Delegates to the Keystone Agricultural Producers Young Farmer Conference were urged to consider volunteering as a rewarding investment.
f you’re joining that committee or sitting on that board because ‘someone’s got to do it,’ Elm Creek farmer Colin Penner has some advice.
Think about how you’ll benefit from it too.
“Be a little selfish. You don’t have to get involved for strictly noble reasons,” he told some 60 delegates attending Keystone Agriculture Producers Young Farmer Convention, held concurrently with the KAP annual meeting.
There’s more gained from saying ‘yes’ to invitations to serve on committees and boards than some might think, he said in a talk dubbed ‘get involved, invest in your future.’
“If you’re a leader in your community you learn things faster. You’re aware of things well before the rest of the public is.”
Penner speaks from experience. With a farm operation to manage, a young family to raise and a teaching job at University of Manitoba, he still found time to volunteer with the STARS rescue on the island fundraiser last year. When family members asked if he’d officiate at their wedding he agreed to that too.
About a year ago a Keystone Agricultural Producers delegate asked him if he’d come to a few District 3 meetings. He went.
“One of the district members said, ‘Hey, do you want to come and check out this? I think you’d be good at it. Come and sit in on a few meetings. I went and saw the way things are done and said, ‘I want to be involved with this,’” he said.
If only more were so inclined.
The struggle for rural organizations of all kinds is that fewer people are volunteering.
Non-profit groups are struggling to fill board vacancies and find those willing to serve on committees, said another conference speaker, Cedric MacLeod, an agronomist and consultant who has extensive experience working with national and provincial not-for-profit boards.
“This human resources piece is potentially crippling and it’s only going to get harder,” he said. “We’ve got fewer farmers, fewer people, fewer leaders. Everyone’s busy. It’s hard to find new people.”
MacLeod, who has served both as a board member on some organizations and executive director on others including the Canadian and New Brunswick Young Farmers’ Forums says the need for succession planning in the non-profit sector is as critical as it is on the farm.
MacLeod cited his own experience serving as a chair of the New Brunswick Cattle Producers as an example. They worked hard and accomplished many things, from strategic planning and setting policies, to preparing long-term budgets and negotiating with partners.
“But what we did not have is an engagement process for young cattle producers in New Brunswick to fill those seats on the board,” he told delegates.
“Actually, what we barely have in New Brunswick is young cattle producers,” he added.
That’s the crunch. Fewer people in rural areas make it all that much more critical that non-profits of any kind be able to pitch the importance of their organization to those still available and potentially able to serve with it, he said.
“That’s the key for non-profits and for leaders… defining what it is you’re trying to do and who you’re doing it for,” he said.
Further complicating everything is that people no longer joined boards for the reasons they once did, he said in a followup interview. At one time, you were involved in organizations as part of your social life. It’s where you connected with people.
That’s not the case anymore.
“A lot of these boards are a remnant of a time gone past,” he said. “That infrastructure was established in a different time and a different era when we had more people in the community. Those boards served the function of operating those non-profits, but they also served as the social connection piece in those rural communities.”
But just because leaders are getting harder to find, it doesn’t make finding them any less critical, MacLeod stressed.
The solution lies with good leadership exercised now, he said. That means being able to focus on why you exist, your vision, and being able to clearly state your goals to encourage others to be involved he said.
“I think we get caught sometimes in the politics and we lose sight of the vision of what it is we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
“We get caught up in the nuts and bolts. From a basic board governance perspective, that’s a challenge, especially when you’re dealing with volunteers… they are operational boards.”
Another potential strategy for handling the human resource scarcity may lie with fundamental reorganization, such as amalgamating several existing smaller boards to pool resources and better use people’s energy that way, MacLeod said.
“Are there opportunities to join other boards and serve a larger function, or combine functions so you don’t have to carry that organizational overhead?
“Great leaders take a look at things and say, ‘Do we still need this, or do we need it in its current iteration?’” he said.
These aren’t easy things to do, but neither is wrapping up because you can no longer find people, MacLeod said.
“I think people are going to have to be courageous and make some difficult decisions,” he said.
The quandary is it often needs new people to make those choices.
That’s why Penner is pushing more to get involved.
“In Troopers’ lyrics there’s that song, ‘If you don’t like what you’ve got, why don’t you change it? If the world’s all screwed up, rearrange it,’” he said. “If you’ve got something that’s driving you nuts, get involved for positive change. It will benefit your community.”
“We’ve got a lot of aging people in the rural population. We really need to bring in new ideas and break the “this has already been done mould.”