting to be part of the community and wanting to form relationships all point into one direction: the "people" or interactional aspect of volunteering is of tantamount importance, overshadowing by far all other reasons for volunteering.

    The topic of volunteer benefits is puzzling. When prospective volunteers were asked what it would take for them to volunteer in the future, volunteer benefits, and particularly material benefits such as clothing, food, etc. played a very prominent role. When asked, on two occasions, why they had volunteered in the past, only three persons mentioned volunteer benefits; altogether in Round 1, the topic only came up five times. To further complicate matters, volunteer benefits played a somewhat significant role in the advisory group discussions. This warrants further investigation.

    What keeps people from volunteering?
    The short answer to this is: not much. Among prospective volunteers, there were very few who expressed no desire or interest to volunteer in the future. When they did, they seemed to have been disappointed by previous volunteer jobs. The scope of this project did not allow us to investigate what these disappointments were; however, it is likely that at least some of the answers can be found in Round 1 volunteer responses that deal with current problems. Nevertheless, among current volunteers, there was no outright statement of a decision to stop volunteering because of these problems. In informal discussions with volunteers the writer has heard on occasion that a person would pull back from some of their volunteer activities for a while when problems became too much. It is possible that this pulling-back coincides with periods of volunteer burnout. Perhaps an alternative question that could be asked is: what would motivate even more people to volunteer? Please turn to the "recommendations" section for a discussion of this question.

    Volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators
    (This part of the discussion was prepared by a project volunteer.)

    "The plight of volunteers in the DTES is somewhat better than being stuck at home in a single room occupancy hotel with little outside contact. The working environment can be dirty, noisy, chaotic and disturbing emotionally, sometimes even physically unsafe. Volunteers with sensitivities to cigarettes or an aversion to strong smells learn to cope or choose to go elsewhere. People under stress raise their voices, both clients and volunteers.

    Volunteers are always aware of the life circumstances of clients, sometimes to a very stressing degree. The volunteers are the ones on the front lines, helping people pick up the pieces in their lives. The sense of community here in this neighbourhood is unusual. Clients remember volunteers long after they’ve moved on for being the friendly face on the day when everything else went wrong. And there are lots of things to go wrong for clients. SRO’s are frequently substandard, especially in terms of security. Clients have to fight with welfare, and sometimes have to fight to find out what the latest letter from the government means to them. Clients are often consumers of psychiatric care, and because of poverty, don’t get the kind of help they need in a crisis. It is often a volunteer at an agency that helps the client get to a phone to take the next step toward getting help dealing with the crisis. What’s really important is that often volunteers are clients of the agencies themselves, and move in and out of volunteering. Volunteers are then clients in the sense that they use the agency’s services offered to anyone (e.g. the use of musical instruments at Carnegie Centre) but also in the sense that there are special volunteer-client services at some of the agencies, e.g. a special volunteer kitchen at First United Church.

    Why do volunteers in the DTES endure such difficult working conditions? One poignant answer is poverty. They lose too much by leaving the agency. Free meals are usually a perk they cannot get along without and often they can see no other way of earning more food and managing their other life circumstances, e.g. single parenting or recovery from addictions. Also, for those who are isolated (the area has an unusually high percentage of single residents), clients and other volunteers become a substitute for family ties. Who do they turn to in times of conflict with other volunteers or staff? If they are lucky, there is a staff member available and able to help them. If they are unlucky, they may run afoul of another volunteer who is having a bad day and may end up leaving the agency that was supporting them, or, in extreme instances, be asked to leave because they were unable to contain their stress response.

    Volunteers in the DTES are more than willing to figure out ways to solve problems. One the one hand, their emotional investment in the agencies they work for makes them vulnerable to being exploited. On the other hand, this investment also makes their situation very hopeful, especially when they have opportunities to attend training and workshops to gain skills and create new relationships with other volunteers.

    Because of the special "family-like" atmosphere created by volunteers and agencies in the DTES, it may be unrealistic for volunteers who are recovering from addictions and from the poverty lifestyle in this neighbourhood to move into traditional employment in the corporate sector. At the same time, there are not many agencies with paid positions who will hire from within their volunteer pool, and not enough positions for every suitable candidate to be employed at an agency.

    Because of the intensity of need at agencies, volunteers are often overworked, and find themselves doing things they would never expect of themselves – good and bad: from yelling at someone to saving someone else’s life. Agencies are understaffed and may use any resource they can to get the job done. Hence volunteers suffer from exploitation at times, and this impacts on the position of those who are hired by agencies to support volunteers and keep the volunteer program running, the volunteer co-ordinators.

