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3 Things Your Non-Profit Can Learn From Grassroots Groups

Posted By Jenn Jozwiak, VECTor 2015 Conference Presenter, January 28, 2016
Updated: January 27, 2016

Jenn Jozwiak presents “From Passion to Action: What Grassroots Groups Do Differently” at the 2016 VECTor Conference on March 9, 2016. Register now to choose her workshop, and check out some great tips below!


Ontario has a thriving community of volunteers: from film festivals in Toronto, animal rescue centres in Burlington, food banks across the province and all sorts of organizations in between, there are a variety of non-profits supported by volunteer efforts. Often, when we think about volunteerism, large agencies such as the United Way, Habitat for Humanity, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation may come to mind. But there are thousands of non-profit organizations operating across Ontario – and over half of them (53%) aren’t just assisted by volunteers, they’re completely run by them.

These organizations are what we’ve termed grassroots groups. In March 2015, Volunteer Toronto launched the Grassroots Growth Project to help these groups effectively manage their volunteers. After five months of research the Grassroots Growth team completed an in-depth report that outlines the unique challenges that volunteer-run non-profits face and the creative ways groups meet these challenges.

The report also identified 10 characteristics that distinguish grassroots groups from other non-profit organizations (aside from the fact that they have no paid staff!). Three of these characteristics showcase ways of doing things that might be productively applied to traditional volunteer management.


Grassroots groups create a supportive community for their members.

All organizations that engage volunteers work hard to support and sustain their members. However, grassroots groups completely rely on these relationships for their success, since everyone involved is a volunteer. Grassroots organizations frequently mentor each other, work together to build skills, and help one another to access other services. These supportive relationships encourage friendships within the organization and inspire long-term volunteerism.


Grassroots groups are built on community relationships.

Of course, all non-profit organizations are invested in building strong relationships within their communities. Grassroots groups, however, tend to blur the boundaries between professional and personal relationships in a highly productive way, forming working relationships out of personal community connections and developing friendships through a commitment to shared passions. Relationships are rooted in the desire to work collaboratively towards common goals, whether by partnering on particular projects or simply sharing supports and resources.


A shared mission and vision consistently motivates grassroots groups.

Non-profit organizations start with an idea of how to make things better. This is what inspires staff to join organizations, and mobilizes volunteers to lend a hand to groups they believe in. Sometimes, though, we forget the reason we wanted to do the work in the first place. Grassroots groups, on the other hand – because they remain “grassroots”  – tend to stay close to the passion that drove them from the start. Often, the people who came up with the original vision are still intimately involved in the group’s activities. Volunteers who assist the organization have an opportunity to connect with its founders. The result is that a shared mission and vision consistently links all members of the grassroots group.


Wondering how you might apply these characteristics to your own work with volunteers? Curious about how these approaches might benefit you? Then join me on March 9 at
VECTor, where I’ll cover strategies to incorporate a grassroots framework into more traditional volunteer coordination, and discuss in more depth the benefits to taking a grassroots approach volunteer management – at least some of the time.

  Jenn Jozwiak is currently the Education Coordinator with the Grassroots Growth project at Volunteer Toronto, where she is developing training workshops, a series of handbooks, and online content for volunteer-run non-profits. She has worked with volunteers at Hot Docs and TIFF, and established and managed her own grassroots film festival in Winnipeg. Jenn spends her days off drinking tea, watching movies, and reading about writing.


Tags:  grassroots groups  Grassroots organizations  Networking  Non-profits  Ontario  Professional Development  Toronto  VECTor 2016  VECTor Conference  VECTor Presenter 

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INFOGRAPHIC: Are Your Policies & Procedures Following The Rules?

Posted By Kasandra James, Subscriptions Coordinator, January 26, 2016
 Ontario legislation, Ontario Human Rights Code, Ontario Employment Standards Act, Personal Information Protection, Electronic Documents Act, Occupational Health & Safety Act, AODA, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Canadian Ant-Spam Legislation
  As Volunteer Toronto’s Subscriptions Coordinator, Kasandra is the first point of contact for non-profits looking for support.
She facilitates monthly Subscriber Circle discussion groups for managers and coordinators of volunteers, contributes to our
Sector Space newsletter and social media communications, and makes sure our subscriptions package continues to help
non-profit organizations build capacity through volunteer involvement.


