It’s National Volunteer Week in Canada – a great time to celebrate volunteers and talk about volunteering.

I spent many years working in and around volunteering and volunteer management – and have been a volunteer myself all my life – so I thought I would write a post about how to use volunteering to build facilitation skills in honour of this week. I sometimes get asked this question from people new to facilitation, and since I used to make presentations on “Using Volunteering for Work Experience” when I worked at a volunteer centre, I thought I’d capture some of my answers here.

Here are five ways to use volunteering to build facilitation skills:

#1 – Help out at a large conference

One way to develop skills in facilitation is to experience as many examples of teaching and facilitation that you can find as a learner or participant. A great way to do this is to volunteer at large local conferences, such as SOHO Victoria, Social Media Camp or Victoria Yoga Conference here in Victoria. When you volunteer your time to work at registration or other conference volunteer positions often you will be able to attend some of the keynote speaker or facilitated sessions for free. Seeing examples of great – and not so great – facilitators will give you opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t, what’s participatory and what’s not. At these types of events you will usually see examples of one-way information-giving presenters who are engaging – or not – and people who teach in an interactive or facilitative way – or not. You will learn something from them all.

I credit my years coordinating the training program at Volunteer Victoria – where I attended dozens and dozens of workshops every year with a wide variety of facilitators and trainers – as being instrumental in my facilitator journey.

#2 – Write a blog about great examples of facilitation you’ve seen

Although I have doubts – and actually heard recently! – that people aren’t really reading blogs any more (a quick search of the phrase “are people still reading blogs” turns up people – writing blogs – on both sides of the fence) I still think that the act of writing about what you are learning about facilitation can be a useful endeavour. It may be useful to think of your blog writing as useful to you first and foremost. A blog can be a reflective journal to help you think about and process the things that you have seen, done and experienced on your facilitation journey. If you can also think about others reading your blog and make it useful for them too – great! Two wins are better than one.

Of course, writing about your facilitation experiences and what you are learning from them doesn’t have to be in a public space. Write wherever you want. But the “volunteer” bit comes in when you show what you’re thinking and learning to the world and have it be useful to others in some way.

I’ve been blogging (at some times more frequently than others) since 2005 and I still feel that it’s a great exercise to help me think more deeply about the topic about which I’m writing. I’m not sure a lot of people are reading but here and there they tell me they do and I hope it’s useful!

#3 – Ask to shadow or work with a more seasoned facilitator

Beth Cougler Blom and David Stevenson standing in front of a screen and smiling at the camera

David Stevenson and I teaching the Instructional Skills Workshop together a few years ago. It wasn’t a volunteer gig, but it was a great opportunity to co-facilitate.

There are hundreds of us in Greater Victoria who make facilitation – in some way, shape or form – part of our work. Find someone who you think is doing an excellent job at it, who really is implementing facilitation best practices, and ask them if you can volunteer with them during a workshop or a session that they are offering. Help them carry their facilitation kit, put up their large chart paper, hook up their projector. Even better if you can get involved in the actual event, taking flipchart notes or co-facilitating an activity or two. Co-facilitation is wonderful and an amazing way to build skills with someone more experienced than you who also has your back. (I still learn from co-facilitating with others and always will!)

#4 – Apply to teach in a local non-profit’s training program

Another opportunity to use volunteering to build facilitation skills is to find a volunteer opportunity as a facilitator or someone who supports a facilitator in a local non-profit’s program. There are dozens and dozens of agencies in Greater Victoria which have programs going on every year for a wide range of clients. They sometimes need volunteers for those programs. I tried this two or three times much earlier in my career and was able to get a little bit of training for free from organizations in order to deliver their program. (Caveat: I often found this was a bit of a non-starter as the training events didn’t happen very often. It was difficult to offer many sessions within a short period of time to build skills quickly – they were often many months apart. So look for a program that happens with more regularity if you can.)

Right now, a quick search of Volunteer Victoria’s volunteer database using the search term ‘facilitator’ brings up a Memory PLUS volunteer position for Victoria Silver Threads Service. This position looks like it supports the facilitator of this program – which is designed for individuals to learn tools and specific strategies to help improve brain function and memory – with activities, set up and clean up. A different search for the word ‘training’ in the database also brings up volunteer positions as interpreters/guides, computer tutors, and an education and school programs assistant – all positions which sound like they may help a person to either speak to groups, work directly in a 1:1 teaching position or be in and around the teaching of groups. Organizations may also appreciate volunteers to assist with offering their volunteer orientation events.

#5 – Create and offer a facilitated experience of your own

As you start to build your facilitation skills you may wish to create a volunteer opportunity of your own by teaching a topic that you know about to individuals who work and volunteer at non-profits. Don’t be shy! Research local non-profits to find one that both has a mission and vision that you believe in and also might likely have staff or volunteers that may wish to take advantage of the topic that you have to offer for free and reach out to them with your idea. Think about the skills and knowledge that people who work and volunteer at non-profits might need and see if any of them are a match for what you can teach. Some topic examples could be fundraising, computer and social media skills, board governance, leadership, strategic planning, volunteer engagement and more. Alternatively, offering yourself up as a volunteer process facilitator – where you support a group through a strategic planning event or similar – would be another great way to go.

Just do it!

Finally (as a sixth bonus tip) just do it! No one builds facilitation skills simply by thinking or reading about facilitation. You need to get out there and do it, wherever “there” is for you. And don’t feel bad about volunteering strategically to get something out of it that you want, this is totally acceptable in the world of volunteering today. In fact ALL volunteers should volunteer doing things that are meaningful to them. If your thing is facilitation, great! Good luck and thanks for making the world a better place with your volunteering.