    The position of volunteer co-ordinators in the Downtown Eastside is untenable. Consider the following: at on agency, volunteer co-ordinators look after 700 volunteers. What might that look like if they were working in a personnel office? For example, a certain financial institution in the Lower Mainland has about 700 employees, too, and they have 9 ½ full-time employees in their Human Resource Department. Five of them are in the type of positions that tend to earn more than what the volunteer co-ordinators at Carnegie Centre do. It is true that Human Resource employees look after payroll and benefits, but what about the fact that each of those 700 employees has an immediate supervisor as well? It is also worth remembering that employees tend to need and expect less encouragement than do the least needy of volunteers. So, at the agencies in the DTES we have a situation where underpaid volunteer co-ordinators are looking after more volunteers, and more needy volunteers than could be reasonably expected. Human Resource employees are widely known to have heavy workloads. The extreme degree to which volunteer co-ordinators are overworked is highlighted by the contrasts between one of the agencies and a financial institution with the same size work force.

    Several individuals have observed that "volunteer co-ordinators seem hopelessly overworked" and, "sometimes there’s nobody there to give out bus tickets or [other benefits]", also "a volunteer co-ordinator’s job is crazy – volunteers could follow her around to see for themselves."

    Volunteers are often aware of the difficulties faced by volunteer co-ordinators, as shown by their responses to the question dealing with their perception of volunteer co-odinator’s situations. The problems inherent in volunteer co-ordinators’ positions generate crisis management, not a "prevention" style of work, as was discussed at more than one of the advisory group meetings, for example:

  • In connection with an employee of one of the agencies being overworked as a volunteer co-ordinator, we discussed again how important it is for volunteer co-ordinators to be pro-active, and how difficult it is to switch from being a crisis-manager type co-ordinator to being a prevention type co-ordinator.

  • This switching task is all the more difficult when the real problem is a severe lack of resources, and a lack of awareness of what are realistic expectations for volunteer co-ordinators."

    Comparison of Round 1 volunteer and volunteer co-ordinator responses
    One of the questions that this part of the project wanted to address was how much volunteers and staff/volunteer co-ordinators were in agreement on various issues, including how importantly volunteers or volunteer co-ordinators rated certain issues. The theory can be advanced that the degree to which this question is answered positively is an indicator of how well volunteer programs area faring. Are the same things important to volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators? If the same things are important, do the two parties have similar or different points of view? In general, it seems that there is some, but not much, overlap. This is emphasized by the observation of one participant who was highly involved in both the interviews and the focus groups, and who felt as if the volunteer co-ordinators and the volunteers of one agency were in fact talking about two different agencies.

    The special circumstances of the area were very important to both volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators. The difficulty of dealing with agency clients who are angry, intoxicated or otherwise challenging, was an important topic, as were the life circumstances generated by poverty (especially housing problems) and alcohol and drug use. The first topic (dealing with difficult clients) was discussed most frequently by volunteers, whereas the latter was mentioned more by volunteer co-ordinators. Thus, it appears that volunteers were discussing the symptoms of the underlying causes that were discussed by volunteer co-ordinators. The reason for this is probably not that volunteers were too unsophisticated to look at underlying causes. Rather, it is possible that it is easier for a person such as a staff member at an agency who is not so strongly affected by these underlying causes to name them, perhaps in an almost philosophical manner. The symptoms, on the other hand, are starker, more visible and more real for those who are affected daily and unrelentlessly by these underlying causes.

    Another theme that was very prominent for both volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators was volunteer appreciation. However, their views were quite different. Volunteer co-ordinators discussed formal volunteer appreciation (dinners, outings, etc.) at some length. However, that was a topic that was not once mentioned by volunteers. When volunteers felt appreciated, they mostly mentioned day-to-day feedback on their work, as well as "feeling like a staff member." They also often expressed not feeling appreciated, for example that their experience was not being taken seriously by staff.

    Volunteer support by staff was a very important topic for volunteer co-ordinators. It was not mentioned very frequently by volunteers. However, at times it emerged, especially in the question "Do you feel part of the organization, and how?"

    For volunteers, volunteer/agency problems were a very big issue. For example, if an agency has a policy that does not explicitly give preference to hiring people from the area or from the volunteer pool, volunteers saw that as problematic. Staff turnover and other agency changes were also seen as challenges. Volunteer co-ordinators did not mention this topic at all.

    Learning something new, both as a positive and challenging experience (e.g. communications skills) was discussed quite frequently by volunteers. Volunteer co-ordinators did not discuss it as such; however, a related topic - training - seemed very important to them.

