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To engage immigrant volunteers, relationships matter

Mai Moua holds a doctorate in leadership studies and is a consultant with Leadership Paradigms.

WILLMAR -- The hospital volunteer coordinator was having trouble with her young Somali volunteers.

They would fail to show up when it was their turn on the schedule. They didn't call to let her know they weren't coming. The reason for their absence was often the same: a family commitment.

But once the volunteer coordinator decided to stop being frustrated and to actively listen instead, she learned that these immigrant volunteers have a strong sense of social obligation to their family and kin.

Over time, by being a good listener, she built enough trust for her Somali volunteers to start seeing her as a friend. Now they feel a social obligation to her too, and the no-show rate has dropped significantly.

Mai Moua uses this story to help illustrate one of the key lessons in integrating immigrant communities in volunteer organizations: Relationships matter.

"It's going to be more work for you. But in the end, your organization is going to be more effective," she said. "Inclusion helps you to get out of your box and be creative, and that happens when you come to a place of differences."

Moua spoke Tuesday at an education session hosted at Bremer Bank in Willmar by the South West/West Central Volunteer Connections, a regional group for building skills, knowledge and networking among nonprofit organizations who work with volunteers. The session was co-hosted by the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration.

As Minnesota becomes increasingly diverse, volunteer groups have seen a growing need to engage immigrant volunteers and volunteers of color, said Mary Quirk, volunteer leadership resources project manager for Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration.

"They wanted to be able to better involve as volunteers the full wealth of diversity in their communities," she said.

Several months ago, the association joined forces with Moua, who has a doctorate in leadership studies and is a consultant with Leadership Paradigms, to conduct groundbreaking research on how immigrants view volunteerism and how organizations can successfully tap the skills of these communities.

Individuals from the Hmong, Latino and Somali communities were interviewed. Extensive information also was collected from focus groups, surveys and a review of existing studies.

Among the findings: Although a majority of the organizations who participated in the survey have immigrant volunteers, most have fewer than 10 years of experience doing so, and only one-fourth felt they were successful at engaging immigrant volunteers.

Interviews with Hmong, Latino and Somali individuals also revealed a view of volunteerism that emphasizes helping and personal connections rather than self-fulfillment or resume-building.

Indeed, there's significant informal volunteering in Hmong communities by people who help their relatives or do something on behalf of the community, Moua said. "These communities would probably argue that they volunteer a lot more than people in the United States."

"There's no word in the Hmong community about volunteering," said Sang Yang, who works with the college access program at Minnesota State University in Mankato and was one of two dozen people who attended the session on Tuesday. "Most of the time, when we volunteer it's more of a social obligation. We do that every weekend."

What this means for volunteer organizations is that they need to think differently about how to successfully involve immigrant volunteers, Moua said.

For one thing, more time must be invested in building a trusting relationship, she said. "If you can build that trust, you can create the kind of relationship you really want."

For another, organizations must be willing to change, she said.

Organizations that have been the most successful at engaging immigrant volunteers are those who are committed to this goal, are culturally competent and have made diversity part of their mission, policies and procedures.

The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration is developing tools and resources to help organizations accomplish this, and is planning a training seminar this fall, Quirk said. "It does take the whole organization."

"It's not going to be easy," Moua warned. "You're going to have to pour in a lot of resources. In the end, what makes you successful is paying attention to all the little steps that help you reach the vision of where you want to be."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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