Ottawa volunteers answer the call amid pandemic

Nonprofits explore virtual opportunities, draw on new pools of volunteers
Marie Eveline
Marie Eveline is the executive director of Volunteer Ottawa, a charitable organization that helps to connect volunteers with nonprofit organizations. Photo by Mark Holleron
Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the 2020-21 Giving Guide. Read the full publication here.

You can’t keep a good volunteer down. While many of us hunkered down for weeks and weeks, as we were asked to do when the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, the number of people in Ottawa wanting to donate their time and energy to worthwhile causes actually went up.

“We were surprised,” said Marie Eveline, executive director of Volunteer Ottawa, a charitable organization that helps to connect volunteers with nonprofit organizations. “There’s no question the community stepped up. They really wanted to volunteer.”

Volunteer Ottawa, which has been around for more than 60 years, plays a key role in helping with volunteer recruitment for nonprofit organizations. As well, it runs a variety of training workshops for smaller nonprofit groups and hosts an annual volunteer recognition event, called the VOscars.

Volunteer Ottawa (VO) received a grant in mid-March to develop a coordinated strategy around the recruitment of volunteers during the pandemic, recognizing that the process was no longer business as usual. 

The organization established three different comfort levels for volunteering: virtual volunteering that can be performed via telephone or online, without any physical contact; light-touch volunteering that can be done with minimal contact, involving pick up and delivery services for vulnerable individuals; and high-touch volunteering, such as passenger transportation and volunteer support to essential services workers.

Between March and the end of June, VO had more volunteers than there were opportunities. The organization saw 2,500 individuals apply for almost 2,000 volunteer positions. 

Eveline identified several factors behind this trend. Some organizations – such as long-term care homes and hospitals – were no longer recruiting. Other medium- to smaller-sized organizations had to temporarily shut down or no longer had the resources to handle new volunteers. There was an increase in the number of people – particularly students and furloughed workers – with more time on their hands for community work. As well, VO noticed a new phenomenon during the pandemic: more neighbours helping neighbours. 

Last but not least, Ottawa has a reputation for being a caring community, said Eveline.

“We’re a nation of volunteers but Ottawa is definitely a city where a lot of individuals want to contribute and give back.”

Demographic shifts

Eveline said the local community never fails to help when required to do so, such as in the aftermath of the 2018 tornado or during the 2019 floods.

“Sometimes people forget that emergencies bring out the best in people,” she said.

Eveline said it’s unclear whether the number of Good Samaritans will continue to exceed the demand.

“We’re finding there has started to be an increase in need (for volunteers), and that’s because a number of organizations are opening up again and they’re also figuring out how to redefine the volunteer opportunity,” said Eveline, adding that some organizations were faster than others at switching to virtual volunteering.

Many retired people have temporarily stepped away from volunteering to protect their health, since they remain at higher risk for complications should they contract COVID-19.

Risks for older volunteers

“It remains to be seen what the long-term implications will be,” said Eveline, adding that the demand for volunteers could jump. “It depends on how long the pandemic lasts.”

Before the pandemic, the Shepherds of Good Hope was relying on a yearly total of almost 800 volunteers, or between 25 and 30 volunteers a day. The nonprofit organization, which helps the hungry and homeless, did experience a brief decline in help due to the fact that many of its regular volunteers are older.

“So many people were torn,” said Caroline Cox, the Shepherds of Good Hope’s senior manager of communications, community and volunteer services. “They wanted to come in but there were risks, and we totally understood that.”

It wasn’t long, though, until younger people between the ages of 18 and 30 were offering to help. They used to make up about 20 per cent of the total volunteers at the Shepherds. Now, they represent almost half of the organization’s volunteers.

“It’s been really inspirational to see how the younger generation has seen the need and responded,” said Cox.

Read the full 2020 Giving Guide: