Engaging volunteers with diverse abilities

A discussion focusing on engaging volunteers with disabilities facilitated by Volunteer Calgary took place on September 30, 2011. A number of managers of volunteers met with support workers, individuals who provide support to volunteers with disabilities.

Many managers of volunteers expressed an interest in enhancing their volunteer programs to better engage this group of capable and passionate volunteers.

A robust discussion among participants took place to identify barriers, solutions, and to share some experiences and ideas surrounding the engagement of these volunteers. 

The discussion resulted in some helpful hints for managers of volunteers who want to create accessible and inclusive volunteer programs.

Set expectations. Roles should be clearly defined and position descriptions should be thoroughly reviewed and explained to both the volunteer and support worker so as to avoid any misunderstanding and make the most efficient use of everyone’s time and skills.

Treat all volunteers equally. It goes without saying, but volunteers with disabilities should be treated the same way as any other volunteer applying for a position. All processes in place should still apply. If you need to do an interview to determine the candidate’s suitability, address the volunteer directly instead of going through the support worker.  It is important to recognize limitations, if any, but also bear in mind that most volunteers who present their services to your organization are highly capable and are able to make sound decisions for themselves.

Honesty is the best policy. It’s best to get everything out in the open before an investment of time is made. Voice out any apprehensions, fears, and concerns you may have about supporting volunteers with disabilities. If you feel that you might have limitations or that you don’t have a suitable position, say it.  There’s no need to feel pressured to find a fit when there is none.

Ask questions. If there is something you want to clarify, don’t be afraid to ask questions and dig deeper. Only in asking will you gain a better understanding of how you might be able to support the volunteer and allow them to help your organization to the best of their ability.

Find information. If you’re not sure how to engage volunteers with disabilities, there are resources available that can shed some light on this subject. Be proactive in finding information regarding leading practices.  Talk to like organizations and find out what they’re doing and what’s working for them.

Get everyone on board. Getting the organization’s leadership and staff to embrace an inclusive volunteer program can contribute to a healthy and welcoming working environment for the volunteer, support worker, and staff.     

Barriers, whether real or perceived, to engaging volunteers with diverse abilities do exist. However, with careful planning and appropriate support, there is no reason that these cannot be successfully overcome so that the individual, the organization, and the community can reap the benefits of this group’s contributions.

Every single person has capacities, abilities, and gifts. Living the good life depends on whether those capacities can be used, abilities expressed, and gifts given. If they are, the person will be valued, feel powerful and well connected to the people around them.

And the community around the person will be more powerful because of the contribution the person is making. (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993)


About Propellus

Propellus is a non-profit organization that has been empowering organizations since 1955. Through a dynamic range of consulting, training and member services, it helps organizations envision and realize new paths, practices and possibilities. Propellus guides, mentors and educates clients, arming them with tools and resources to help boost organizational effectiveness. Propellus strengthens organizations; in doing so, it leads the way toward building thriving communities.
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