    The observation that there is not much overlap between the responses of volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators raises a number of questions, for example: Why is there such a gap? Is this gap just something unusual we happened to find, or is it a snapshot of a true gap that exists between volunteers and staff? Or is it possible that at least in some of the situations, the gap just represents two views of a complex phenomenon?

    For example, it indeed seems startling that formal volunteer appreciation was very important for volunteer co-ordinators but volunteers did not mention it at all. Further discussion with project volunteers revealed that formal volunteer appreciation may indeed be important but that volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators think of it in different ways. A likely scenario is that for volunteers, day-to-day, on-the-spot appreciation and recognition is most important. That includes a feeling that they have a voice and are taken seriously. When volunteers feel - realistically or unrealistically - that this type of appreciation and recognition is not occurring throughout the year, they may see formal volunteer appreciation as something superficial or artificial. However, the high attendance at formal volunteer appreciation events indicates that volunteers must see some kind of value in it – perhaps the food, and the opportunity to socialize with fellow volunteers and staff in a non-work setting. This view was put forth by project volunteers.

    Finally, we could raise the question whether volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators understand and appreciate each others’ roles, and how that affects the climate of volunteering in general. There was some sense that volunteers do not understand the responsibilities of paid staff. For example, one volunteer stated that paid staff has no problems, precisely because they get paid. On the other hand, staff may not fully comprehend that volunteers sometimes feel exploited as an unpaid work force.

    Better understanding of each others’ roles could go a long way towards empowering volunteers and improving volunteer programs. At times and at some level, volunteers and paid staff probably see in each other representatives of their respective social status: volunteers are perceived as poor, young and/or underprivileged, staff are perceived as much more comfortable financially, more mature and/or having more options in their lives. Understanding each other better could be a step towards volunteers’ improving their situation and towards staff increasing the comprehension of clients’ life circumstances which is so important to their position.

    Process Discussion

    Advisory group
    The advisory group gave guidance right from the beginning. There was a small "core" group that that was part of the project throughout. Other project volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators joined and left the group. We took great care to provide a friendly, welcoming, "kitchen-table" atmosphere at the meetings, which resulted in good teamwork. One of the project co-ordination team members donated food for all meetings. Dissention and a broad range of opinions were welcome at all times. The group met once or twice a month. It was very cohesive and decisions were made quickly and easily, without foregoing in-depth discussion where necessary. Decision making and follow-up was helped significantly by using agendae and minutes as action-driving tools (see example, Appendix E).

    Attracting more and a more diverse group of working group participants group would have increased the "participation" part of the project. This is one of the core learnings. One difficulty was to get project volunteers interested, and then to get them to participate. During all contact with volunteers (e.g. at focus groups), volunteers were invited to take part in the process. That very few of them took us up on the offer could be a sign of actual disinterest, of a feeling of helplessness ("what’s the use, we won’t change anything anyway"), or of volunteers being too involved with other activities (all of these attitudes were present in the responses to interviews and focus groups). To some degree, however, it could also be a sign of the invitation not being framed in the most attractive way. At one volunteers’ suggestion, we started to pay volunteers to participate in meetings; this contributed to one more volunteer participating for a few meetings.

    We tried our best to make volunteer opportunities through the project (whether they were related to participating in the advisory group or not) a meaningful experience for project volunteers, at least in the sense that they would be able to put the volunteer experience onto their resumes (it went further than that for some participants – please see "participation"). In the course of doing the project, one of the things we became very sensitive towards was volunteer burnout. There were a number of persons who could have been very useful to the project as project volunteers; however, after understanding their situation, we stepped back from asking them to participate because we did not wish to contribute to burnout. Similarly, it was important for us to treat volunteers and project volunteers respectfully and supportively at all times. Sometimes, these sentiments stood in our way. Had we been more forward and forceful in recruiting volunteers, we would have been able to extend the opportunities to the 50 volunteers initially planned. We also might have had more participants in the advisory group. However, it was important to treat volunteers according to our own ethics and according to how they kept telling us - directly or indirectly - how they wished to be treated. Also, it is difficult to tell whether, had we recruited more project volunteers to the advisory group, and perhaps with a little less regard to their interests, we would have had such a well-functioning group. The harmony and effectiveness of that small group was perhaps one of the biggest successes of the project.

    It was also difficult to get volunteer co-ordinators to participate in the advisory group. First, volunteer co-ordinators are extremely busy, and it was difficult for them to attend meetings. Second, throughout the project, project participants had the impression that volunteer co-ordinators felt the idea of working on this project – and especially working on it within the structure of a participatory action research project – was unusual. Next time, we would have to put even more patience and persistence into bringing volunteer co-ordinators on line. (See also the section on volunteer co-ordinators in the "research" section).

