Prepared by Jason Wong 

August 2023

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Prepared by Jason Wong

Volunteerism is the act of contributing free labour to conduct community service or support a non-profit organisation. It is the principle of donating time and energy towards a greater cause. An act of altruism, if you will, without any expectation of reciprocity.

As a volunteer, we can help change the lives of our neighbours in our community. It is an act of social responsibility and civic-mindedness.

Volunteerism is a basic expression of human relationships. It is about our desire to participate in our society and to feel that we matter to others. The social relationships intrinsic to volunteer work are critical to individual and community well-being.


Historically, volunteering has been traced back to Britain in medieval times where there was an urge to aid the poor and sick.

In the 19th century, organised forms of volunteering started to pick up steam, such as the YMCA, which began in 1844 in London. The 20th Century saw the birth of many more voluntary organisations committed to making a positive impact. One example is the Rotary Club, which was formed as a place for people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs to come together and exchange valuable ideas, create friendships and make a change.


There are a number of different volunteer types:


Corporate volunteerism involves employees contributing their time and talents to assist nonprofits and other charitable organisations. Businesses often promote corporate volunteerism among their employees by offering paid time off to volunteer.


Many students are required to volunteer for a certain number of hours to fulfill requirements for their classes or clubs. In addition, many high school and college students participate in service-learning projects, which combine elements of education and volunteerism.

These opportunities teach students valuable skills while allowing them to contribute their time and energy to help worthy causes.


Schools often rely on volunteer support to care for their students. Many schools have parent-teacher associations (PTAs), which are alliances between parents and school staff members to complete projects that benefit students. Volunteers also contribute in other roles such as assisting with after-school programs or chaperoning field trips.


These volunteers can be anyone looking to help out and contribute their time and efforts to improve their community. This can include those who volunteer at food banks, hospitals, animal shelters, nature centres, and any other community organisations.


With the rise of online volunteer opportunities, virtual volunteerism is growing in popularity. Virtual volunteerism offers a safer alternative to in-person activities during the pandemic, and it offers convenience to volunteers because they can work from home. Anyone with an internet connection can be a virtual volunteer.

Emergency relief

Emergency or disaster relief volunteers come into play after a major, devastating event, such as an earthquake or hurricane. These volunteers offer healthcare services, clean up services, and other forms of support during an emergency; such as distribution of food, water, and other supplies.


Many volunteers choose to help out with major events; such as concerts, festivals, conferences and non-profit fundraisers. A larger number of volunteers is needed for these types of events.

The Current Trend

According to The Philanthropic Journal (14 March 2023), volunteer participation in Canada is at an all-time low – thanks to the pandemic.

Our societal infrastructure has come to depend on volunteer work and workers to support the care needs of our communities. From direct service delivery to board- and committee-level involvement, volunteers are engaged in critical and necessary activities that allow non-profits and charities to do what they do.

The data is telling and consistent, no matter the source. Statistics Canada data released in November 2022 show that more than 65% of non-profit organizations serving households and individuals are experiencing a shortage of volunteers and intend to recruit.

Fourth-quarter data from the Canadian Survey on Business Conditions show that non-profit organizations are dealing with volunteer shortages, difficulty recruiting new volunteers, and volunteer burnout. A 2022 Ontario Nonprofit Network report indicates that 62% of 1,500 non-profit organizations surveyed – predominantly from health, sports, and faith communities – lost volunteers. More than 50% are struggling to recruit new volunteers, and 40% say they are having difficulty convincing former volunteers to return.

And in the Charity Insights Canada Project survey, 59% of respondents indicated that the pandemic affected how they engaged with volunteers, and 57% said they were experiencing difficulty recruiting volunteers.

According to Daniele Zanotti, CEO of United Way Greater Toronto, data from their own research indicate that “volunteerism as well as donations have decreased” and that around 25% of individuals in the GTA volunteer now compared to 40% four years ago.

Kim Winchell, director of community impact and investment at United Way BC, says that of the 500 organizations they support, all are experiencing challenges with volunteer recruitment.

