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Alex Makin

Inaugural Eastern Volunteers Community Conference – Day Two

By Advice for Not-for-profit Organisations and Charities, News 2 Comments

The second day of the Eastern Volunteers Community conference explored the themes of managing volunteers, volunteering diversity, as well as supporting people with mental illness and engaging community engagement.

The conference opened with an address by the Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS), which explored the challenges in creating social inclusion during economic uncertainty. The presentation highlighted the difficulties the community sector is facing, particularly in regard to ensuring funding certainty and maintaining a focus on the core vision of an organisation.

I delivered a plenary session focused on harnessing the changing times faced by community organisations through embracing technology and building capacity through governance and professional development.

There is a need for strong governance and consistent policies that are supported through the adherence of procedures. All levels of government, as well as many philanthropic organisations, are expecting increasing levels of governance and accountability from the not-for-profit sector.

Strong governance is critical to creating an environment that harnesses the potential of an organisation and fosters its development. This creates a positive environment for volunteers, as well as staff and board members.

Data compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics demonstrates that less are volunteering on a per capita basis and that they are volunteering less of their time. In addition, there is a substantial gap between the rate of volunteering within rural areas versus our capital cities, with volunteering being less common in urban centres.

This demonstrates the strength of community identity, which is more commonplace within rural areas. Given that establishing this sense of community is more difficult within largely homogeneous urban centres, there is a need for innovation.

This is where community organisations need to explore the use of technology, such as interactive websites, using Web 2.0 technology like blogs and Facebook, to establish a new sense of community. Virtual communities are particularly useful in recruiting younger volunteers, who are often seeking opportunities to further their experiences within particular projects.

Younger people tend to be project focused rather than organisational focused and as a result community organisations need to tailor the way they attempt to recruit volunteers.

Technology such as wikis, which allows editable content, can be utilized to retain knowledge within an organisation through encouraging staff and volunteers to document their experiences and freely share information.

The use of technology should not increase the workload of an organisation, but instead should help automate some tasks. As an example, web based content management systems, can replicate web-content onto social networking tools such as Facebook, encouraging interactivity without requiring duplication or increasing workloads.

The conference concluded with positive feedback and a desire from participants for further events. There is strong interest in the sharing of knowledge and it was great that the participants found the conference to be informative and useful.
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Inaugural Eastern Volunteers Community Conference – Day One

By Advice for Not-for-profit Organisations and Charities, News No Comments

Eastern Volunteers has a vision of leading the way in community services, and this was demonstrated through the organisation’s inaugural community conference.

The two-day event, which was entitled Social Inclusion and Community Well-being in the World’s Most Liveable City, was designed to assist in capacity building for the not-for-profit and community sectors.

The conference included presentations from several not-for-profit organisations to discuss the challenges the sector is facing, as well as potential solutions.

The topics on the first day included the challenges facing volunteer recruitment, establishing community partnerships and the difference that is made through volunteering.

I facilitated the Volunteering – making a difference panel session, where the two speakers discussed the critical role of volunteers within their organisations. This also included a discussion around the challenges in developing good governance and ensuring the wellbeing of volunteers within a growing organisation.

I also provided technical support for the conference, including the online registration, which was designed to handle multiple registrants, as well as traditional payment methods such as cheque.

The afternoon sessions discussed the topics of supporting older people, as well as connecting with the community. This session included the construction of a community led playground in Montrose and involving migrant communities within volunteering.

The first day of the conference was well received with the participants looking forward to its continuation on the second day.

Open Source Software and minimising IT costs

By Advice, Advice for Businesses, Advice for Not-for-profit Organisations and Charities, News No Comments

Open Source Software, which is where software is provided free of charge has the potential to reduce IT costs and maintenance within the not-for-profit sector and community organisations.

For example, I choose to use Linux and open source software since I find it more responsive and stable than a Windows based system. Linux is an open source operating system that is available in various forms known as distributions.

Linux and the majority of software that operates on it are provided free of charge and are designed, as well as supported through active community participation.

While there is undoubtedly a learning curve when trying anything new, Linux distributions such as OpenSUSE and Kubuntu tend to be extremely user friendly. Linux support for hardware continues to improve and there are many free programs that can easily replace existing Windows based software.

In addition, Linux tends to not have the security and virus issues that are far too commonplace within a Windows based environment.

While Linux and open source software may not be for everyone, I believe there is tremendous opportunity for the non-profit and community sector to investigate the use of Linux within their organisations.

The free cost of Linux and associated programs combined with the fact that it can still easily and efficiently operate on older computer hardware means it has the potential to reduce IT costs.

While there may be a requirement for initial training and configuration, this can be offset by reducing the cost of purchasing new software and hardware.