    Participation – general
    The lack of interest in participation has been observed by other groups (e.g. Community Directions). Making direct participation in such endeavours attractive and worthwhile will be an ongoing challenge for any community group. One approach would be to put much more energy, effort, time and money into recruiting, and to make that part of any plans and budgets. It might even be helpful to borrow techniques used in customer service/sales to boost recruiting (e.g. to follow up with each and every person who expresses interest for at least five times before giving up).

    Another learning is that there are pitfalls to doing action research that is authentically participative when the project is not initiated by the stakeholders. There is an inherent tension when persons who do not directly own the issue start a community project, and then "invite" stakeholders into something that belonged to the stakeholders in the first place. Ideally, stakeholders would have approached us with a request to co-ordinate the project. On the other hand, stakeholders are sometimes too close to a problematic issue to see the need to research it, and there are strong indications that this was the case here. However, if we do move on to a second stage – which is something volunteers have expressed interest in – we will insist on stakeholders being the driving force.

    A learning which ties into all the previous ones, is that true participatory action research takes time, especially for a project of such magnitude as this. Community momentum does not do well on a time line. This is particularly true in a community that is under such high pressure as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Strathcona areas. As mentioned in the report, residents and the community as a whole are beleaguered by poverty, disability, drug use, isolation (to name but a few), as well as tension between different community groups, such as those advocating harm reduction on the one hand and merchants’ associations on the other. The slow pace of the task of participatory action research must be acknowledged. Setting small and obtainable goals, being grateful for those few instances where larger goals can be obtained, and carefully documenting and disseminating results are realistic aims for this task. In response to the last aim, the working group has already scheduled a meeting past the end of the project to ensure the most extensive dissemination possible.

    How can people become more involved in community work? This was one of the questions to be answered for the project funder. If "people" are area residents and "community work" means volunteering, then one of the answers to this question is that many people are already volunteering. When project volunteers interviewed persons who were not presently volunteering, they commented on how difficult it was to find people who were not volunteering, and especially those who had never volunteered. Another answer is provided in the findings regarding volunteer motivation and the like. Finally, if "people" refers to anyone involved in the area and "community work" to community involvement to the point of trying to influence agency or community decisions, then our findings regarding participation are applicable.

    It was difficult, almost impossible, to interest more agencies. The whole idea of the project may have appeared too unusual for them. It is possible that they truly were not interested in improving their volunteer efforts – some may already have an outstanding volunteer program – but we did not even get to the stage where we could have thoroughly explained our project. In the future, if we want to get more agencies on board, we would have to plan quite thoroughly and creatively for ways to interest other agencies.

    In terms of doing the research part, the more informal the information gathering was, and the more of a personal connection there was between interviewee and interviewer, the easier it was to gather information. We had planned to do six focus groups. Despite our best efforts, only four were carried out, only two could be called a 100% success in terms of information gathering, and these two were strenuous because of the mistrust on the part of participants. We then switched to one-on-one interviews. When these interviews were carried out in situations where extraordinary amounts of time and effort could be put into establishing rapport with interviewees, information gathering was very fruitful. This happened, for example, when interviews were carried out by a practicum student, whose express task, among only a few others, was to socialize with volunteers. When these situations were not present, information gathering was not so fruitful, and was sometimes also a stressful enterprise. This, again, addresses the time factor of action research, especially in a community such as ours that lives under tremendous pressure and which has learned to be suspicious of anything that looks even faintly "official". Also, the suspicion increases when this perceived officialdom is coupled with asking questions, with extracting information from those who often perceive themselves as powerless by those who are perceived as powerful. Participatory action research provides opportunities for equalizing at least some of the tension between the powerless (interviewees) and the powerful (interviewers), among other things, by having persons from the same social circumstances design and ask questions, and by making the resultant information available to interviews. This notwithstanding, assuaging suspicions and fears takes time, commitment and caring. We would plan for more time and more tasks like the practicum students’ if we undertook a similar project.

    In terms of finding out about what does and what does not work for volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators, one of the success stories was the intensive involvement of volunteers in the interviews and focus groups. The vast majority of them were held exclusively by or in collaboration with volunteers. Often, volunteers also trained other volunteers in doing interviews and focus groups. Thus, volunteers learned skills and, perhaps more importantly, were acknowledged for valuable contributions (see the "discussion" section regarding volunteer motivators for the importance of this). What also worked was to make personal connections with volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators, and from there on to discuss possible changes.

    Experimenting with changes ("actions") was satisfying for everyone involved, and, apart from scheduling difficulties associated, to a large degree, with volunteer co-ordinators’ heavy workloads, went smoothly. (See "actions" in the report for a list of the experiments). The biggest challenge might have been to get volunteer co-ordinators’ attention long enough to convince them that changes for the better could indeed happen. This is a situation where the above-mentioned customer service/sales technique of patient, considerate persistence paid off.

