Number of volunteers dropping just as demand is spiking, Toronto community groups warn

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Joanne McKiernan, executive director of Volunteer Toronto, says it has seen a 20 per cent drop in volunteerism compared to last year. (Submitted by Volunteer Toronto - image credit)
Joanne McKiernan, executive director of Volunteer Toronto, says it has seen a 20 per cent drop in volunteerism compared to last year. (Submitted by Volunteer Toronto - image credit)

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.

Joanne McKiernan, the executive director of Canada's largest volunteer centre, 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," the head of Volunteer Toronto told CBC News.

"Now, we're seeing about 20 per cent less interest in volunteerism from the public compared to last year," McKiernan said.

The drop is happening despite an 89 per cent 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.

'Too difficult' to volunteer

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 organization 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 organization, 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] racialized communities," Da Costa said.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

"[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."

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.

Cost of screening checks a barrier

Formal volunteering, which is defined as volunteering through charitable organizations to benefit the community, has been steadily on the decline across Canada since 2010, VanHof said. In fact, the rate of volunteering in this country declined from 47 per cent that year to 41 per cent in 2018, according to the Cardus report released this month.

VanHof said she is advocating for the provincial government to subsidize what's known as "vulnerable sector checks," which are police background checks that charities can ask for if volunteers will be working one-on-one with seniors or children. Prospective volunteers must pay for them and they can cost as much as $35 in Ontario. Toronto police charge $20 to perform them.

"Affordability should never be a barrier to volunteering," VanHof told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

Earlier this year, the Ontario government announced it would eliminate the cost of obtaining a criminal record check or judicial matters check under the Police Record Checks Reform Act. The changes, which went into effect on April 1, also allow volunteers to obtain up to five copies of their police record check for free.

"These two police checks are the most common required by organizations that work with volunteers and the changes our government has made to the [act] reduce the financial barriers for volunteers when applying to and maintaining volunteer positions," said Hannah Jensen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Solicitor General, in an email to CBC News Tuesday.

Cardus Report
Cardus Report

"These supports also reduce the administrative burden on prospective volunteers by making it easier for individuals to receive additional copies of their record checks while applying for multiple volunteering positions."

But the government won't be eliminating the cost of vulnerable sector checks, which VanHof estimates would cost the province approximately $8 million out of its $175-billion budget.

"Volunteering is really an investment for the government because it's socially generative," she said.

Submitted by Volunteer Toronto
Submitted by Volunteer Toronto

Volunteer Toronto sees roughly 20,000 people searching for roles on its website, noting that community need is still "very high," McKiernan said.

Meantime, the People's Pantry says its needs the public support it received in the beginning to continue.

"I think groups like the Peoples' Pantry and other food justice and mutual-aid organizations 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]."

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