Large entities like Volunteer Canada, YWCA, and Habitat for Humanity and small organizations like Caravan Farm Theatre in rural BC all echoed a similar refrain of decreases in volunteer participation during the pandemic and difficulty getting people back.

“We’re at a tipping point here,” says Andrea MacDonald, CEO of United Way PEI. “In rural areas especially, the same people are being asked to sit on every board and service clubs.”

Though there seems to be a degree of forward momentum in volunteer reengagement within some agencies, a first-quarter report from Imagine Canada predicts that the volunteer shortfall woes will continue well into 2023.

Volunteer Canada

CBC News reported on 24 January 2023 that, according to Volunteer Canada, up to 65% of organisations have identified a shortage.

According to president and CEO Megan Conway, up to 65% of organisations in the country are struggling with a shortage of volunteers, and up to 35% of those that are have had to reduce services as a result.

Prior to the pandemic, the national statistics office reported Canadians born before 1945 dedicated the most hours to volunteering of any demographic.

But COVID-19 may be changing that.

Conway cited research conducted by B.C.-based Volunteer Victoria which found health and safety risks are a primary reason why some seniors are no longer volunteering to the degree they once did.

“Priorities shifted during the pandemic,” said Conway.

And the post-COVID economic situation is also not helping, with Conway pointing out the cost of gas, child care, and criminal record checks can be prohibitive for some people who would otherwise step up.

Conway says Volunteer Canada was identified in a 2019 Senate report to lead the development of a national strategy around volunteering — something she said is needed “to pull together solutions both at a community level and at a demographic level.”

“I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how we, as a country, re-imagine volunteering.”

Meals On Wheels

These factors played into why, after more than 50 years, Meals On Wheels shut down its program in South Surrey and White Rock, B.C., in October 2022.

Kevin Yip, a spokesperson for Care B.C., which oversees the now three Meals On Wheels programs in Metro Vancouver, says volunteers are needed for the remaining routes.

“They are at the core of our program,” said Yip. “We could not operate our program without our volunteers.”

Girl Guides of Canada

According to the Girl Guides of Canada, 1,200 young British Columbians eager to join the program are stuck on a provincial wait list due to a lack of adult volunteers. (CBC News). Diamond Isinger, the B.C. provincial commissioner for the Girl Guides of Canada, says a record number of young people registered for Girl Guides in the fall, but there are not enough adults coming forward to accommodate that many kids.

Isinger added that the pandemic created a pent-up demand for young people seeking social connections, but the organization can’t keep up unless more volunteers come forward.

She says across the country, the pattern is the same.

“We offer training, mentorship and support, but we need people with the time and passion to give.”

Volunteer Toronto

On 20 July 2022, CBC News reported that, Joanne McKiernan, executive director of Volunteer Toronto, said it has seen a 20 per cent drop in volunteerism compared to last year.

Community groups in Toronto have seen a decline in the number of volunteers over the past year and experts say pandemic fatigue, fear of getting infected with COVID-19 and financial barriers are all contributing to the drop.

Volunteer Toronto said it has seen “strong swings of supply and demand” for volunteering during the pandemic.

“That first year. we saw a huge once-in-a-lifetime surge of individuals expressing their interest to get involved,” McKiernan told CBC News.

“Now, we’re seeing about 20 per cent less interest in volunteerism from the public compared to last year,” she added.

The drop is happening despite an 89% increase in volunteer roles the centre is actively recruiting for, she said. Moreover, volunteerism is on the wane just as services that rely partly on unpaid labour in Toronto, such as food banks, see a record spike in demand.

The People’s Pantry

Jade Da Costa, co-founder of The Peoples’ Pantry, said the number of volunteers has been declining in large part due to a cultural and economic shift as COVID-19 measures eased across the province.

The grassroots mutual-aid organisation is a network of more than 100 volunteers providing free meals and grocery care packages to families dealing with food insecurity in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph.

Da Costa said the organisation, which was founded during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, saw a large drop in volunteers approximately a year in.

“Initially, a lot of the people who were volunteering were those who were the most negatively impacted by the pandemic so a lot of low-income [and] racialised communities,” Da Costa said.