    However, the experiments were small and much more work needs to be done to solidify and expand them. Our initial plan of doing numerous small experiments, reflecting on them, turning them into larger experiments and then reflecting on them was too ambitious. Again, this is where we ran into the "time factor". Also, we had neither the authority nor the inclination to press agencies into action or to impose deadlines on these actions. This challenge might have been lessened had we a) known that we had to pay more attention to that factor and b) had the time to "sell" the project to the participating agencies right from the beginning.

    We were able to establish unplanned connections with two more agencies (Community Directions and the Vancouver/Richmond Health Board). Once more, the reason why these connections were made was because of personal networking with key personnel. In fact, one of them was a former project volunteer. The project also had a very positive, albeit unintended, impact on the Skills Connection’s volunteer force. For example, through reflecting on one of the mission statements goals, the Skills Connection was able to help one project volunteer significantly in furthering her career goals. Among other things, she was involved in writing the research report for this project. Thus, we learned that hosting such a project can impel an agency to improve its own work in the area.

    Mission statement design and evaluation
    The mission statement was designed by the advisory group at the beginning of the project. At the end of the project, the advisory group evaluated to which degree each item of the mission statement had been met. Both processes were done using a creative planning approach (see For purposes of brevity, we will mention here only those parts of that evaluation that have not yet been touched upon in this section. What follows are questions that were posed in regard to specific items in the mission statement, followed by quotes, or paraphrased quotes, in response to these questions.

    Did we help bring out volunteers' skills and talents? This is happening for some. At other agencies, not all staff members are committed to it. Also, "when a job needs to be done, it needs to be done, no matter whether the perfect person for it is there or not."

    Did we help volunteers move closer to their vision? Some project volunteers feel more focused and understand volunteering better – but this understanding is also more depressing. It was good to see that volunteering can be a different experience for everyone. Project volunteers feel good about recommending volunteering to others to move closer to their vision.

    Did we help make volunteering more successful and satisfying for volunteers and agencies? How? Mostly - "yes". It was partially achieved - a success given how large of an undertaking this is. Volunteering in the DTES/Strathcona area is difficult but seeing others struggle with similar problems lessens the stress.

    Do we better understand the uniqueness of volunteering in the DTES and Strathcona? Information was gathered by a group of people truly dedicated to the "cause" of the project who asked the right questions. "Information gathered. – Reports written and shared where there would only have been Deafening SILENCE!" There were numerous commonalities among people concerned with volunteering in the area, e.g. volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators emphasized the impact of drug use and poverty - but there is much more to be discovered.

    Did we discover what works and what doesn’t work for volunteers? And Volunteer Organizations? It was easier to find out what does not work. There is often a lot of turnover in volunteer co-ordinators, which makes it difficult to build personal relationships. Agencies often keep doing the same things even if they do not work. Volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators are "in denial" about how to truly co-operate. The issues involved were very complicated but the project had made a "big inroad into a totally new territory".

    Did we explore the possibilities for long range work for volunteers in the DTES and Strathcona? There are possibilities but the limitations that some people have to work with (e.g. disability, poverty, lack of skills) make some goals seem unattainable. Perhaps now some volunteers, who can work, have a future open for new possibilities. That the project itself provided casual work opportunities for some volunteers was also seen as a success.

    Did we open up communication between organizations in the area? How?

    "Organizations resisted sharing information but they were learning about themselves." "Long-term vision and growth is low on the to-do list."

    Did we raise volunteering to a higher standard of prestige? "We made a first step in discussing the possibilities of professional volunteering. This is a huge task but at least we pointed at the tip of the iceberg." There was a strong sense that the project worked towards that, "but did anyone care?" This sense was strengthened by project volunteers’ feeling of powerlessness and pessimism that anyone – especially governments – would want volunteers to have more prestige.

    Was this project as participatory as possible? The project did a good job but the community was tired of "yet another government research project". Compared to other participatory action research projects, this project had a high amount of participation.


    The following recommendations are in order of frequency of occurrence of the various themes throughout this report.

    Learning and training
    The most outstanding issue, by far, is the topic of learning and training. Learning is an important aspect of the volunteer experience for volunteers; better-trained volunteers are happier and prove more valuable to agencies. This topic spans a variety of approaches: informal, "private" learning on a day-to-day basis as the volunteer performs her work; formal and on-the-job-training; informal workshops such as Hands, Head and Heart; more formal workshops such as the "59 Minutes" special First Aid training for the Downtown Eastside; official training sessions in First Aid, Food Safe and the like; and paying for outside training for individual volunteers.

