Filling in the Gaps

You have a busy schedule and non-profits know that, so how can we make this volunteering thing work for everyone?

Illustration Byron Eggenschwiler 

As the holiday season approaches, the spirit of giving is alive and well in Edmonton. Citizens from all walks of life gather to bring help to those less fortunate. Soups and turkeys will be cooked. Gifts will be donated and time will be given. And while the abundance of support is welcome from Edmonton’s many non-profits, it also serves as a reminder as to the struggles that lay ahead. The most notable being, how do non-profits encourage people to not only give their time in December, but to also come back in January, February and March – months when the spirit of holiday giving is notably absent. 

Charissa Hoppenbrouwers is the manager of community participation and volunteer services at the Bissell Centre. She says it can be tough to fill her organization’s annual need of 1,600 volunteers to help staff ongoing programs that include free childcare, hairdressing, a thrift shop and completing tax returns for clients. But, each December, when that giving spirit spreads, she receives countless emails and phone calls a day from people interested in one-day, event-based volunteer options.

People associate Christmas with the cold and helping the homeless, Hoppenbrouwers says. The Bissell Centre’s New Year’s dinner requires 100 volunteers and she remembers turning people away by early November last year because the spots were already full for that one-day event.

“People have lives with a lot going on and aren’t always looking to make that ongoing commitment,” Hoppenbrouwers says. “But they’re still really interested in being involved in our community and want to feel like they’re a part of something and doing good.”

Kari Readman, Engagement Manager of Boys & Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton & Area (BGCBigs), receives many requests about Days of Caring – a series of one-time opportunities to help BGCBigs by doing tasks such as cleaning, painting and filing. The interest is encouraging, but Readman says BGCBigs’ need still weighs heavily in long-term programs, much like the Bissell Centre.

The biggest need for BGCBigs is finding male mentors, or a “Big Brother,” for boys. Currently, 1,000 Edmonton-and-area children are waiting for BGCBigs’ volunteer mentors and 800 of those are boys.

It’s a real struggle between the consistent needs charities have to staff their ongoing programs and the changing availabilities of their volunteer bases. 

So, how to find the volunteers for regular duties, not just one-off or holiday-themed events?

Ben Block founded a non-profit and volunteer match-making social network site called GozAround in 2014 to tackle the supply and demand issue between charities and volunteers.

“There is everything from classified sites like Kijiji or Facebook groups to some dedicated sites like GoVolunteer, but my experience with trying to get involved, which is where this idea came from, is just that there are too many different sources and they’re essentially just bulletin boards,” Block explains. “I thought that maybe we could do it a little better.”

Block notes that charities often don’t have the time to become experts in the ever-changing methods of technology and communication because they are focused on serving their clients. To help, GozAround sends alerts to individuals who create profiles indicating what causes interest them. They also list their skills, schedules and locations.

“When Hope Mission, for example, posts something for a housing and shelter opportunity, we’ll push that out to people right away and let them know, ‘Hey, this might be of interest to you,’ ” Block explains.

Misconceptions of who the agencies serve, what programs and events they offer and how volunteers can help are all roadblocks for Edmonton non-profits searching for help beyond the holiday season.

“Sometimes it’s not about getting volunteers, it’s about getting the right volunteers for your organization,” Hoppenbrouwers says. “We’re only open during the day on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and people want to volunteer in evenings and weekends but we just don’t have that opportunity because we’re not open during those times… so that limits us to retirees and students.”

Edmonton Meals on Wheels faces a similar challenge in finding 25 volunteer drivers per weekday for the meal-delivery shift between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Students and retirees are their greatest resource, says Lindsay Rothman, Meals on Wheels’ client services manager, due to the shift’s time of day.

Rothman says the misconception some people have about Edmonton Meals on Wheels is that it is like the Food Bank, yet it actually serves paying customers. That knowledge, Rothman says, makes some potential volunteers feel the need isn’t urgent, so they volunteer elsewhere.

Most Edmonton Meals on Wheels customers, though, are very isolated and the meal-delivery volunteer is the only person they see that day.

“In a short amount of time, you’re making a huge difference,” Rothman says. “People don’t realize the potential of how rewarding it is.”

Readman says BGCBigs uses various charity sites to post their volunteer needs but agency representatives also hold information sessions right in the communities they serve. These events help explain more about the agency, who it serves and provide program details for potential volunteers to find one that suits their commitment comfort-levels. Readman finds it’s a big eye-opener to many people.

“A lot of people don’t feel that they have something to give… but you just have to be human,” she says. “Everybody has something to give.”

People are much more likely to volunteer if they are asked rather than left to seek opportunities out on their own, Block says. He hopes his site’s personalized, non-profit need alerts will be the nudge many people require to become active volunteers during the remainder of the year, when they’re reminded that the need is still there.

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