Tags:  Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act  AODA  Canadian Ant-Spam Legislation  Electronic Documents Act  INFORGRAPHIC  Occupational Health & Safety Act  Ontario Employment Standards Act  Ontario Human Rights Code  Ontario legislation  Personal Information Protection 

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What I’ve Learned From Our High School Volunteers

Posted By Leigh Paulseth, VECTor 2015 Presenter, January 21, 2016
Updated: January 20, 2016

Leigh Paulseth presents “Recruiting our Next Leaders: Creating a High School Volunteer Program” at the 2016 VECTor Conference on March 9, 2016.  

Register now to choose her workshop, and check out some great tips below!


Working for an environmental non-profit organization, it is easy to feel down sometimes about the state of the world. The issues are so big and we are constantly looking for the resources to cope. How can a volunteer, let alone a teenager, possibly provide the solution? It’s simple - they provide hope.

Since the launch of our high school volunteer program two years ago, Friends of the Rouge Watershed have trained 21 youth in leadership and environmental action. They have volunteered at countless events, organized youth conferences and even gone on to run their own successful events incorporating our brand and mission. Two years ago I thought that was impossible; now I think that anything is possible. Here are a few of the lesson I’ve learned in watching these great youth volunteers develop:

You can’t do everything yourself.

Giving youth the opportunity to lead opens doors that your organization never knew could be opened.

You don’t have all the answers.

Training youth is more about sharing experiences than imparting knowledge to a younger generation. You will learn as much from them as they will from you.

We’re going to be OK.

The next generation is motivated and enthusiastic; given the opportunity, support and resources, they will make the world a better place.

Creating a high school volunteer program requires clear goals to be set by youth and the organization. Often it takes some time to set these up properly, but it is possible and the outcome is more than worthwhile. I look forward to sharing our own program’s challenges and successes at the VECTor Conference this March.


Leigh Paulseth is FRW’s Environmental Projects and Volunteer Coordinator. Her studies in Conservation Biology (B.Sc.) and Environmental Management (MREM) led her to pursue work in active environmental stewardship. She uses her past experience protecting private lands with land trusts to protect and restore public land in the Rouge. Leigh enjoys working with local communities to address local environmental issues both inside and outside of work. She loves to travel, canoe and is a beginner knitter.

Follow them on Twitter: @frwatershed

Tags:  advice for working with youth  attracting youth volunteers  Friends of The Rouge Watershed  high school volunteers  how to get youth volunteers  VECTor 2016  VECTor Presenter  Working with youth volunteers  Youth volunteers 

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What We're Doing To Help Grassroots Groups Grow

Posted By Melina Condren, Director of Engaging Organizations, January 19, 2016
Updated: January 19, 2016

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Grassroots groups are an incredible resource for communities across Ontario. They’re powered by passion and dedication to a cause—a group of people who come together in their free time to spark social change. These amazing volunteers often don’t have access to the same resources and support that larger non-profits have, so about a year ago, Volunteer Toronto set out to help them.

But we weren’t sure where to start. So we asked, we listened, and we learned some important lessons. Through focus groups, a survey, and a series of case studies, we got to know grassroots groups in Toronto and across Ontario. We learned that they’re often formed casually, when a group of friends or neighbours see a problem that needs to be solved. We learned that they’re generous not only with their time, but also with their money, since many of them are self-funded. We learned that they’re resourceful, resilient, and innovative. And we learned that they face challenges that keep them from reaching their full potential—challenges that we hope to help them overcome.

Here's only a handful of the challenges they face and the solutions we've come up with to help. 

Challenges faced by Grassroots Groups in Ontario and our solutions to help them grow 


All this barely scratches the surface of what we learned and how we plan to offer support. To learn more, you can read our research report, sign up for a workshop, or like us on Facebook to stay up to date on everything the project has to offer.


  Melina oversees all of Volunteer Toronto's services for organizations, including our training program, volunteer management conference, subscriptions program, and new Grassroots Growth project. Her priority is to ensure our services are effectively helping non-profits build capacity through volunteer involvement and continue to meet the
ever-evolving needs of the voluntary sector.

Tags:  Burnout  Challenges for Grassroots Organizations  Free Access To Online Volunteer Opportunity Databa  From The Bottom Up Research Report  Grassroots  Grassroots Growth  Identifying Grassroots Resources  Isolation From Other Grassroots Organizations  Mentorship  Networking  Volunteer Recruitment 

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How Non-Profits Can Recruit and Manage Skilled Volunteers

Posted By Leila MacDonald, VECTor16 Presenter, January 14, 2016
Updated: January 13, 2016
 Senior woman smiling

Lelia MacDonald presents “How to Recruit & Manage Professional Volunteers” at the 2016
VECTor Conference on March 9, 2016. 
Register now to choose her workshop, and check out some great tips below!