    How can this be accomplished? Of course, this costs money. What if there is no money? Staff, outside volunteers (to be found, for example, through an agency such as Volunteer Vancouver), outside agencies and, last but definitely not least, volunteer themselves, are always a possible resource for workshops and training. Inter-agency networking might be helpful here, too. For example, volunteers could piggyback on training sessions in other agencies (for staff or volunteers) that are not completely full (e.g. an agency might contract an outside agency for First Aid training. If this agency plans for 15 attendants but only 12 staff members are signed up, the other three spots could be filled by volunteers). Agencies could work together to cost-effectively put together workshops.

    Staff-volunteer problems
    While staff-volunteer problems might not be recognized as a problem by many staff members, it certainly was a topic that was mentioned over and over by volunteers. Agencies need to work on preventing, recognizing and solving these problems. Doing this would result in higher volunteer satisfaction and retention and greater volunteer effectiveness. Specific problems that need to be addressed are communication problems such as simple misunderstandings; for staff to truly – not only superficially – understand the life circumstances and backgrounds of volunteers in the area; for staff to explain and volunteers to understand the difficult conditions under which staff work; for staff to monitor volunteer exploitation and burnout and to teach volunteers how to monitor and prevent it themselves; and, most importantly, for staff to truly treat volunteers as equals (if not as equals in skills and abilities, then still equals in their humanity).

    Support by volunteer co-ordinators
    This is something that was expressed often by volunteer co-ordinators; and, indirectly by volunteers. To some degree, the comments, above, about staff-volunteer problems apply to the relationship between volunteer co-ordinators and volunteers, as well (although there are some volunteer co-ordinators who have exceptionally good relationships with volunteers). Specifically, volunteer co-ordinators need to find and spend the time for one-on-one interactions with volunteers and listen to and solve problems in a timely manner. Creating a "family atmosphere" within the agency for the volunteers is very helpful. Setting boundaries is very important; equally important is how they are set: if the boundaries become walls of "professional conduct", they will only serve to alienate volunteers. Volunteer co-ordinators need to listen very closely to volunteers, and not operate on what they think they know about volunteers.

    Volunteer co-ordinators’ work load
    Volunteer co-ordinators have an extraordinarily high workload. Because of that, realistically, most volunteer co-ordinators will not be able to follow all – or even some – of the recommendations in here. What needs to be done? First of all, there needs to be recognition that volunteer co-ordinators in the area are much more than traffic police directing volunteers to jobs. Volunteer co-ordinators are program co-ordinators, trainers, counsellors, supervisors and administrators all in one. The people that volunteer co-ordinators supervise are the very people that make a vast portion of the programs in the area possible. These volunteers are an extremely valuable resource.

    Some agencies that draw heavily on volunteers do not even have official volunteer co-ordinators. Therefore, our recommendations are that every agency that draws on more than five volunteers on a regular basis should have at least a part-time volunteer co-ordinator; that volunteer co-ordinators train and/or recruit assistant co-ordinators whenever they can; that there be an adequate ratio between volunteer co-ordinators

    and volunteers; that agencies look upon volunteer-co-ordinators as personnel supervisors or department heads; and that volunteer co-ordinators, precisely because they are so overworked, be given the time to act preventively and strategically and not be forced to continually work in a crisis-response fashion.

    Volunteer appreciation
    Volunteers need to be appreciated on an ongoing, informal basis. Formal volunteer recognition is good and volunteers like it but it is in no way a substitute for day-by-day, task-by-task recognition of the valuable work performed by volunteers. Many volunteers in the area have low self-esteem and it is precisely in volunteer positions where they can raise it. What needs to be done is as little as watching out for work well done, for good team work, for a great attitude, and then commenting on it. When staff sees that volunteers are interested and ready to move on to more responsible work, they need to make this possible wherever they can. When they feel that volunteers might be able to represent them at an outside event, they should give them that opportunity.

    Helping and being asked to help
    Helping others was clearly one of the most important motivators for volunteers. It is important that this element be stressed when working on recruitment, appreciation and increasing volunteer effectiveness. Asking persons to help through volunteering, when it is done respectfully and in the spirit of recognizing volunteers’ strengths, is a sign of trust in the prospective volunteer. On the other hand, giving the impression that someone "might as well volunteer because she’s got nothing else to do" has a detrimental effect.

