A Q&A with Ontario Volunteer Centres

Recovery can mean many things, but for volunteerism across Canada, it means investing in people. Volunteerism is a hallmark of our nation — we have one of the highest rates of volunteerism in the world. It’s a deliberate choice we make to uplift our society with a strong volunteer force. Yet COVID-19 has disrupted volunteerism in every way possible. The role of volunteer centres and an understanding of the system we are actively rehabilitating must be better understood — by the public, non-profits, funders, and governments.

As a start, four members of the Ontario Volunteer Centre Network are responding to pressing questions on the state of volunteerism for Foundation Magazine:

Catch us up — how have volunteers supported the community during the pandemic?

Kim Cusimano: A record number of individuals invested their time, talent and human spirit to meet essential needs in food security, health care, seniors’ services, vaccination clinics, taxation support and continue to support the delivery of social service programs throughout the province. As leaders in coordinating volunteer involvement, local Volunteer Centres continue to be a bridge connecting individuals to organizations delivering essential community support.

Ontario volunteers contribute $2.07B to Canada’s GDP as volunteerism plays a critical role in delivering essential programs, building personal opportunity (skills and employment) and fostering social inclusion. To help steward these contributions over the pandemic, Ontario’s 14 volunteer centres have built connections with 4,300 nonprofits and 3.3 million volunteer seekers from every demographic. We believe in the power of volunteerism. It mobilizes action, invests in, and shapes the communities we want to live, work and play in.


So how has COVID-19 changed the system of volunteering?

Carine Strong: Volunteer Centres were fighting a downward trend in volunteerism until the pandemic hit. Within weeks, tens of thousands of volunteers were stepping forward to help with the pandemic response — a surge in participation bigger than any in recent memory. The paradox is that volunteer interest far outstrips demand as organizations have been disrupted, and volunteer engagement had been de-prioritized or eliminated. As organizations put on their proverbial oxygen masks, they divested in their future capacity and we’re seeing this play out in the disproportion of volunteer position supply to demand.


The volunteer audience has also changed. Older adults used to be the largest cohort of volunteers, giving over 200 hours each year to important causes, but as a vulnerable group many were unable or reluctant to volunteer during the pandemic. Youth have also faced barriers to participation, as many of the most in-need roles have been geared toward adult participation, such as Meals on Wheels drivers or PPE delivery activities.


Amid the challenges there are some wonderful sparks of innovation. Micro-volunteering is on the rise, and quick activities like writing a letter to an isolated senior or helping to purchase groceries for a neighbour create new opportunities for community connection and participation. Another accelerating trend is an increase in virtual volunteer positions. Organizations are trying to bring their programs and services online, but they need help to do it. Volunteers with digital skills make a big difference by providing tech support, monitoring social media platforms or setting up regular virtual meetings.


Where are all the volunteer managers whose job it is to engage volunteers?

Heather Johnson: It was May 2020 and I was a Senior Coordinator, Volunteer Engagement with a large, national organization. At 9 am on a Wednesday morning I was conducting a telephone interview with a potential committee volunteer; by noon I was laid-off, put onto the CEWS program, and was being advised by the Human Resources staff that due to the cancellation of all in-person fundraising events and the uncertainties of securing comparable funding the likelihood of being recalled was slim to none. For the first time in my over 20 years of working as a leader of volunteers, I was unemployed. And I was joined by 1 in 2 colleagues who were laid off or permanently redeployed as a result of the pandemic.


Exactly one year later, I became Director of Volunteer Halton where I continue to advocate for the profession and the importance of volunteer management professionals. For each volunteer management professional, like me, who has successfully re-entered the non-profit sector, there are many who are still unemployed, working outside of their field due to lack of available positions, or who are doing “volunteer management and….”, dividing their working day between supporting volunteers and other responsibilities. This loss of expertise will have a profound ripple effect on our sector’s ability to get back online as there are hundreds of thousands of lost volunteer connections that have taken years of skill and leadership to develop.


What steps will it take to evolve volunteerism to support recovery?

Joanne McKiernan: Community participation has been on full display at the front lines of this pandemic, but there were so many more spaces where it couldn’t be. Local volunteers weren’t organizing community sport, or helping us to celebrate festivals. They weren’t creating theatre productions or brightening lonely days with a friendly visit. As we lament the ways life changed as a result of the pandemic, we may not have realized how many of those ways were volunteer-driven.


As governments, funders and community leaders build our plans for recovery it will be tempting to cast volunteer contributions as “nice-to-have” or to assume enabling volunteerism is as simple as uttering the phrase “isn’t there an app for that”? Volunteers are an essential driver of capacity for the non-profit sector, and the system of volunteer engagement has been badly damaged by the social and economic strain of the pandemic. We must work collaboratively to invest in volunteers — in the institutions that safely engage them and in the organizational capacity to manage ongoing participation. Otherwise, we will lose the spirit of volunteerism built responding to this pandemic and forsake the community connections that will help us heal from it.



This opinion editorial has been co-written by four members of the Ontario Volunteer Centre Network (PIN – The People and Information Network, Volunteer Mississauga Brampton Caledon, Volunteer Halton, and Volunteer Toronto).


To learn more about Ontario’s 14 local volunteer centres or to find a volunteer position in your community visit http://ovcn.ca/.

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