A skilled volunteer is a professional who offers specific expertise, for example in HR, strategy or marketing.  Unlike volunteers who help with operations, skilled volunteers help management. 


Why do you need a skilled volunteer?

·      Expertise that fills a gap

·      Short term (you don’t need to nurture them over time like an employee)

·      Unbiased third party (they are not tied to the ways things used to be and they don’t have pet projects)

·      Outside perspective (they are not caught up in the daily crises, so it’s easier for them to see the big picture)


6 Steps For Recruiting and Managing Skilled Volunteers


1. Recruit

Write a job description and post on:

·      Online posting boards (such as Volunteer Toronto)

·      Your own website, LinkedIn, Facebook, and through connections of your Board of Directors

·      Local companies with a large head office

·      In Toronto, MAS is a pro bono consulting charity


2. Understand what is in it for them

You can pay a skilled volunteer in ways other than money.  Perhaps they want to build their resume or learn a new industry.  Perhaps they want to give back using the skills they learned in their career.  Perhaps they want to see the difference they can make.  Being open about their needs will help you trust them to stay motivated and give their project the attention it deserves.


3. Select

Interview them like you would a prospective employee.  Check for good listening skills, easy-to-understand language, and a spirit of collaboration.


4. Manage

Mutually structure the relationship like a consultant.  Draw up a proposal that defines the frequency of meetings and the topics to be investigated. 


5. Orient your volunteer

Even if your volunteer is only around for one project, make sure they understand the mission and structure of your organization, and that they know how their work fits into the bigger picture of what you do.


6. Make it worthwhile

At the end, finish with a close form.  This is how you “pay” your skilled volunteer.  It gives them a sense of accomplishment and closure.  It formalizes what they can put on their resume and what you will say as a reference.

Lelia MacDonald is a Volunteer Consultant with MAS, a charity that gives pro bono advice to Toronto nonprofits since 1993. MAS’s 50 Volunteer Consultants in governance, strategy, marketing, HR and fundraising are professionals who give back using the skills they learned in their careers.

Tags:  how to get volunteers for your event  Ontario  Toronto  VECTor 2016  VECTor Conference  volunteer management  volunteer recruitment  volunteering 

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What Makes A Great Volunteer?

Posted By Volunteer Toronto, January 12, 2016
Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes  


Volunteers all come with great qualities and skills, but occasionally you come across someone who is the perfect fit for the role you have and who continues to wow you time and time again. Someone you acknowledge and appreciate as being a fantastic volunteer. So what qualities are universal to great volunteers?



A volunteer who is enthusiastic and positive about their tasks and responsibility is often a pleasure to work with. We all know most roles have an unglamorous side to them, whether it’s lugging boxes at an event or cleaning up after five-year olds at an after-school program. A great volunteer will have the same enthusiasm whether they’re doing their favourite part of the role, or a task that is a little mundane.



A great volunteer will make an effort to know their role and responsibilities well, and won’t hesitate to go a step beyond what the role entails while respecting boundaries, protocol and the expectations of the organization. They’ll proactively seek ways to improve their work, apply their strengths to the tasks and work on their weaknesses. They may even go a step further and make innovative suggestions for changes that will improve how your organization works.



Volunteers are often representatives of your organization and to external stakeholders like service users, they may assume a volunteer is a member of staff when they see them in a position of authority. That’s why it’s always great to find a volunteer who really understands professionalism; everything from suitable dress code to appropriate demeanour.



An exceptional volunteer will recognize the importance of trust and reliability, and will make an effort to turn up when they should and be on time. Of course, life happens, and they may occasionally have to cancel, but if they do, they’ll let you know with as much notice as possible. In short, you’ll never question their commitment to the role!


At Volunteer Toronto, every day we hear tidbits about volunteers across the city with all of these traits, making Toronto a city we’re proud to live in. Our annual Legacy Awards began in 2011 and shine a light on 25 special volunteers who are great volunteers and have made an exceptional contribution to their community. We are accepting nominations for the 2016 Legacy Awards until 5pm on Thursday February 4th. If you know someone who deserves an award, click here to nominate them!

