There is a quiet force at work in this country, logging hours every day in service of their communities and asking nothing in return. Their numbers measure in the millions; the dollar value of their work, is in the billions. They are volunteers, and those at WoodGreen Community Services are among the most dedicated you will ever find.
“Without volunteers, we could not help Toronto the way we do,” says Maysam Fadel, Manager of Volunteer and Student Services at WoodGreen Community Services. “Volunteers help make up the backbone of our organization…I see the impact of their work happening in front of my eyes.”
As one of the largest social services agencies in Canada’s largest city, WoodGreen employs more than 750 staff across dozens of programs designed to reduce poverty and improve community health by supporting vulnerable populations of seniors, newcomers, single mothers, those living with disabilities, youth and residents with low incomes. Supporting those staff members are more than 750 volunteers and students who are giving their time as well as their skills, talents and passion for helping their communities. They are doing it for free; but that donation, says Fadel, is incredibly valuable.
Volunteers increase aid to the city’s most vulnerable
Last year alone WoodGreen’s volunteers contributed more than 16,000 hours of service across more than 20 different programs. Fadel says those are only the hours that were logged and she believes the true contribution is even greater than that number.
“They bring a diverse range of skills, expertise and experiences that can help the charity operate more efficiently and effectively,” she says, adding that those volunteer hours directly resulted in WoodGreen’s ability to serve more than 28,000 clients.
Helping charities do more with less
Those volunteer hours mean charities, such as WoodGreen, can do more with less. Statistics Canada tracks financial donations to Canadian non-profit organizations. However, it doesn’t include non-monetary donations like volunteer services. The most recent figures estimate 12.7 million Canadians, or roughly 44 per cent of the population over age 15, volunteered at least some of their time each year. It is estimated that nationwide, Canadians contribute $56 billion in volunteer work annually.
And though the estimated value of volunteering at WoodGreen is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, many factors make it virtually impossible to assign a dollar amount to volunteers’ contributions. That’s because the skill set, education and training required for certain roles varies greatly across the organization.
Some volunteer positions, such as delivering meals for the Meals on Wheels program, are open to anyone over the age of 18 with a police clearance. Meanwhile, volunteers in the tax clinic require a financial background and those serving as counsellors in the mental health walk-in clinic have master’s degrees in clinical psychology. In the private sector, those latter roles would command upwards of $100 per hour.
Community connections prove invaluable
But there are things that volunteers bring to an organization like WoodGreen that simply cannot be quantified.
“Volunteers are often deeply connected to the communities they serve, which can help charities gain trust and support within these communities,” says Fadel. “Volunteers can help identify and address specific needs of these communities and can also serve as ambassadors for that charity.”
This is particularly true of WoodGreen’s army of volunteers, of whom more than half (55 per cent) identify as coming from diverse or racialized communities. In the same small survey of WoodGreen’s volunteers, one in three identified as someone who lives with a disability.
“When volunteers are representing their communities they are often part of the decision-making for their own community as well,” says Fadel.
Volunteers as ambassadors for a cause
As volunteers see – and help affect – real change in their communities through charities like WoodGreen, they become ambassadors for the organization, says Fadel, and increase public awareness of the organization. As volunteers share their work and personal experience with their networks, this inevitably attracts more donors and volunteers to the charity itself, she says.
In addition to increasing capacity at WoodGreen and attracting new supporters, volunteers also help raise the organization’s profile, getting word of services to people who might need them.
“Word of mouth is very important….they are sharing information about WoodGreen’s services that attracts more clients to our services.”
Helping create a culture of giving back
From an organizational perspective there can also be great benefits to having volunteers learn about your company’s structure and workplace culture. At WoodGreen, volunteers get to see, up close, how the charity functions, what certain jobs entail and if there is a chance for progression, with many transitioning into paid positions.
“Two volunteers this year from the walk-in clinic have already become staff,” says Fadel.
One of the greatest contributions Fadel says WoodGreen’s volunteers make is that they are showing the community and the clients the importance of volunteering in itself; that anyone can play a role in helping their community, no matter how small.
“I’m very passionate about community involvement,” says Fadel, who began managing volunteer services at WoodGreen shortly after arriving in Canada in 2019, but for whom volunteer work has played a vital role all her life. Prior to coming to Canada and WoodGreeen, Fadel managed volunteers in Syria for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
‘Making a tremendous difference’
Fadel says she takes inspiration from those around her volunteering at WoodGreen. “You get motivation to do your own work when you see others giving what little time they have to others. For free.”
WoodGreen hosts regular volunteer appreciation events, most recently thanking 120 volunteers in person with a buffet dinner, guest speakers, musicians and awards.
“We are deeply grateful for their commitment, enthusiasm and selflessness. They are making a tremendous difference in the lives of so many people.”
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