At the St. Felix Centre, volunteers like Art Arbor are the backbone to the agency’s survival. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Volunteer policy change helps St. Felix Centre survive, thrive

By 
  • January 18, 2013

TORONTO - A decision made five years ago to embrace the contributions of the short-term volunteer helped the St. Felix Centre survive at a time when its future was uncertain.

It’s a move that is now helping the downtown Toronto drop-in centre run by the Felician Sisters thrive.

“I did an organizational audit of St. Felix Centre just about this time five years ago because the sisters were struggling with what was their direction and where would they go with the organization, what would they do, and there were some financial issues,” said Paddy Bowen, who was hired as the centre’s executive director after completing the audit. “St. Felix Centre was very classic in the sense that it over depended on long-term volunteers and always went back to the same people asking them to do things.
“(Now) we welcome and absorb every kind of volunteer you can imagine.”

While working as a consultant, Bowen noticed that many volunteers looked to donate time in a short-term, often low-skilled, uncommitted capacity. Traditionally that had been the type of volunteer that Bowen, a former president of Volunteer Canada, said agencies who rely on volunteers tend to avoid. St. Felix Centre was no different.

“When I did the audit one of the things that I noted was that the organization didn’t celebrate or benefit from volunteer contributions as much as it could,” said Bowen. “There wasn’t a philosophy around volunteers and that was one of my major recommendations.”

While the centre still seeks out the truly committed jack-of-all-trades, its objective has shifted from where can it get a volunteer to fill a specific role to what role can be filled based on a volunteer’s skills and availability.

“We revolutionized the volunteer program here,” said Bowen.

Doing so has allowed the centre to tap into younger generations who view volunteering differently than their elders.

“The generation before, they volunteered primarily out of a sense of morality and duty,” said Bowen. “People in there 20s and 30s are not interested in becoming volunteers who are going to get a 15- or 20-year pin.”

This has helped increase the annual number of volunteers from 250 to 450 in just five years. Over this same period the centre also increased its services by offering a dinner program Monday to Thursday, which sees about 80 clients per day, in addition to the pre-existing weekday lunch and after-school program — all without a significant change in funding.

“We expanded our programs and increased our service by creating a stellar volunteer program,” said Bowen. “We believe that our volunteers are people we serve as much as our clients.”

Sometimes the volunteers are the centre’s clients — another untapped component of the volunteer demographic. While many of the clients’ lifestyles make long-term commitments challenging, allowing them to volunteer when able has about 150 clients taking a turn serving their peers.

“We do appreciate our single-day volunteers,” said manager of volunteers Jayson Fan Miguel, one of the centre’s seven paid staff. “Particularly group volunteers who come in for the day to help out in any way they can and for other individual volunteers.”

But embracing the short-term volunteer doesn’t come without challenges. A greater number of volunteers means an increased administrative demand to manage and schedule them efficiently. That’s why, according to Bowen, Fan Miguel was hired in October as the manager of volunteers.

And the erratic and limited availability of short-term volunteers makes things such as training a challenge, but that’s where the St. Felix Centre’s modern mentality regarding recruiting comes in. By allowing volunteers to do a variety of different jobs based on their pre-existing skill sets and interests, the training required is greatly reduced, if it’s needed at all.

 

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