Free software such as Openoffice.org provides an easy to use Office suite and is largely compatible with Microsoft Office. Mozilla Firefox provides a more secure Internet browser than Internet Explorer and Kontact provides a full suite of information services, including a calendar, notes, email and address book features.

GnuCash, a free accounting software package, provides features comparable to commercial equivalents and is easy to operate and utilise.

Linux provides a choice of graphical desktop environments and KDE with its associated applications exceeds the features and stability found within Windows XP and Vista. XFCE is another desktop environment and is well suited towards older computers that may still be present within an organisation.

If there are Windows based programs that an organisation is reliant upon, there is a program known as WINE which can allow such software to still operate within Linux.

Even if an organisation wishes to retain a Windows operating system, applications such as Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice have Windows versions, providing additional flexibility while maintaining a familiar operating environment.

Linux distributions such as OpenSUSE and Kubuntu provide an easy to install and operational Linux environment with minimal need for customisation.

The use of Linux with its potential to reduce IT costs is certainly worth exploring, particularly within organisations that are facing increasing requirements to minimise cost pressures.

Councillor Magazine: How councillors can harness the Internet

By Advice, Government, News No Comments

Councillor is a quarterly magazine designed to help educate current Councillors and demonstrate innovative approaches to local government.

I was contacted by Councillor Magazine to write an article on how councilors can harness the Internet to assist in encouraging dialogue with their community. The following is an extract of the article that was featured in the September/October edition of the magazine:

How Councillors can harness the Internet

City of Maroondah Councillor Alex Makin has operated his own website and blog since 2005. In this article, Cr Makin describes how councilors can also establish their own website and blog, and why more elected members need to use the Internet to engage the community.

Compared to the UK and the US, Australian politics has been relatively slow to embrace the capabilities of the Internet and its potential to re-engage the community and our constituencies.

While the use of websites is not new, Australian politics is still typically not using the Internet for more than a digital version of their off-line campaigns. The Internet, through the use of blogging has the potential to be so much more.

As local Councillors, representing the needs of our local constituencies, we are best placed to take a leadership role of embracing the Internet to create dialogue and re-engage with our communities.

We need to move beyond static webpages and move into an era of dynamic blogging and dialogue.

Going beyond a website

Some Councillors already have experience with establishing a website. A blog extends the capabilities of a website by providing interactive content.

A website can be likened to a static shop window, which displays information but provides little opportunity for someone to interact with the content.

Standard websites can also become difficult to maintain over the longer term as information becomes out of date.

A blog, otherwise known as weblog, is an interactive website, likened to a diary, that allows you to post new entries, keeping content relevant and allows people to post comments and subscribe to updates.

Blogs use categories and tags to file new content and provides readers with the opportunities to subscribe to updates so they are notified when new content is posted.

Extending your blog

Comments are usually moderated meaning that they need your approval prior to being included on your blog. This means you have the possibility to prevent inappropriate comments from being included on your site. Likewise spam filters exist which block spam comments from appearing.

While you have the ultimate control over what comments are included within your blog, do not go overboard in preventing feedback.

The purpose of a blog is to encourage dialogue and interaction and all relevant comments should be encouraged. Also make sure that email and phone details are available as some people will prefer these methods of communication.

Once you have established your blog and website it is worth considering ways of expanding its reach. Blogs utilize RSS feeds which allows people to be notified when new posts are created.

RSS feeds operate similarly to email where a subscriber receives the content of the post. RSS feeds are a standard feature of blogs and it is worth encouraging your readers to subscribe to them.

In addition you can also create an email subscription list for people that prefer to receive emails. This way email subscribers can receive an email message of your blog post and raise awareness of the activities you undertake as a councilor.

Just as newsletters assist in informing the community about our activities as a councilor, an electronic newsletter or RSS feeds can expand the reach of your communications with the public.

The web as an accessible medium

The Internet, through accessible web standards, means we can truly create a medium that can be experienced and accessed by all people.

Screen readers, larger font sizes, colour contrast and other technologies are available to assist people with disabilities to view content on the Internet and your website should be mindful of accessibility issues.

For example screen readers cannot read images so any graphics you include on your site should not be used in place of text.

In addition, the layout of your site should be mindful of people who prefer larger font sizes and your site should adapt to these requirements.

Future use of the Internet by councillors

Councils are the closest form of government to the community and we need to consider new methods of encouraging community engagement and interaction. In particular the web has the potential to assist us in communicating with younger people, as well as people with disabilities and the many other people in our community that prefer communication via the Internet.

Just as mobile phones are now considered essential equipment for Councillors, no doubt a web presence will be seen as a necessity shortly into the future. As councilors we have an obligation to remain relevant and keep pace with new technologies.

Creating a web presence is neither difficult nor time consuming and will assist in conveying the work you undertake as a councilor.