“[But] a lot of these communities had to go back to work and it was too difficult for these folks to volunteer,” she added.

“Gas prices are rocketing, the housing crisis … there’s barely any time to live or to work or survive, let alone to volunteer.”

“I think groups like the Peoples’ Pantry and other food justice and mutual-aid organisations are struggling and a lot of us are dying, to be frank,” Da Costa said.

“[We] still have a strong network and support system but it’s built on a lot of people burning themselves out and working for free constantly because we believe in our communities and supporting [them].”

Also, older people are shying away from volunteering out of fear they might get infected with COVID-19, said Joanna DeJong VanHof, a researcher with Cardus, a public policy think-tank.

Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver

Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver also has kids with no adults to connect them to and says it will no longer accept children to its mentorship program in Surrey, B.C., due to a shortage of volunteers.

Thirty kids in Surrey have been approved for the program but are still waiting to be paired with a mentor, the organisation says, and the average wait time for a match is 2 years.

“Without volunteers, we cannot reach children,” said Norman Galimski, marketing and communications co-ordinator with Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver.

Boosters & Barriers


Volunteerism doesn’t just offer benefits to non-profits and other community organisations. It also benefits volunteers themselves, such as:

  • Improved mental and physical health.
  • Strengthening communities after a crisis.
  • Teaching valuable life skills e.g. interpersonal communications.
  • Gaining new knowledge.
  • Improve self-esteem.
  • Increased self-confidence.
  • Production of endorphins.
  • Belonging to a civic-minded group.
  • Teaching social responsibility.
  • Contributing to and serving our community.
  • Being part of a cause that is external to and greater than ourselves.


Time commitment

Some people expect volunteering to take up large chunks of time each week or think that only retired people or part-time workers have time to volunteer.

Organisations may wish to think about designing different kinds of volunteering roles to suit different lifestyles. Depending on the tasks involved, they can also create taster days or one-off volunteering days to get people involved.

Volunteering not valued

Volunteering may be seen as a one-sided activity for ‘do-gooders’. Unpaid work is sometimes viewed as unskilled work or not worth doing if it isn’t going to pay the bills. This is not true; volunteers have many talents and skills some do not even recognise this in themselves until they are given the opportunity to try.

Volunteering is a mutually beneficial activity so organisations can emphasise the satisfaction or skills or new friends that a volunteer will gain. They could invite current volunteers to act as advocates or champions at recruitment events or include stories about their experiences in recruitment.

Lack of skills

Volunteering can be a great way to learn new skills and build on existing ones, but potential volunteers might worry that they lack the necessary skills from the start.

Organisations generally offer training to their volunteers, whether this is through a formal course or just explaining tasks on a one-to-one basis. They can reassure potential volunteers by giving a clear description of the tasks involved and by mentioning training opportunities in recruitment materials.

Training should however be related to the work the volunteers are doing and should not be given as a perk.

Pigeon-holing of roles

People often expect to be offered traditional roles and can be put off by this. Do we automatically offer caring roles to women or practical roles to men without being aware of it? Also, avoid pigeon-holing by background, for example by always matching Asian volunteers to an Asian client group.


Potential volunteers can be discouraged by formal recruitment procedures such as completing a long registration form or attending an interview. These can be daunting for people with learning disabilities or English as a second language.

Organisations sometimes forget to develop different recruitment procedures for volunteers. If they do use registration forms, only request information which is necessary. For example, they might simply need to know that someone meets a minimum age limit for insurance purposes, rather than asking for their exact date of birth.

Practical Barriers

Expenses. Research shows that people on a low income are less likely to volunteer. This may be because they cannot afford to be left out-of-pocket. If at all possible, all reasonable expenses should be reimbursed. It is important to pay out-of-pocket expenses only, for which your volunteers should provide receipts and bus/train tickets.

Childcare or other caring responsibilities

Having children or dependants should not be a barrier to volunteering. Think creatively about how to create other family-friendly opportunities. Organisations could offer volunteering opportunities with flexible hours or consider whether volunteering from home would work.


Inaccessibility of transport can be a major barrier for potential volunteers. People with disabilities or those living in rural areas can have particular difficulties in arranging and paying for transport to and from their voluntary activity.

