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COVID-19: A Disruptor and Wellspring for Volunteerism

ONN was pleased to welcome Joanne McKiernan, Executive Director of Volunteer Toronto to Nonprofit Driven 2021. This profile is part of an incentive prize at the conference to recognize attendees and their work.

In the spring of 2020, we jolted as millions of volunteers were dismissed from their roles due to public health restrictions and program closures. Shortly after the voluntary sector absorbed another blow; 1 in 2 employed volunteer managers were dismissed or reassigned.

Volunteerism has changed, and in my role as Executive Director of Volunteer Toronto, Canada’s largest volunteer centre, it’s not hard to find evidence that an evolution is upon us.

VHA Homecare - PPE Volunteer

A Volunteer with VHA Home Healthcare in Toronto loads PPE before delivering it to staff at other locations.

In Toronto, our team began to track grassroots groups, because we knew volunteers were active despite the disruption in the non-profit sector. We reported that 50% of all pandemic response activities were happening at that level. And over time, we also correlated each new wave of restrictions with a spike in interest from the public to fill COVID-19 related roles, demonstrating people were offering support when things seemed at their worst. The mass interest in volunteerism, and its relevancy, was incredible to watch and humbling at the same time.

We have also fielded feedback from frontline program staff telling us of volunteer shortages—Volunteer Drivers being the most extreme case, which has continued through into 2022. And now, witnessing the trends over time, I perceive shortages will continue as pandemic urgency becomes saturated and volunteer motivation mismatches certain types of roles available. To me, an increase in interest won’t ever meet the recruitment needs for some frontline roles in our society, like Drivers.

Image of TransCare MoW Driver

A Volunteer Driver from TransCare Community Support Services in Toronto packs up meal deliveries on route to deliver to clients in need of meals during the pandemic.

Absorbing, analyzing, and monitoring supply and demand trends in volunteerism is the role of a volunteer centre, but these issues have a broad impact across our sector. And in reflecting on this moment in time—and all the changes and disruptions we’ve observed — I find that conversations about the role of volunteers have also changed. We’re digesting changes in how volunteerism is enabled, the interests and needs of today’s volunteers, and the ethics of volunteer labour. These are the discussions we are having, and we all need to be having, as we all look to achieve our missions with the support of the community coming out of pandemic response.

In working with staff at non-profits, leaders of grassroots groups, and in fielding interest from the public, I’ve realized the volunteer engagement sector in Ontario is a wellspring of expertise that rarely gets the platform or recognition it deserves.  As a result of COVID-19, many frontline non-profit staff members were forced to innovate to meet pressing needs, and many more new volunteer engagers have begun a career in grassroots leadership. At Volunteer Toronto, we’ve tried to tap into this wellspring to better inform the future we’re all facing.

Launching soon: Volunteer Lab

With the support of an Ontario Trillium Foundation Resilient Communities grant, Volunteer Toronto has spent the last year curating experts and peers from the volunteer engagement community, so we can all learn from their approaches, lived experience, and COVID-19 responses—their video-based courses will be hosted on a new website, called the Volunteer Lab.

Dedicating a year to producing high-quality, video-based content is a rarity in the non-profit sector. Scripts were written, locations booked — it was lights, camera, action and editing for many months. In doing so, we know we’ve got something special to share with the community, a digital space that will continue to live for years as an opportunity for peer-to-peer sharing in volunteer engagement. We’ll release courses annually, and bring many voices together to speak on topics that will help build resiliency in community engagement.

In launching the Volunteer Lab, this May 2022, we’re focusing on the strength of our community, of volunteer engagement, that shone bright through an incredibly difficult period of disruption and change in volunteerism. We hope you’ll join us in meeting the Volunteer Lab’s inaugural instructors at a panel event on May 25, 2022.

Meet the Volunteer Lab’s Inaugural Instructors

Sammy Feilchenfeld

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Sammy Feilchenfeld is Volunteer Toronto’s well known Training Manager, having engaged over 3000 leaders in learning opportunities over the past 6 years. He’s bringing his deep sector knowledge to re-examine volunteer management to overcome barriers.

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