    Volunteer to work
    In this area, there are many who volunteer in the hopes of eventually finding
    employment. It is important that volunteers be told up front whether or not volunteering might lead to employment, in order to prevent later disappointment. Agencies need to think about whether and how they want to invite volunteers to apply for jobs. When persons have volunteered for a long time for an agency, whether or not that agency has a policy of inviting volunteers to become part of their staff, they have a right to an explanation for why they may not be chosen for a job for which they objectively are qualified. Unemployed volunteers who wish to work for pay and who have volunteered for a long time for the same agency should be able to count on some support on the part of that agency to find employment.

    There are approximately 2,000 volunteers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. They are dedicated to their jobs and their community. It is vital that regardless of education, social status or other circumstances, they not be treated as second class citizens. They enjoy the relationships they form with other volunteers, agency clients, and staff members. They are eager to learn and many hope that eventually, volunteering might help them escape the deep poverty they are experiencing. Volunteer co-ordinators are severely overworked and the importance of their contribution in overseeing a work force of the equivalence of about $3 - $6 million Cdn each year does not seem to be adequately appreciated. More training for volunteers, improving staff-volunteer relationships and lending more support to volunteer co-ordinators are some of the key recommendations of this report. That at least some of our recommendations are feasible has been shown in the activities carried out in this project, for example, by having assistant volunteer co-ordinators, or by having small workshops, both of which activities were carried out almost cost-free.

    Protocol for analyzing content:

    1    Collate all responses
    2    Question-by-question analysis:
            3      Divide every block of response into sentences and make each sentence a 
                    bullet point
            4      Analyze every point (i.e. every bulleted item) for one theme it conveys and list
                    the point under the heading of that theme (e.g. "I guess I never really feel
                    heard" – theme: "No voice"). See 7., below, if there is more than one theme. If
                    possible, use the themes on the attached sheet; however, the material may
                    make it necessary to create more themes.
    5    If themes are similar, amalgamate them into one theme and list all the relevant points under that theme (e.g. items related to time pressure and burnout were amalgamated into the theme "stress"
    6    If after going through a question, some themes only have a single entry, there are two choices:

    7    Go over all the points AGAIN, listing them under more themes if necessary ("everything is too fast for me and the senior volunteer never listens to me" would go under "Stress" and "No voice")

    8    Order the themes by number of occurrences


    Strategic Volunteering

    Interview Questions for Volunteer Co-ordinators

    1. What is the structure of your volunteer program (e.g. how many volunteers do you have, do you have people to help you with co-ordination, etc.)?

    2. How do you help volunteers to be and feel a part of the organization? Perhaps you could give some examples.

    3. Do you know about your volunteers’ general goals, hopes and expectations?

    4. How do you help volunteers meet their general goals, hopes and expectations?

    5. How do you help volunteers work towards their training and career goals?

    6. How challenging do you find it to give volunteers accurate job descriptions?

    7. Do you give volunteers perks (bus tickets, food, etc.)?

    8. Are there any problems, for example, in obtaining perks or in giving them out?

    9. What are the most valuable contributions your volunteers make to your organization?

    10. What are the biggest challenges in your volunteer program from your point of view (not the volunteers’ point of view)?

    11. From what you know about volunteers, what do you think are their biggest challenges in your volunteer program?

    12. What are the changes you would make to your volunteer program if you had the time, people or money to do it?

    13. How do you see volunteering in the Downtown Eastside or Strathcona different from volunteering in other areas of the city?

    14. How do you think our project could help you?

    15. Is there anything else you would like to address?

    Example of a consensus process to draft a volunteer policy

    Core Volunteer Mobilization Group

    Attached is the final draft of the volunteer policy that the Community Directions volunteers produced together. In February 2001, the volunteers themselves asked for a policy because some felt that clear guidelines needed to be in place regarding who could volunteer, for how long, etc.

    The volunteer co-ordinator gathered together some sample volunteer manuals from the Carnegie Centre and the DE Women’s Centre, research information that the Strategic Volunteering Project had amassed and flip charts from the first Community Directions volunteer orientation (September 2000) where the volunteers had brainstormed rights and expectations.

    At the March 16th volunteer meeting, the core group looked over the manuals and information. Flip charts were used again to brainstorm ideas and suggestions. A volunteer collated and typed up the results in the first draft.

    At the April 16th meeting the core group went through the first draft and discussions contentious issues until consensus was almost reached. The volunteers were asked to schedule private interviews with the volunteer co-ordinator to discuss any further issues concerning policy. Community Directions staff was also shown the first draft and offered suggestions.

    With the results of all these consultations included, the second draft was presented at the volunteer meeting on May 18th which was "the last chance to make changes". A few minor corrections were made and then the second draft became the final draft.

    (written by Steven Breeze, Volunteer Representative)

    In many organizations there are Staff (Paid workers) and Volunteers (Unpaid Workers).

