By Sara Wood, Vice President, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
Many organizations and businesses depend on volunteers to support different programs and initiatives. But it’s getting harder to find people willing to come forward to help, especially since the pandemic.
Recent Statistics Canada data shows most non-profit organizations, for example, are facing challenges attracting and keeping volunteers – and that volunteers themselves have less time to give and are dealing with more burnout.
Farm, agricultural and rural organizations are dealing with this issue too, although the shrinking number of farms combined with the increasing average age of farmers made it a problem for this sector long before the pandemic.
I farm with my family near Mitchell in southwestern Ontario, and I’m also a Vice President with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), as well as an executive member of the Agricultural Adaptation Council board of directors. Combined with a young child at home, I’m no stranger to juggling the many demands on my time.
Farm organizations like the OFA rely on volunteers to serve on their boards and become involved with local and regional associations, and we wanted to hear from some of our younger members about what we can do better to attract new people to our ranks.
That’s why we organized a panel discussion at our recent annual convention and invited newer and younger members from across Ontario to share their perspectives on what makes them decide to become involved – and stay – with a volunteer organization.
It was one of the liveliest and most engaged sessions at our two-day conference, which clearly demonstrates to me how important this topic is in the agriculture industry – and the learnings from that day can easily be applied to not-for-profit organizations from any sector.
Here are some of those key takeaways:
Be open to trying new things as an organization. It quickly becomes discouraging for new volunteers when they hear “no” every time they offer up a new idea, and their interest in being involved will diminish rapidly. Not every new idea will be a success, but you won’t know unless you give it a try. And even if something didn’t work well the last time it was tried – 10 or 15 years ago – it could be worth trying again. As we all know only all to well, our world has changed in the last few years.
Have flexible meeting and communications options. Many young farmers today also have off-farm jobs, so they must coordinate their volunteer commitments around their work hours. Others have young children, so offering hybrid meeting options is helpful so they can participate virtually even if they can’t be there in person. Digital communications tools like texting and group chat apps can help members stay in touch on the go and often result in quicker responses than phone or email, for example.
Make new people feel welcome. It can be intimidating to start something new, especially with people who’ve been doing the same task or been part of the same group for a long time, so a friendly environment will go a long way to encouraging people to stick around. A big part of that is also providing mentorship to new members, coaching them in roles and responsibilities, and encouraging them to take on leadership positions.
Be specific in your expectations. Most people have busy lives and those who would make great volunteers are probably already involved in various activities. That’s why it’s important to be specific and realistic in how much time you are asking them to commit to your organization. And when they do join, ease them into the group gradually and don’t overwhelm them with a flood of tasks or activities.
Most volunteers, and I count myself among this group, find community involvement engaging and rewarding. It’s up to us to make new and younger volunteers discover that same satisfaction from stepping forward and helping to make a difference – and setting the foundation for the future success of the organizations that matter to us.
For more information, contact:
Director of Communications and Stakeholder Relations
Ontario Federation of Agriculture
519-821-8883 ext. 218