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Gloria DeSantis, Founder/Facilitator, Voluntary Sector Studies Network
and Assistant Professor, Department of Justice Studies;
Angela Tremka, past VSSN Programme/Research Assistant; Community Initiatives Fund, SK;
Mary Vetter, Professor of Biology and Acting Director, VSSN
Does “vision” pop into your head when you see the acronym “VSSN”? That is right on the mark: VSSN stands for “Voluntary Sector Studies Network”, and the network arose out of the vision of Dr. Gloria DeSantis and others that Luther College at the University of Regina could bring the people and organizations of the voluntary and nonprofit sector in Saskatchewan together with students and faculty and staff to make great things happen. And happening they are!
There are so many reasons why Luther College launched and is coordinating VSSN. The voluntary sector – also known as the nonprofit sector, the third sector and the community-based sector – is worthy of significant academic exploration. The sector provides many public benefits, is woven into the historical fabric of Canada, is active in myriad areas (e.g., arts/culture, heritage, environment, sports and recreation, faith-based organizations), has $75 billion in revenues, is found in every community, has thousands of staff, and draws on millions of volunteer hours every year. Saskatchewan has at least 8,000 registered charities and nonprofits, has the second highest number of voluntary organizations per capita in Canada, and has the highest volunteer rate in Canada. And of particular interest to our students, this sector provides many career opportunities for liberal arts graduates.
The Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) is an interdisciplinary, community-university collaborative administered out of the VSSN office at Luther College at the University of Regina. Beginning in September 2014 with seed money for ten months from the Luther College President's Academic Strategic Initiatives Fund, work got underway. A steering group comprised of committed people from all three collaborative partners – voluntary sector, students, and faculty/staff – was formed. The steering group settled upon the name Voluntary Sector Studies Network and logo, determined initial goals and strategies, defined the three pillars of VSSN (Learn, Research, Innovate), created a timeline for activities, began consultations through Koffee Klatches and focus groups on how VSSN could best serve the sector, established a network that includes 200 individuals and nonprofit organizations for knowledge dissemination and consultation, met with students in career fairs on campus, began a number of research projects, and a score of other activities too numerous to mention individually. It is fair to say that we hit the ground running. Gloria DeSantis led the search for longer-term funding, resulting in a grant from the Community Initiatives Fund (CIF) of nearly $210,000 for 2015–2017.
The idea of VSSN at Luther really began when Gloria DeSantis starting teaching IDS 290AA, Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations: Cornerstones of Society, at Luther in 2013, the same time the call for proposals for the Academic Strategic Initiatives Fund was circulated. With her extensive experience working in and with the voluntary sector across Canada, Gloria saw the potential for Luther’s leadership in spearheading this collaboration – the first and only of its type in Saskatchewan. The dedicated work of one of Gloria’s students, Angela Tremka (who has since moved on to a permanent position in the sector), working as Programme/Research Assistant for VSSN in summer 2015 following a practicum with VSSN in the Winter semester, allowed us to complete some research projects, compile information from the community consultations to define necessary core competencies and outline a certificate programme, develop and implement a communications plan, and continue the outreach to students, community members, and faculty/staff.
Members of the VSSN steering group made a presentation to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport in June 2015 and have been invited to present at an upcoming Deputy Ministers Debriefing Session.
What is next for VSSN? The CIF grant allowed us to hire a full-time, term Coordinator beginning in October 2015. In this role, Jennifer Billan will continue the research projects and community consultations, support the steering group, and work directly with Gloria DeSantis and Mary Vetter to continue developing VSSN. The steering group recently undertook strategic planning for 2015–2017, and identified the following priorities:
VSSN will continue to work to inspire the development of new knowledge, skills, understanding and collaborations with and about the voluntary sector and the university community. We are very excited about the new opportunities for Luther that VSSN is building, and are grateful for the Strategic Academic Initiatives funding and the myriad other supports that Luther College is providing. Please visit our website now and often to view our work as it unfolds.