Future of Volunteering from the Volunteer Canada Perspective

We got the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Elizabeth Dove, the Director of Corporate Citizenship for Volunteer Canada. Hear how she sheds light on the nonprofits they serve, how they’ve shifted their strategies, how companies can support in innovative ways through volunteering, and more!

What is the current situation for non-profits?

From our meetings with non-profits and national surveys, there is broad variation in how non-profits organizations are faring, but we can generalize them into three buckets. High-profile frontline organizations are overwhelmed but staffed (e.g. food banks, hospitals, community programs for seniors). Other frontline organizations without name recognition are struggling without adequate donor dollars being directed their way for the surge of need and many have had to close, putting more pressure on fewer organizations. Finally, many organizations not on the frontlines, but still needed in community (the majority of non-profits) are experiencing a financial and HR crisis—many, if not most, have had to cut staff and/or staff hours.

How does the current non-profit context impact volunteering opportunities?

For health and safety, or simply because programs and services are not operating, many volunteer roles across all three types of non-profits have been suspended. Many volunteers have also stepped back due to health concerns. But the current supply of volunteers is definitely higher than the demand by the large majority of non-profits. The availability of willing, caring, and often new volunteers grows strongly, as evidenced by growing inquiries that volunteer centres and other non-profits are experiencing. But this is out of proportion with available opportunities because of decreased programs and services. Many non-profits are starting to find creative ways to go virtual, in their programming, and some in their volunteering opportunities. There will continue to be a need for in-person volunteers, but these opportunities carry more risk. From discussions with our global networks, these dynamics are experienced throughout the developed world.

With less traditional volunteering roles available, how are companies supporting non-profits through employee engagement?

From regular meetings with the companies of Volunteer Canada’s Corporate Community Engagement Council and our work with client companies, we know that for much of March and April, companies were cautious to ask employees to give more of themselves in such trying times. The conversation then shifted to creative ways to give employees opportunities, with a recognition that giving back can have a very positive impact on the mental health of the giver. Some trends we are seeing include:

  • Celebrating acts of kindness – Employees are finding creative and inspiring ways of giving back in their communities. From making masks, to getting older neighbors to appointments safely, to food drives, a lot of community service and giving is happening outside of activities organized by non-profits (even though many benefit non-profits). Companies like First West Credit Union are focusing on amplifying these employee acts of kindness by telling their stories.
  • Going virtual – Some companies are promoting to employees the virtual volunteering activities they find through non-profit partners or through Volunteer Canada’s website. These include opportunities like online mentorship or calls of assurance to seniors. We are also hearing a lot about participation in walks, rides and runs that have gone virtual. IG Wealth Management’s Walk for Alzheimers pivoted rapidly to virtual. IG employees and Consultants broke all previous records with their generous participation.
  • Skills-based volunteering or Pro Bono support – We are seeing companies sharing the unique skills of employees in two ways: filling specific request for help from non-profit organizations or making skills-based help known to non-profits. Bayshore HealthCare, for example, reached out to charities to share their skills to set up online fundraising activities.
  • Deepening employee understanding of community issues and organizations – This is my favorite one, and one we’ve been promoting at Volunteer Canada for several years. A great corporate community engagement program has a foundation in employees better understanding issues in their community (however defined), organizations addressing these issues, and the potential roles the employee can play. Many companies limit their support to employees by only focusing on the roles of volunteer or donor. But employees can make a big difference in many social and environmental issues with their purchasing choices, how they vote, what they post on social media, demonstrating and even day-to-day business decisions at work, like hiring. In a socially distanced world, virtual tours of non-profits, lunch and learns with community leaders, book clubs, or movies with facilitated discussion can strengthen that foundation. TD Bank has an internal learning hub that aims to help employees learn more about community issues and the non-profits who work on them.

In your opinion, what does the future look like for volunteering? Will these new practices be adopted even when we are an open society again? If so, why?

I certainly hope so! At Volunteer Canada we love to see companies expanding their employee community engagement programs (note our use of language…) to supporting the many ways employees can contribute to a better world. There are many ways that employees can make the world a better place outside of traditional volunteering and giving, especially if they are more aware of the complexities through intentional learning activities. Going virtual makes community engagement activities more accessible to more employees than traditional group volunteering opportunities and we will see many non-profits continuing to use a virtual format for programming. I think, if they are truly listening to their employees, companies will discover a lot of enthusiasm for some of the ways company community engagement programs have had to adapt in the past few weeks and will need to incorporate these new approaches into future strategies. One challenge I foresee for companies is that tracking, measuring, and evaluating will get more complex but not insurmountable. We’re here to help!

Elizabeth Dove is the organizational lead on supporting companies in their employee/stakeholder community engagement programs at Volunteer Canada. She convenes the Corporate Community Engagement Council, leads the consulting practice, and collaborates with companies and non-profits to create thought-leadership on CSR practices that provide benefit to communities, businesses, their employees, and other stakeholders. She has worked as senior staff and consultant for companies and non-profits advancing health issues, empowerment of women and youth, the arts, and international development. Elizabeth holds the McGill-McConnell Master of Management for non-profit leaders and was a recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work on social justice issues.