Camara Chambers manages Volunteer Toronto's public engagement strategy and team. This includes working with community partners, leading large-scale events and overseeing various programs that aim to encourage Torontonians to volunteer. In 2014, the community engagement team helped connect 550,000 people to volunteer positions in Toronto!

Tags:  best volunteers  find a volunteer  finding a great volunteer  good volunteers  happy volunteers  how to be a great volunteer  Ontario  Toronto  volunteer  Volunteer positions  volunteer recognition  volunteers 

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Be Prepared: Answers To The 5 Most Common Excuses Non-Profit Staff Use To Avoid Engaging Volunteers

Posted By Sammy Feilchenfeld, Training Coordinator, January 6, 2016

 Estimated reading time: 4 minutes


It’s a new year and you’re thinking about growing your volunteer program– more volunteers means more impact right? Well, before you get more volunteers on board, consider how that will affect the staff of your organization! Getting staff buy-in for volunteer involvement is an important step to ensuring a successful volunteer program. You might face some resistance getting volunteers–or more volunteers–engaged in your organization. Here’s a few helpful tips to help you respond to the 5 most common excuses non-profit staff use to avoid engaging volunteers:


It’s more trouble than it’s worth”

Volunteers bring great benefits to:

       The organization by increasing the number of work hours, skills & perspectives contributing toward achieving your mission

       The community by potentially improving the quality and types of services you provide

       The volunteers by providing valuable experience, skills and a sense of community

       The staff by teaching them supervision and management skills along with more resources available to the staff team


“I don’t want someone else to do my job”

 Volunteers shouldn’t be brought into do the same work as paid program staff; they should supplement that work by adding value for clients & the organization. Staff can even help create volunteer roles based on their support needs!


“I don’t know how to work with volunteers”

You may need to provide training for staff on some elements of volunteer management, but the added benefit is that this training will give staff a better understanding of the value of volunteer engagement.


“I don’t have the time”

Staff shouldn’t supervise volunteers unless it’s in their actual job description, so it should be built into the plan for those individuals’ time. Senior leadership should also provide support to these staff to develop management skills and recognize their contribution.


“We don’t really need volunteers”

Remember your organization’s mission – if the strategic and work plans include volunteers to achieve your goals, then the benefits are clear and volunteers should be brought on board!

It may be difficult to get staff to buy-in to volunteer involvement – being prepared with answers to their comments can be a great start. You should also consider providing training for your staff about the volunteer program; if you don’t know where to start, try using the Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement as a guide.

If you really want to get a head start on getting staff ready for volunteers, check out Volunteer Toronto’s On-Demand Training program. Our knowledgeable and dedicated trainers will come to your space to provide training on specialized topics for an affordable price! 

As Volunteer Toronto's Training Coordinator, Sammy develops and delivers in-person, online and on-demand training in order to support managers and coordinators of volunteers in Toronto’s non-profit and charitable organizations. 

Tags:  How to convince staff they need volunteers  how to get staff buy-in for volunteer engagement  volunteer leaders  volunteer management  volunteer programs 

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5 Tips For Securing Grants

Posted By Rui Miguel Martins, Volunteer Guest Blogger, December 16, 2015
Updated: December 15, 2015

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes


For many non-profits, grants are crucial to delivering their programs and services, and for some, it is their primary source of funding. However, the process of applying for grants can often seem complex and overwhelming. Anne Morais has over 15 years of experience in writing successful grants, and she shared her knowledge and expertise to a group of non-profit leaders.

The discussion was part of Volunteer Toronto’s Trailblazer Series, a set of leadership talks geared towards people who run grassroots non-profits. Our guest blogger, Rui Miguel Martins, provides a summary of the 5 Tips for Securing Grants.

Seek Tri-alignment

There needs to be perfect alignment between the organization, intended beneficiaries and the grant makers. It is always important that the program aligns with the agency’s mandate. And at the same time, it must align with the needs of those you are looking to help.  Non-profit leaders should remember that the program is about the needs of those they serve and not the needs of their organization.  And finally, it should align with the priorities of the grant maker.

Create A Clear and Consistent Program Design

It is important to establish a clear objective. Construct a detailed description of what you want to accomplish, and how you are going to do it. Grant makers need to understand how their money is going to benefit those in need. Remember the outcome is the most important part of the process. It needs to be results based and not theoretical. Government programs will ask for long-term, mid-term and short-term outcomes. A good idea is to find a clear example of how a similar program has yielded positive results.

