Three National Volunteer Week Questions for Companies

Author: Dr. Megan Conway, President and CEO, Volunteer Canada

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” – Mohsin Hamid

This year’s theme for National Volunteer Week (April 24-April 30) is “Empathy in Action”.  At Volunteer Canada, we believe that empathy is something that needs to be constantly practiced in service of ourselves and the greater good.  Empathy isn’t a destination we arrive at on a map.  It is a journey requiring connections, reflection, and heart.

Historically, we may have had greater ability to distance ourselves from major problems. This is no longer the case as the world is so interconnected. In the past two year, perhaps even more so. The problems of the pandemic, or of climate crises, of racism, and the war in the Ukraine cannot be ignored. These crises are no longer distant and increasingly have deep impacts in our own country, community, and home.

In a recent Angus Reid poll to mark the second anniversary of the pandemic, we see the empathy of Canadians is being strained. An overwhelming majority (82%) believe the pandemic has pulled people apart as opposed to bringing them together (18%). About the same number (79%) say this period has brought out the worst, not the best (21%) in people. Nearly two-thirds (61%) say Canadians’ level of compassion for one another has weakened.

As companies and organizations that intend to do more good in the world through CSR programs, it is essential that corporate leaders consider how they can encourage empathy in action.

At Volunteer Canada, we are excited to support individuals, organizations, companies, and communities to become more curious about how to enable community actions grounded in empathy. Rather than providing concrete answers about how to be or lead empathy in action, we would like to offer you three questions that can support greater discussion and insight within your company and teams about how to work towards empathy in action.

How do you support connection- like really support it?

Connection to the problems and the issues that matter in your community cannot be built overnight. Many leading organizations are building CSR strategies that support employee-led giving and volunteering, with more support for initiatives that last beyond a day. Longer-term and more employee-led activities knits greater connectivity between your organization and the communities it serves. Connections, as we know, often take time to build. When I reflect on how I have built lasting relationships over time, I am reminded that these were rarely built in a day. Those connections become heartfelt when we understand the perspective of the other. At some companies, a greater focus on educating employees about societal issues is informing the actions of individual employees, and CSR initiatives. I encourage you to reflect on concrete strategies to build connection in deeper and more sustained ways.

How do your employee community and volunteering strategies support vulnerability and heart-led engagement?

Empathy is more than kindness; it is also about heart. It is about truly seeing the other and doing so in non-judgemental ways. The crises of the past two years have both amplified the size of social problems and has also disconnected many of us from them. We’ve become focused on personal safety and have had limited opportunities for in-person volunteering in the same ways. Many companies that have seen employee community engagement participation numbers stay high are expanding their definition of volunteering. Action from empathy need not be just as a volunteer with a community organization. Reaching out to a neighbour to see what they need, donating clothes or food, raising money to support a new refugee family in your community are all heart-led actions by employees that companies should be supporting and celebrating. As the pandemic shifts, there may be new ways to deepen appreciation for the scale and size of community challenges and issues which your business can contribute to solving.

Lastly, empathy is also about deep curiosity. How might your corporate community engagement practices build more curiosity? 

Increasingly, we need to support our employees and teams to have the right questions, not the right answers. Supporting an intentional moment of reflection following a community volunteering experience, being open to possibilities and really learning from the community as experts in their own solutions are some strategies that support this.

1/3 of Canadians volunteer with the support of their employer. Through support of heart-led employee community engagement strategies, companies can expand the number of informed, engaged, empathic global citizens in Canada. Exactly the kind of people who can help our country, our communities, and even our businesses, build back better!

As you look forward to National Volunteer Week, I would encourage you to build not just more volunteering activities, but more concrete organizational practices that support your employees on their journey towards greater empathy, and help them recognize how they can turn that into action.

#NVW2022 #EmpathyInAction #VolunteersBringHeart

Resources from Volunteer Canada 


Upcoming: Community Impact and the Role of Employee Resource Groups

About the Author

Megan Conway loves sparking creativity, curiosity and capacity across teams, organizations and networks to mobilize social change.  With twenty years of diverse leadership roles in government and the charitable, voluntary and academic sectors, Megan has been recognized for her ability to scale innovation, to use evaluative thinking to build and adapt programs, and as a systems change champion. 

Dr. Conway earned her PhD at the University of Waterloo in Urban Planning with a focus on community development and scaling social innovations across sites and scales. Megan is most proud, professionally, of her efforts to create systems that enable youth participation, equity and achievement.  Starting as a volunteer in Regent Park, she spent over a decade as a senior leader within Pathways to Education—launching the Kitchener program and then becoming the National Vice President of Programs and Research.  She is also the Co-Founder of the Laurier School in the Community, a unique service-learning offering option at Laurier.  Megan spent eight years as the Academic Chair of Health and Community Programs at Algonquin College in the Ottawa Valley where she launched a Rural Enterprise Hub and managed a diverse professional team of 100 faculty to enable student success. 

Currently Megan serves as an Executive in Residence at Capacity Canada and as a Fellow at Carleton University’s School of Public Administration and Policy where she leads international research on charitable sector capacity building and place-based change.  Megan loves the snow and any chance she can to get on to a bicycle.  She lives with her husband and two young children in the Ottawa Valley.

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