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  • Writer's pictureJessica

Canada Student Service Grant: I have so many questions!

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised $9 billion to support students across the country in his daily coronavirus briefing today (April 22). Part of this included his announcement on the Canada Student Service Grant.

"...the paying job isn’t the only valuable way to spend your summers. Volunteering can be a fantastic way to build skills, make contacts or just give back. If you’re volunteering instead of working, we’re going to make sure that you have support too. Students helping in the fight against COVID-19 this summer will soon be eligible for $1,000 to $5,000 depending on your hours through the new Canada Student Service grant. Your energy and your skills can do a lot of good right now."

This is great news for students and really highlights how important volunteering is in our collective fight against COVID-19. At the same time, I have so many questions about the Canada Student Service Grant! As answers emerge, I'm going to explore my questions a bit further. I'd love to hear your thoughts, please contact me to join the discussion!

Question 1) Why is the grant amount dependent on volunteer hours?

This one is an easy question to answer- it's because hours are the easiest thing to measure!

What's hard to measure? Impact. There are resources to measure impact out there, like the Volunteer Resources Balanced Scorecard (VRBSc) but I can understand how that would add another unnecessary level of bureaucracy to administering this program.

What I fear is that this program will give individuals and non profits the false impression that hours = impact. Why is that equation untrue? Here's a sample around tree planting volunteers that will help you understand:

If you simply look at the number of hours donated, it seems like impact was doubled this year. However, the impact really didn't change at all- in fact, it took twice as much effort to do the same thing!

Right now, I don't have a suggestion on how the Canadian government can tackle this differently. But let me sleep on it, and I hope you think about it too!

Question 2) What does "students helping in the fight against COVID-19" mean?

There are some obvious volunteer roles that fit under this category: volunteers in hospitals and food banks are on the front lines supporting the most vulnerable in our society. But what about students who want to volunteer as tutors or reading buddies? What about students who want to volunteer at animal rescue organizations? This is where things are murky... although not directly linked to the fight against COVID-19, volunteer support in any role does benefit our society.

Consider this... what if a volunteer tutor supported children whose parents were frontline workers and don't have time to help them progress academically? What if a volunteer fostered a pet that couldn't get the right care because their owner was recovering from COVID-19?

I'm curious to see where the government draws the line, or if they draw a line at all.

Which leads me to...

Question 3) What about grassroots volunteer organizations that are not incorporated or registered charities?

53% of Ontario's non-profit organizations are 100% volunteer run, and many of these grassroots groups are not incorporated or registered charities. In fact, numerous grassroots volunteer organizations have sprung up in response to COVID-19 (e.g. Caremongering Facebook groups, Chinese-Canadian WeChat groups, mutual aid Google spreadsheets).

If students volunteer with a grassroots group this summer, will those hours "count" towards earning the Canada Student Service Grant? I hope so, because the Margaret Mead quote doesn't read: "never doubt that when a group gets incorporated and registers as a charity it can change the world, because more paperwork is the only thing that ever has."

Question 4) How will the Canadian government support the organizations that will now have students knocking down their doors to volunteer? Those students need screening, orientation and training, recognition, and stewardship.

There are standards of practice for engaging volunteers in Canada, outlined in Volunteer Canada's Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement. This means that volunteer-involving organizations should have the infrastructure and resources to enable every volunteer's rights and responsibilities.

Imagine Canada is spearheading advocacy to the government for a Sector Resilience Grant Program which will support Canadian non profits in responding to community needs, offsetting revenue loss that will not be covered by the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, and bolstering the sector post-COVID-19.

Experienced volunteer engagement leaders will be critical to ensuring that the students volunteering this summer to qualify for the Canada Student Service Grant have a positive experience, contribute meaningfully to their organizations' missions, and hopefully, continue to support the organization as volunteers or donors post-COVID-19. Engaging students who want to volunteer because of a $1,000-5,000 grant will not be easy, and it should not be a "make work" project.

Volunteer engagement professionals: we need to be strategic and proactive in preparing for this group, especially since coronavirus has reshaped how volunteerisim works. Now is the time to advocate for volunteer engagement to your senior leaders. The more information we have, the more planning and preparation we can do to set the organization and any new or returning volunteers up for success. If you are in limbo, or have been temporarily laid off, the best thing you can do is learn about how our sector is changing. Start by listening to today's Beyond the Bake Sale podcast (season 2, episode 11), featuring one of my favorite volunteer engagement thought leaders, Rob Jackson.

When I hear more about the Canada Student Service Grant, I'll be back with a follow-up blog.

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