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61 per cent of local non-profits saw decrease in volunteer involvement in 2021: survey

Meanwhile some local organizations saw a surge in new volunteers
20211030 community harvest days AD 1
A volunteer dumps a bucket of carrots into a giant tub at a SEED food initiative on a farm east of Guelph last fall.

A new report from the People and Information Network (PIN) has found 61 per cent of local non-profits and charities surveyed saw a decrease in volunteer involvement between September of 2020 and September of 2021, with the decline attributed to the ongoing effects of the pandemic. 

PIN, formerly the Volunteer Centre of Guelph Wellington, sent its 2021 Community Benefit Sector Survey to over 300 charities and non-profits in Guelph and Wellington County and received around 65 responses, said executive director Kim Cusimano.

"The community benefit sector (non-profits and charities) are known for being resilient, innovative and really creative around the needs of the community and the missions that they serve," Cusimano said. "But capacity has really been stretched in order to safely support the work that they're doing."

In some cases volunteer coordinators have been laid-off or deployed to other areas reducing organizations capacity to manage volunteers, explained Cusimano. Poor internet access, particularly in rural areas became a barrier as volunteer opportunities moved online and COVID-19 risk factors like age and health conditions also kept some people at home, Cusimano continued. 

Fifty-six per cent of organizations surveyed said they were seeing increased demand for their services, while 44 per cent said services had been disrupted in the last year. 

"The pandemic as it's persisting, is causing this gap," Cusimano said. "There's an increased demand and then there's disruption of services and yet there's still issues around funding and sustainability."

She hopes the report will inspire people to volunteer, including in informal ways like shovelling a neighbour's driveway or creating an ice rink at a local park with a friend. 

"When we give, we're not only giving to the community but we're also in turn giving to ourselves," she said. "It helps us have purpose, meaning and connection, even though we're physically disconnected as a result of the pandemic."

Meanwhile some local organizations have seen a surge in volunteers, with 16 per cent of charities and non-profits surveyed by PIN reporting an increase in volunteer involvement between September 2020 and September 2021. 

The SEED, a not-for profit food project at the Guelph Community Health Centre, has seen plenty of new faces helping out at its operation. 

"We've actually on boarded more volunteers in the past two years than we have any other year," said Hannah Senitt, volunteer and student coordinator. 

While the organization had a pool of around 100 people volunteering at its sliding scale community food markets pre-COVID, volunteer numbers surged to almost 400 within the first six months of the pandemic.

The emergency food delivery program The SEED was offering at the start of the pandemic has since transitioned to an online sliding scale grocery store

Volunteers pack baskets, deliver orders, and prepare meals in the kitchen. 

Volunteer numbers currently sit at around 250 people, as some have returned to work full time. 

Senitt attributes the organization's success attracting and retaining volunteers to its innovative programming and policy. 

"I think at this time there's a real active audience to volunteer and folks really wanting to step up and volunteer in person," she said.

Currently The SEED is looking for around 25-30 new volunteers, mostly to assist with packing and delivery as the program expands, Senitt said.