From Volunteering to Co-op
Around the end of first year, I applied to the Engagement Peer Program on a whim. I figured it was time to “get engaged” on-campus but never imagined that I would develop employable skills in the process. Boy, was I wrong. Fast-forward two years and I found myself applying those skills to a marketing co-op – an area outside of my criminology degree.
Parent Support Services Society of BC
This summer, I completed a co-op at a small non-profit organization called Parent Support Services Society of BC (PSS). PSS aims to prevent child abuse by empowering parental figures through support, education, research, and resources. These services extend to non-traditional parental figures such as grandparents or other kinship caregivers.
Over 11,000 children in BC are being raised on a full-time basis by a grandparent. In addition to social isolation, these families often experience barriers accessing financial and social support services typically available to parents. PSS strives to eliminate these barriers and integrate these families into their local communities.
PSS considers Support Circles to be its flagship program. These are peer-based and confidential spaces for members to express their concerns and share information and resources. Creating a sense of community is important, as many individuals in a parenting role feel overwhelmed or alone in the challenges of raising a child.
These Circles would not exist without PSS’s dedicated volunteer facilitators. A common misconception is that the volunteer facilitators act as counsellors. This is not the case. In accordance with the self-help model, the volunteer facilitators provide a listening ear and encourage a collaborative dynamic among their circle members.
Down to Business
One of my many responsibilities as a Program Assistant was to recruit new volunteer facilitators through marketing and promotional efforts. As someone who studies the causal factors of crime, I remember feeling out of my element during my first two weeks. Why had PSS hired me when these tasks were more suitable for a Communication or Business student?
Google defines marketing as “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” Yet, I came to understand marketing through the perspective of student engagement. As a former Engagement Peer, I had conversed with multiple student clients about potential involvement opportunities. This resulted in a strong understanding of the motivations and challenges of volunteer work. Based on this knowledge, I created a marketing strategy for PSS with two components: a target audience and volunteer benefits. Although this marketing approach was more simplistic, it was ultimate effective. By the end of my work term, we had exceeded the number of volunteer applicants from the year before.
Finding a Target Audience
My initial plan was to contact hundreds of organizations and send out as many volunteer postings as possible. I quickly realized that this idea was unfeasible for two reasons: 1) the sheer number of potential organizations and 2) my co-op term was only nine weeks long. As a result, I had to identify a target audience, or the groups that were more likely to produce volunteer applicants.
While brainstorming potential groups, I realized that university students were an ideal target audience. A common theme among my Engagement Peer clients was a desire to gain more work experience. This is because many part-time student jobs do not provide the specialized skills that employers require. In these cases, I would advise my clients to bridge this skills gap with volunteer work. As a personal example, I received an on-campus job by primarily using the skills I had developed through my volunteer work at SFU.
I knew that many university students would apply to volunteer with PSS – especially if they had the opportunity to develop career-related skills. Now the next step was to demonstrate the benefits of becoming a volunteer facilitator.
Demonstrating the Volunteer Benefits
As an Engagement Peer, I was responsible for suggesting involvement opportunities to my student clients. As a result, I became familiar with the volunteer postings on MyInvolvement and Get Involved. A section that I would always look for during my advising consultations was entitled “Volunteer Benefits.” This section highlights the skills or opportunities that a volunteer can gain from the position.
Volunteers are undoubtedly passionate about their work and the organization’s cause. That being said, the opportunity to receive personal or career-related benefits is always attractive. For this reason, I like to think of volunteer benefits as added bonuses. Some examples of volunteer benefits include personal development, networking opportunities, or a letter of reference.
However, PSS’s original recruitment flyer did not have a section outlining the volunteer benefits. This meant that prospective volunteers would have more difficulty in understanding the advantages of becoming a volunteer facilitator. After a quick conversation with my supervisor, I added these three benefits:
Facilitator Training: This 20-hour training covers several topics such as child abuse prevention and the self-help/co-facilitation model. This information is often transferrable to other professions such as counselling, nursing, and social work.
Personal Growth: Volunteer facilitators must learn, listen, and consider alternative perspectives if they disagree with a circle member’s decision. This builds a more compassionate and accepting mindset.
Reference Letter: The majority of employers conduct reference checks through the hiring process. As such, a strong reference letter can benefit volunteer facilitators, even after they finishing volunteer with PSS.
Tying Things Together
My co-op workplace posed new challenges that I had never encountered at school. As a student, I was familiar with rote memorization and academic research after three years at SFU. Yet, working at PSS required different forms of learning: adaptability and innovation. If I had focused on my lack of marketing experience, I would have abandoned the project on the first day. Instead, I channeled my experience as an Engagement Peer in a new, creative way. The final results were marketing materials that were based on the knowledge I had gained from my consultations.
I doubt I’m the only co-op student who has encountered this learning gap between school and the work force. So, here’s my advice to co-op students: think outside of the box and apply your existing skillset in creative ways. Who knows? You might gain some new, employable skills – just like the new section entitled “Marketing” on my resume.