Wherever possible reimburse travel costs such as bus/train fares. Remember that people with disabilities may need extra notice about their volunteering as it can take them time to organise transport in advance.

Management challenges

1. Recruitment

It’s probably no surprise that volunteer recruitment is one of the most common volunteer management challenges. With so many other organisations competing for volunteers’ time, it can be hard to attract good volunteers who will become assets for the organisation

It helps to have a clear volunteer job description.

Encouraging existing volunteers to recruit their friends and family is another popular strategy. Simply ask them if they know anyone who has the time, energy, and inclination to get involved.

2. Volunteer Burn-Out

Unfortunately, volunteer burn-out is an all-too-common volunteering challenge. Much like in the workplace, volunteers can experience burn-out for a number of reasons. The most common issues and challenges for volunteering include being overworked, undervalued and stressed.

If the organisation is facing a high turnover rate, it might be time to conduct a volunteer survey to identify any common themes or issues and begin fixing them.

If volunteers are feeling overworked, perhaps the agency could recruit more volunteers to share the workload. For volunteers who are feeling undervalued, focus on improving the reward and recognition program and set up regular occasions to thank volunteers.

If stress is causing volunteer burn-out, consider introducing a mentor or counsellor who can regularly check in with volunteers and debrief. Sometimes talking about a problem is the best, and simplest remedy.

3. Disorganisation

It’s easy to become disorganised when managing a group of volunteers as the agency juggle a million competing tasks and requests. Taking advantage of volunteer management software such as Rosterfy may allow streamlining admin tasks, shift management and communication.

4. Volunteer Retention

Retaining volunteers is the number one way to improve the effectiveness of the volunteer program. Instead of spending time recruiting year-on-year, volunteer managers will be able to spend their time focusing on more impactful activities.

At the same time, the knowledge, passion, and understanding of the program that long-term volunteers accumulate is priceless, so it’s important we do anything we can do to retain them.

Common volunteering challenges include feeling disengaged from the organisation’s goals, undervalued or unsupported, which can in turn see volunteers leaving organisations. To overcome these challenges, volunteer managers need to develop a clear plan of engagement and recognition of volunteers.

From a thorough onboarding process, where volunteers are encouraged to ask questions and complete relevant training, through to the recognition process with genuine rewards.

5. Availability

Finding enough people who are available for shifts is a common volunteering challenge.

Automating volunteer scheduling may be the simplest and most effective way to solve the big volunteer management challenge of availability.

6. Acknowledge the impact of the pandemic and what it did to people’s mindsets

“If there’s one thing the pandemic did,” says Vicki Stroich, artistic and environmental programs manager at Caravan Farm Theatre, “it forced all of us to consider how we spend our time.”

Megan Conway, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, echoes that sentiment: “People are choosing priorities. We need to look at who are our volunteers and why they are not returning.”

Bottom line: volunteers are simultaneously dealing with their own questions about what they want to invest in, how to stay safe, and how to better align their lives with their values going forward. We cannot ignore this significant mindset shift and must factor this new reality into any re-engagement plans.

7. Understand what different generations consider to be work worthy of their time – and be flexible

Baby boomers as a group, with a history of volunteering longer hours for longer periods of time compared to any other age demographic, were forced to step away during the pandemic as organisations paused operations.

Volunteer Victoria conducted a study on the impact of the pandemic on senior volunteers (those over 55 years old). 70% indicated that closure of services, reduction of programs, and changes in roles contributed to their stopping volunteering.

Yet, when asked about volunteering in the future, 76.25% want to return to contact (in-person) volunteer roles with safety protocols in place. This generation wants to connect face to face for the most part, as long as it is safe.

“So much of volunteering is about socialisation,” says Hope Lovell, community outreach manager at Habitat for Humanity in Windsor-Essex. She believes that flexibility is the key to retaining volunteers and that the focus should be on the relationship, not just the service the volunteer is being asked to provide.