Use Clear, Consistent and Collaborative Writing

"For grant writing, the greatest tool you have is words,” Morais says.  Your words need to reflect both clarity and thought. Assume that the person you are writing for knows nothing about the sector. Limit the number of ideas to one paragraph each. Do not use weak verbs like “I look to”, rather use “I will.” Always remember that the goal is to solve a problem, so consistency in all aspects is very important.  It is also a good idea to incorporate the grant maker’s language and vocabulary as much as possible.

Establish Partnerships

Keep an open mind to partnerships. Collaborating demonstrates that you are solving the problem. Partnerships can work on many levels, including fundraising, service provision or promotion. Start thinking about partnerships before writing the grant. Look at where you need help. Be open to working with for-profits, governments and local groups, in order to get things done. "It is about identifying what you do well and what you don’t do well, and finding a solution,” Morais says.

Create a Good Budget for the Project

Design a budget that is realistic and practical. It needs to be reasonable and cost-effective from the point of view of the grant maker. Ensure the math is right. Grant makers often provide their own budget form, so it is important to follow the guidelines. Do your research beforehand.; most grant makers have specific parameters when it comes to certain costs, like administration, which is usually between 12-15% of the budget.

To find out more about writing great grant proposals, visit Anne Morais’ website


Rui Miguel Martins is a communications specialist and social media strategist based in Toronto. He currently volunteers his time at Make A Change Canada, Yonge Street Mission, as well as at Volunteer Toronto.

Tags:  Grant writing  how to apply for funding  how to find funding for your non-profit  how to get grants  non-profit funding  non-profit grants 

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How Do YOU Inspire Action?

Posted By Melina Condren, Director of Engaging Organizations, December 10, 2015
Updated: December 10, 2015

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes 

Inspiration is an important part of any volunteer’s journey. It’s what makes people want to give back to their community and what motivates them to stick around, week after week, giving their time, energy and skills to a good cause. As its title suggests, this blog is all about inspiring action—and so is our upcoming conference for volunteer managers!

The schedule has just been released for VECTor (Volunteering, Engaging, Connecting Toronto) 2016, and the common theme across all workshops, panels and discussion groups is 'Inspiring Action'—how to get volunteers interested, keep them motivated and make sure you have a dedicated, driven team. We’ll hear from our amazing VECTor presenters in the months to come, but to get you thinking about inspiring action in your volunteer program, let’s take a closer look at what you can do in the months ahead.  

Tell the Volunteer Story

Nothing is more inspiring than hearing about regular people doing amazing things. Learning about your current volunteers’ impact can help potential volunteers picture themselves in the role and gain confidence in their ability to have an impact in your organization. Check out our Volunteers of Toronto site for examples of inspirational volunteer spotlights.

The Mission is the Message

According to the Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement, volunteer programs should have a mission-based approach. That means that all of your volunteer positions should be clearly linked to your organization’s mission, so that volunteers can easily see how they’re making a difference and helping others.

Share Volunteer Impact 

The best way to make sure that initial inspiration doesn’t quickly fade once volunteers are faced with the realities of their work is to share with them the impact of the role. Make sure you track volunteer contributions and measure program outcomes to be able to tell volunteers exactly what it is they’re helping you accomplish.

The common thread among these three inspiration strategies is that volunteering—freely giving your time to benefit people who need your help—is inspirational in and of itself! Highlighting that through volunteer stories, mission-based roles and volunteer impact statements can help people understand how valuable volunteering can be, for themselves and for their communities.

Want to learn more about inspiring volunteer action? Check out the VECTor 2016 website and stay tuned for Registration to open in January 2016!

  Melina oversees all of Volunteer Toronto's services for organizations, including our training program, volunteer management conference, subscriptions program, and new Grassroots Growth project. Her priority is to ensure our services are effectively helping non-profits build capacity through volunteer involvement and continue to meet the
ever-evolving needs of the voluntary sector.

Tags:  get people volunteering  how to motivate volunteers  Inspiring volunteers  supervise volunteers  volunteer action  volunteer management  volunteerism  ways to volunteer 

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Three Tips For Training Adult Learners

Posted By Sammy Feilchenfeld, Training Coordinator, December 8, 2015
Updated: December 7, 2015

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes 


Orientation and training is vital for all volunteers to meet the responsibilities of their role and perform their duties effectively and safely. Without a proper orientation, your volunteers can’t serve as ambassadors for your organization, and without training specific to their role, your volunteer may not be meeting the needs of the community in their work!