    In an idealistic world both are on the same level, both equal. However, sadly this is not always

    the case. In many places volunteers feel they are not appreciated. They have no voice. They are looked down upon by the paid workers with whom they work side by side as if they are nothing more than free slave labor.

    It is a fact that in a lot of places volunteers do the same work load that paid workers do but they are not financially rewarded for their hard work. They should not be treated any less than others simply because they volunteer their time and skills.

    There are a variety of organizations that could not offer the services they do to the public were it not for the tireless efforts of dedicated volunteers. Such places as Soup lines or free clothing and showers. These services would be non-existent were it not for those very volunteers. People to whom giving of their time and skills is more important than whatever they might get in return.

    Where I volunteer like in so many places, there is a vast gulf between Staff and Volunteers. Volunteers who felt they were not being heard and staff who felt ignored by the volunteers. Whenever there was disagreement or a problem between the two the volunteers felt they would not be given a full and honest recourse by people in charge. I felt that it was time that a bridge between the two was long overdue. I then shared my concerns with my supervisor where I volunteer. It was then I recommended that a new position be created. The position of a Volunteer Representative. It is not the same as a Union rep who strikes when a road block occurs. Our Volunteer Representative would find a way under, over, around or through the blockade to restore the peace between both groups. The representative would be a person that the volunteers could speak with confidentially when they were having a problem with staff.

    They would have someone who would give their concerns a fair hearing.

    The only thing that was left to do was to decide who would be this Volunteer Representative and how would that person be chosen? It was decided that since this representative was going to be acting on behalf of the volunteers that it would be they who would nominate and vote on this matter. The decision was made that all the volunteers would be given the chance to cast their vote for those that had been nominated.

    It took over a week to get all the votes since not everyone works at the same time. The votes were then tabulated by the volunteer coordinator and one volunteer would be present as an overseer to make sure that the vote counting was kept honest. The person who had been chosen would then be notified of their new position. The vote was taken in a secret ballot just like a real election. It was a tremendous confidence booster for many of the volunteers as they now felt that their needs and concerns were being taken seriously and the organization was also in favor of having a Representative that not only spoke on behalf of the volunteers but also the staff in relation to the volunteers. The gulf that once existed has been bridged and a new future embraced.

    The volunteer representative program is still in development. The tasks are evolving daily as the newly created position is being fleshed out. Since this is such a new ground breaking area for a volunteer organization such as ours, there is continuos on going consultation between the volunteer representative and both the volunteer coordinator and service supervisor. This allows for the best environment that benefits all and ensures equality between staff and volunteers. We are after all a team, and the best service we can give to others is to work in harmony with one another. The people we help come first!

    APPENDIX E – Example of agenda and minutes

    For the working group meeting of the Strategic Volunteering Project
    Tuesday, March 13, 2001, 2:00-4:00
    Resource Centre at the Strathcona Community Centre
    601 Keefer Street, 713-4464

    1. Old business - dissemination news

    2. Action(s) to be taken: ________________________________________


      By whom: __________________________________________________

    3. Christiane's paper. What could we do with it? Should we give it to Val from VRHB for her public involvement web site? Should we use it as "entry point" for contacting Volunteer Vancouver?

    4. Action(s) to be taken: ________________________________________


      By whom: __________________________________________________

    5. Isabella's report:

    1. Talk with Linda from United Church

    1. Talks with a few volunteers at Crabtree. Feedback regarding changes:

    Please let Isabella know if you want more detail on a. and/or b.

  • How does this new info impact what we're doing/planning?

  • Action(s) to be taken: ________________________________________


    By whom: __________________________________________________


    1. Other items .... ?

    2. Next meeting time and place

    Of a meeting of the working group of the Strategic Volunteering Project
    On April 25, 2001 at the Strathcona Parents Resource Centre
    Present: Christiane, Haedy, Isabella, and Susan

    1. Review of mission statement

    2. Volunteer Careers

    3. Isabella’s report from Carnegie Centre meeting

    4. Dissemination

    5. Next meeting is Wednesday, May 16th at 1:00 pm.

    Some thoughts on Assistant / Volunteer Volunteer Co-ordinators

    1. Assistant co-ordinators could "grow naturally and gradually" out of existing volunteer pool

    2. Analyze volunteer co-ordinator's job to determine how assistant could help

    3. Purpose of assistant:

    4. Problems:

    5. Example of organizations in the Lower Mainland who are using volunteer/assistant volunteer   co-coordinators:

    AIDS Vancouver, Boys' and Girls' Club, Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Society, Gordon Neighbourhood House, Greater Vancouver Crime Stoppers Association, Habitat for Humanity, Kiwassa Neighbourhood House

    So this is not a new idea!

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