Unlike baby boomers, when young people hear the word “volunteering,” it likely conjures up the hours needed to graduate from high school or meet a particular program requirement. Stroich suggests that young people have been taught to think of time as a commodity, and since volunteering is time, if it is not giving them a payoff, it is not going to get their investment.

“We’re trying to get a new generation to fit into a system that is no longer viable,” Stroich adds. She argues that the pandemic has thrown the concept of certainty out the window and that charities and non-profits have to shift expectations and systems accordingly.

“If we are having a problem engaging young people in our work, is it the young people’s problem or our own outdated modes of thinking and working?”

Some organisations are recognising the need for greater flexibility on their part in order to attract more volunteers. Lovell recalls how Habitat for Humanity pivoted during the pandemic and developed a formal Virtual Volunteering program so that 27 high school students could get the hours they needed to graduate. She cannot stress flexibility enough.

8. Change the volunteer nomenclature to ‘community care,’ ‘community mobilisation,’ and ‘community engagement’

Two organisations, 4Rs Youth Movement and the Muslim Association of Canada, report increases in volunteer engagement during the pandemic and attribute this increase to community belonging and a commitment to community care.

“People volunteer when they have a bigger stake in the outcome,” says Abdul Nakua, a member of the Muslim Association of Canada’s executive team. He says that within his community, helping each other out is part of one’s faith, thus creating a deeper connection than just an obligation to serve. In other words, helping is embedded in community members’ belief system.

Jessica Bolduc, executive director of the 4Rs Youth Movement, insists that community care is ultimately more sustainable, as a way forward, than a mere transactional volunteer engagement. She sees community care as a movement with “everyone having a place in [the] community and feeling the responsibility of taking care of each other.”

To her, this “feeling of responsibility” may take the form of a protest march or a public outcry because activism is one of the many ways people in marginalised communities care for their communities.

Important as well is the fact that millennials and Gen Zers as a group relate to community mobilisation” and “community care.” We saw their mobilisation en masse during the pandemic as they protested threats to social justice. Changing the volunteer language to be more appealing to a younger generation will go a long way towards increasing participation from that demographic.

9. Funders can and must do more to help organisations

When volunteers fall away, employees try or are expected to take on more, leaving staff tired, burning out, or completely burnt out.

People cannot continue to serve from deficit, but having time for a long, deep replenish does not seem possible. As one interviewee commented, “There is no funding for rest.”

Gone also are the days when non-profit employees were prepared to suck up and deal with low wages. They’re walking – not because the work is not good work but because it’s getting to be too much for too little. Can funders pay a little bit more so that employee salary offerings are more competitive? Can funders create less time-consuming application forms? Do funders have the capacity and will to coordinate, on behalf of the agencies they fund, administrative infrastructures that can be shared across agencies, thus freeing up staff to provide direct services?

10. It’s time to invest in us

While everyone we spoke with admitted to tiredness and ponderings about their own lives, none sounded defeated. Time is the one luxury they all wished they had more of: time to invest in self, family, causes that matter; time to do good work really well; and time to engage with and be replenished within communities of care.

How to incentivise volunteerism

Offering incentives is a great way to increase morale and participation. Incentives can go a long way in making volunteers feel encouraged to continue volunteering with the organisation.

  • Make it easy for volunteers to find your opportunities and register. Get your opportunities in front of the right audience with a strong marketing strategy. Use your volunteer management system to offer a streamlined sign-up process for new volunteers.
  • Offer tangible benefits. Promote the things that set our volunteer program apart, such as the benefits we offer participants. These benefits might include valuable training opportunities, leadership development, social/networking events, or free merchandise, such as t-shirts.
  • Make our volunteer program inclusive. Reduce volunteers’ barriers to participation by making your opportunities as inclusive as possible. Prioritise the accessibility of our in-person and virtual events and reach out to volunteers to ask how we can help make our opportunities more accessible and convenient.
  • Say thank you often. Let volunteers know how much we appreciate their support by sending frequent thank you emails and letters.

These are all effective ways to make our volunteers feel special! From offering a seamless registration process to giving tangible incentives and expressing appreciation for our volunteers’ hard work, there are plenty of ways to ensure our volunteers feel content and satisfied.