Many of the volunteers you’ll be engaging will likely be “older learners” – this means they’re no longer in a formal learning environment (school or post-secondary education). Are you prepared to provide orientation and training for these types of learners? Adults learn in different ways, and it might have been a while since their last formal training experience. They may not be familiar with the etiquette or appropriate behaviour, and they may not have the same skills to retain knowledge!

If you want to make sure you’re providing effective orientation and training for your volunteers, take note of these helpful tips for teaching older learners:

Keep Training Practical

Keep training practical with a variety of techniques (discussions, quizzes, role play) to empower your volunteers to learn by doing and cover more information faster.

Understand Different Learning Styles

Your volunteers may be visual learners, preferring to see what they’re learning to understand it, or auditory learners, preferring to be told or hear something to learn it. There are also verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary learners!

Anticipate Needs

Volunteers may be more engaged knowing there’s food on the way, or a pot of coffee ready. Others may want multiple breaks to stretch, move around, or even socialize. Consider if you’ll allow volunteers to be checking their phone or e-mails, or if they’re able to leave the training session at any time.


Want to make sure you’re providing the best orientation and training for your volunteers – including your older learners? Our Volunteer Management Basics: Orientation & Training is a FREE course for Volunteer Toronto subscribers, and is also free with the purchase of any of our paid courses. Along with more details about teaching adults and older learners, you’ll learn more about planning your orientation, providing great training and ensuring inclusive, accessible and effective facilitation.

Not a Subscriber? Learn more about our great subscription program. Want another way to get access to our free courses? Check out our paid courses – any paid course comes with full access to all free courses!

As Volunteer Toronto's Training Coordinator, Sammy develops and delivers in-person, online and on-demand training in order to support managers and coordinators of volunteers in Toronto’s non-profit and charitable organizations. 

Tags:  adult learners  free online learning  learn differently  learning styles  online learning  volunteer orientation  volunteer training 

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Volunteer Background Checks: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

Posted By Brian Mazoff, Eastern Canada Regional Director of Sales for SterlingBackcheck, December 3, 2015
Updated: December 2, 2015

 Estimated reading time: 4 minutes


While it’s true that background checks are only a part of what volunteer-driven organizations need to do to ensure they're providing a safe environment for their members, they also play a critical role in the screening process for certain positions.

If a volunteer position involves working alone with vulnerable people, or involves some activity that may be related to a record of offences (such as driving or handling money), a background check can help identify potential problems before they start. This is where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, possibly preventing an abusive or risky individual from working or volunteering with vulnerable populations. 

Volunteer Toronto’s partnership with SterlingBackcheck’s service offers affordable background screening services to their subscribers with easy online access. Applicants are guided through the simple step-by-step process and administrators save time by facilitating ordering and managing records all online. Results are delivered directly to the requesting organization.  With SterlingBackcheck’s stringent privacy policy restricting access to data, background screening results are stored only on secure sites, never transmitted by unsecured means and are stored in a secure Canadian facility.

For positions serving children or vulnerable adults, the Enhanced Police Information Check is recommended.  This not only covers the RCMP’s National Repository of Criminal Records, but goes beyond to search databases of locally-held police information on a national scale.  This ensures that the current two-year backlog of the CPIC database is covered, while also identifying any recent negative police contact, such as charges which haven’t yet resulted in convictions.  Highly sensitive and irrelevant information, such as mental health records, are not disclosed in accordance with guidance from privacy regulators.

Occasionally, organizations rely on ‘waivers of declaration’, in which prospective volunteers or employees will sign a document acknowledging that they have no record.  That’s the extent of the process and no actual background check is performed. While I sympathize with tight budgets--a common conundrum among not-for-profit organizations--this is a risky practice. If a position is deemed to require a background check, it’s better to go ahead with the process than risk having applicants who don’t disclose the truth.

There are many other practices, such as requiring that two adults be present at all times when dealing with a vulnerable individual, that go a long way to reduce incidents of abuse.  However, the most essential method of prevention remains a thorough vetting of your volunteer members with appropriate screening methods. Knowing who you’re trusting to work with your most vulnerable populations reduces risks of abuse, liability and reputational damage, all of which are possible death knells to any volunteer organization.

As with any collection of personal information—especially sensitive information regarding police contact and criminal history—be sure to document your practices and your justification for them in a background check policy. Additionally, your policy should be vetted by legal counsel to ensure your program is consistent and compliant with any applicable privacy and human rights law. You can also learn more about how to make sure that you use information from background checks responsibly through Volunteer Toronto’s training on Police Checks and the Ontario Human Rights Code.



