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Volunteers drive health authorities' Green+Leaders program

Image of Lower Mainland Health Authorities' Green+Leaders representatives
Kim Steger, left, and Cheryl Lewis are Green+ Leaders who play a pivotal role in Workplace Conservation Awareness.

Volunteer Management Cycle vital to attracting, maintaining volunteers

You've heard it before: volunteer rates are on the decline. People are too busy and today's generation is uninterested. Employees are detached and disengaged from their employers.

As the person responsible for your organization's workplace conservation awareness program, you may be experiencing some or all of the issues outlined above.

In this overscheduled era, asking for unpaid help has never been harder. Yet one of the pillars of a successful workplace conservation awareness program is assembling a diverse group of volunteers, including representatives from senior management, to help you implement your program.

"It's not easy to manage a team of volunteers," says Heather Scholefield, BC Hydro's Workplace Conservation Awareness Program manager. "I was responsible for BC Hydro's Green Teams for five years and I learned firsthand how challenging it can be to attract and retain volunteers even if your program is organized and well managed. Our Green Teams achieve great results, but a lot of the volunteers burn out."

"That's what makes the Lower Mainland Health Authorities' Green+Leaders program so exceptional," continues Scholefield. "The health authorities have created and sustained a multi-site, multi-region program rooted in volunteerism."

Volunteer retention is one of the program's most notable successes

First piloted with 17 volunteers in the Provincial Health Services Authority in 2009, the Green+Leaders program rolled out a short time later to three other Lower Mainland Health Organizations: Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health and the Providence Health Care. Today, the program has 215 active volunteers and a full-time program coordinator tasked with managing volunteers and overseeing the evolution of the program. The program continues to grow each year, with two thirds of the 300 plus participants continuing to be involved in the program. Reasons for exiting the program primarily involve workplace changes.

"We knew early on that volunteer retention was critical to the long-term success of a program like Green+Leaders," explains Ruth Abramson, Corporate Manager, Sustainability, at the Lower Mainland Health Authorities. "That's why we adopted the eight-step Volunteer Management Cycle. The cycle was created by Brenda Sawada, a colleague when I worked at the UBC Sustainability Office."

The Volunteer Management Cycle outlines principles that are important to attracting and retaining good volunteers. "It's a very useful tool when it comes to workplace conservation awareness (WCA)," says Abramson. "Best of all, the principles can be adopted in a number of ways." For instance, recognition of Green Champions can be a lunch with volunteers and senior managers. Or, it can be as simple as writing a thank you note to Green Champions for a job well done.

"Volunteer retention and relationships are the program's most notable successes," says program coordinator, Olive Dempsey. "But it's important to mention that some of our volunteers do face challenges."

Dempsey, who is completing her graduate degree at Royal Roads University, has spent the last 18 months delving into the unspoken, and often hidden, challenges of volunteers who work in the field as Green+Leaders.

During the course of her research, Dempsey observed that Sawada's Volunteer Management Cycle can help volunteers feel safe, supported and full of purpose. But when the volunteers are implementing program campaigns in their day workplaces, emotional complications can arise.

For example, Dempsey notes that Green+Leaders may have concerns about being perceived as pushy or overbearing. Or they may feel guilty because with every action — such as driving to work rather than cycling or taking public transit — they too impact the environment. Identifying and helping volunteers cope with these challenges is just one of the ways Dempsey and Abramson intend on improving upon the program in the years to come.

Having just completed her research, Dempsey will provide formal recommendations for the Green+Leaders program in the next phase of her work. However, one thing is clear: the Volunteer Management Cycle has played a big part in the success of the Green+Leaders program.