Megan Conway and Lorelynn Hart: BC needs empathy in action now more than ever

Opinion: Prior to the pandemic, four in five Canadians engaged in some form of volunteerism. But the pandemic has placed significant operational strain on the non-profit sector amidst ongoing uncertainty

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Empathy is the vital emotion that helps people relate to others. While we can never walk directly in someone else’s shoes, we can try to understand, relate, and walk alongside each other. By volunteering, we help develop empathy by building our awareness around different experiences. It connects people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences in formal and informal settings, creating opportunities to address challenges together. It helps us understand the world around us, and often ourselves, with greater depth. Building this capacity to work collectively and contribute to a vibrant, inclusive society is how we will build back better.

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The last two years have generated a wave of empathy in action — a surge of public interest in volunteerism and grassroots activities. Canadians continuously stepped up to support each other in a variety of creative ways. From celebrating frontline workers, helping neighbours, and not hesitating to act in emergencies, we expressed our empathy through volunteering. During National Volunteer Week (April 24-30), we celebrate and encourage the contributions of BC’s millions of volunteers — their actions, understanding, and genuine concern for the world around them.

Now, as the country imagines its social recovery from the pandemic, the profound human connection created through empathy is at the heart of healing, creating more resilient individuals and stronger communities. Empathy improves our lives, the lives of our children, and the lives of those we support. Canada needs empathy in action, now more than ever.

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Prior to the pandemic, four in five Canadians engaged in some form of volunteerism — as mentors, coaches, organizers, supporters, community builders, fundraisers, board members, caregivers, and good neighbors. During the pandemic, the primary challenge in BC has been organizational demand, not volunteer supply. The pandemic has placed significant operational strain on the non-profit sector amidst ongoing uncertainty. This trend has disrupted volunteer engagement across the province as volunteer demand outstrips the supply of available positions.

At the same time, we are all facing volunteer fatigue — resilient and tireless, we are also a bit worn out. While we continue to draw strength and connection through our empathy in action, caring for the mental health of staff and volunteers is essential. This could include hybrid services, virtual adaptation of programs, and continuing to be technologically innovative. Returning to in-person volunteering with confidence must include the safety concerns of both volunteers and clients.

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BC is a caring province: 43.9 per cent of resident volunteers, contributing a total of 269 million volunteer hours annually. The BC non-profit sector contributes 8.4 per cent to the province’s GDP, constituting $24.3 billion in economic impact. This is why rebuilding volunteer infrastructure is essential to COVID-19 recovery. The development of a National Voluntary Action Strategy will strengthen and innovate volunteering infrastructure to ensure volunteerism thrives in all communities across Canada and will help to future-proof it in more inclusive and robust ways. This includes collaboration with all levels of governments.

Honest reflection on empathy means addressing the real and hidden barriers to volunteering that limit full participation and risks exclusion in our social institutions and communities. We are committed to working with all equity-seeking groups to broaden opportunities and perspectives on ways of engaging in volunteerism.

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To every volunteer, community organization, volunteer center and workplace that engages and supports volunteers, we offer a heartfelt thank you.

Every year Volunteer BC hosts a photo contest to celebrate volunteerism and the work of community organizations like yours. View the photos to see Empathy in Action in BC

Dr. Megan Conway is president and CEO of Volunteer Canada; Lorelynn Hart is program director at Volunteer BC

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