Brian Mazoff has been working with SterlingBackcheck – Canada’s leading provider of employment and volunteer screening – since 2008. As Regional Director of Sales for Eastern Canada, Brian consults with hundreds of organizations to help implement compliant screening processes. Active in volunteer organizations from a young age and having worked with children’s organizations for nearly ten years, Brian is familiar with many of the challenges facing today’s non-profit and youth groups.

Tags:  Background Screening for volunteers  Police Records Checks  Police screening  Volunteer Police Records Checks 

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5 Questions Grassroots Leaders Should Ask Themselves

Posted By Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement, December 2, 2015
Updated: December 1, 2015
 Senior woman smiling
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes              


The Trailblazer Series is a set of leadership talks for people who run grassroots non-profits. On November 24th 2015, Volunteer Toronto held a session called “Great Leaders Ask The Right Questions”, facilitated by Edward Johnson, a consultant with broad international experience in leading teams and change in the finance and technology corporate sectors.

Here is a snapshot of what was covered.


The task of leading a team or a non-profit group can be a difficult one. Regardless of what type of leader you are or the qualities you possess, these five questions can ensure you’re the kind of leader people want to follow.


What do our stakeholders want?

Leaders need to be able to clearly define and understand their key stakeholders. Knowing their needs, interests and expectations is as important as being able to convey to stakeholders the benefits of being involved in your organization.


Am I hearing what’s being said?

When speaking with team members, leaders should aim to pay full attention to what is being communicated as well as make a conscious effort to understand the complete message being sent. The best way to do this when problem solving with your team, Johnson explains, is Listen, Ask, Decide. Asking provides the opportunity for you to summarize what you have heard and get clarification before a decision is made.


What motivates you?

“Motivation is on a personal level,” Johnson explains. “Leaders need to first understand what motivates that person. It is about avoiding assumptions and asking questions. It is about connecting.”

What motivates one person won’t motivate another, and so it’s necessary to get to the crux of what drives each member of your team.


What don’t I know?

At times, a leader will come across someone who is more skilled or knowledgeable than them in a particular area. It’s important to know your limitations and strengths. Nobody knows everything, and understanding your own blind spots and weak areas in itself is a strength.


What doesn’t matter?

There will be times when being a leader is going to be difficult. “When dealing with stress, a leader has to keep a clear head,” Johnson says.  “People are going to get things done, but it is about prioritization.” Knowing what’s important for your organization and what isn’t, and being able to clearly and consistently communicate that to your team to ensure they are on the same page is a crucial part of leading a group. Be highly focused, and focus determinedly on the right things. 

Looking for more great information? Attend our next Trailblazer Series on December 9th! The topic is "5 Tips For Securing Grants" with guest facilitator Anne Morais, who has over 15 years of experience writing successful grant applications. 

Camara Chambers manages Volunteer Toronto's public engagement strategy and team. This includes working with community partners, leading large-scale events and overseeing various programs that aim to encourage Torontonians to volunteer. In 2014, the community engagement team helped connect 550,000 people to volunteer positions in Toronto!


Tags:  charities  good leaders  grassroots groups  Grassroots organizations  how to be a leader  leadership  non-profit  questions leaders ask  Trailblazer Series 

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INFOGRAPHIC: 7 Questions You Need To Ask When Assessing and Managing Risks In Your Volunteer Roles

Posted By Kasandra James, Subscriptions Coordinator, December 1, 2015
Updated: December 1, 2015
 infographic - 7 Questions You Need To Ask When Assessing and Managing Risks In Your Volunteer Roles
  As Volunteer Toronto’s Subscriptions Coordinator, Kasandra is the first point of contact for non-profits looking for support.
She facilitates monthly Subscriber Circle discussion groups for managers and coordinators of volunteers, contributes to our
Sector Space newsletter and social media communications, and makes sure our subscriptions package continues to help
non-profit organizations build capacity through volunteer involvement.


Tags:  risks with volunteers  volunteer engagement  Volunteer Management  volunteer orientation  volunteer screening  volunteer supervisors  volunteer training 

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The Three “Big L’s” Of Successful Grassroots Groups

Posted By Louroz Mercader, November 26, 2015
Updated: November 24, 2015

 Estimated reading time: 2 minutes


From my years working with grassroots leaders, I’ve learned three core elements that are needed for any grassroots group to be successful. These building blocks can help a group understand the big picture of their development, solve problems and set priorities for learning and action. I like to call them the “Big L’s.”

