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Trust, volunteerism and equity

By Kathryn Sharpe

Man standing in front of a colorful outdoor wall mural

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on

The Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement recently published a powerful report, Co-Creating Racial Equity in Volunteer Engagement: Learning from Listening Sessions with Black, Indigenous and People of Color. In this report, they explore volunteerism and barriers to participation from the perspective of BIPOC individuals. I will spend years unpacking the wisdom and challenges offered in this report, but I want to start here with the question of building trust.

MAVA’s report lays out how members of BIPOC communities are often distrustful of engaging with organizations that aren’t BIPOC-led or based in their community because of a tendency for tokenism or what may be seen as an extractive relationship with the community. They often don’t see the organization engaging in the community in a meaningful way.  

As a white, US-born woman working for a statewide, historic organization, I am on a journey to work with our volunteer systems in new ways that advance racial justice. I am finding that I need to constantly learn (and re-learn) my first steps, focusing on cultural humility and weaving relationships that build trust. While we need to address issues of systemic racism at an organizational level, each of us can also take steps in our individual lives and work.

Here are some strategies that I am learning from:

  • Build trust through authentic, whole-hearted engagement. Build truly mutual relationships by making sure they are symbiotic where both/all participants benefit.  
  • Show up in the community in consistent ways that are not just connected to your official role—show up without your “branding” or any pre-determined goals. One of the keys for trust is to truly care about the wellbeing of the community and its members, not only because you are trying to build a program there or have some other objective. Just care and express that.
  • Given that “volunteering” is not a concept that is shared in all cultural groups, learn how to show up in the ways that helping/caring/support is expressed in that specific community. Seek out your own experience of helping in a way that is not formal volunteering by getting involved in a community group or issue. What does it look like when it springs organically from this community/cultural group? How might you be able to translate that into corollary opportunities within your own volunteer program? How could you make your own volunteer opportunities less hierarchical in serving the organization, and more horizontal in truly serving the community?
  • Based on that experience, reflect on what you learned about the types of barriers that you might be able to remove for some volunteer opportunities (background checks, paperwork). How might your organization be able to remove those barriers before people engage with your organization?  Instead of trying to help people overcome the barriers to participation in our volunteer program, what would it look like for us to meet the person who has a desire to make a difference and ask them what they would need in order to make it possible to do so?

In your own work engaging people in the community, how are you finding ways to build trust?  How can a broader approach to volunteerism support more equitable engagement?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

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