It’s important to take the time to ensure your members know the basics of how your organization functions—what the different roles are, how decisions are made and how leaders are selected.

Many grassroots groups will get so caught up with their community work that it becomes hard to find time to sustain and grow the organization. Strong teams pay attention to issues such as how members make decisions and the way their group is structured (for example: members, committees, board of directors).




A strong grassroots group continually develops new knowledge, learns from its work and reflects on what it is doing.

A good habit to start is to get your team to reflect by always asking, “What works? What can be better?” to help meetings, projects and fundraisers reach their full potential.

Evaluation after each activity provides an opportunity for a group to reflect on its development and become stronger for the future.



A group’s community work is the main reason that many members join. Through this work, a grassroots group makes its community a better place to live.

One way a strong grassroots organization takes a leadership role is by working collaboratively with other organizations. These other organizations can support each other by providing expert advice or funding, while others can become partners that work with a group to carry out joint projects together to expand reach and increase impact.



Use the “3L’s” formula as a guide when establishing or maintaining your group projects. It’s a great way to keep your your team focussed, on track and growing strong together. 

As Community Outreach Coordinator for the Grassroots Growth project, Louroz reaches out to volunteer-run groups in Toronto and across Ontario to help spread the word about the project and get our services out to those who need them most. 

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3 Things To Think About When Recognizing Your Volunteers

Posted By Sammy Feilchenfeld, Training Coordinator, November 17, 2015
Updated: November 16, 2015

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes 


As Volunteer Toronto’s Training Coordinator, one of the questions I hear more than any other is “how do I recognize my volunteers?” With the United Nations International Volunteer Day fast approaching on December 5th, this is the perfect time to think about meaningful ways to thank your volunteers! We have a lot of resources and online courses on this topic, but volunteer needs and wants change all the time - the person best suited to know what kind of recognition your volunteers want is…you!

Let me break down what the research says first. In a recent survey from Volunteer Canada, we found that volunteers prefer, more than anything, to be told about the impact of their work. After that, they want to be thanked in-person, informally and prefer informal events over letters and formal events.

When organizations were asked what kind of recognition they like to give volunteers, they put thanking them informally at the top too, but follow that with letters and formal events. Based on this research, it looks like organizations and volunteers aren’t on the same page when it comes to recognition!

We know recognizing volunteers helps them feel appreciated, valued and like integral members of your team, but the wrong recognition may send the wrong message. If you have lots of volunteers, you don’t want to relegate your recognition to impersonal form letters.

 Graph taken from Volunteer Canada's Volunteer Recognition Study


So how do you recognize your volunteers in a meaningful way?


1. Get to know their motivations
People volunteer for many different reasons. Get to know why they’re there and what keeps them returning. Maybe your volunteers are looking for more social interactions or to gain skills for their careers. Can you think of some recognition methods that could serve those motivations? For example, if they're looking for work, a reference letter would be a great form of recognition that matches their motivations!

2. Get to know their work
Even though you may have many volunteer roles that do a lot of different things, get an idea of what your volunteers are actually doing, and how that serves your mission, to make your recognition relevant. Don’t just thank them for their work, thank them for the specific thing they did that day that made an impact!

3. Get to know their preferences
As the Volunteer Canada survey noted, it’s important to recognize your volunteers in the way they prefer. Ask your volunteers what kind of recognition they’d appreciate, and do your best to cater to that. Maybe your annual banquet can be skipped in favour of a more meaningful means of recognition.


It’s easy to informally recognize your volunteers every day in a meaningful way. Treat volunteers as team members and ask for their input. Ask your volunteers if they are satisfied, allow room for them to grow and make them aware of other volunteer contributions (and their impact). Most importantly – and probably most easily too – take the time to say thank you, especially on December 5, International Volunteer Day!

Check out Volunteer Toronto's online learning centre to get more recognition tips!  


As Volunteer Toronto's Training Coordinator, Sammy develops and delivers in-person, online and on-demand training in order to support managers and coordinators of volunteers in Toronto’s non-profit and charitable organizations. 

Tags:  how to thank your volunteers  Thanking your volunteers  Volunteer appreciation  Volunteer recognition  volunteer retention  what kind of recognition do volunteers want? 

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