Arts Volunteers in Canada: Overview


The spirit of volunteering has been a vital part of the social fabric for as long as there has been, well, a social fabric.

That’s the premise behind, a volunteer matching service that connects people and opportunities in Canada.

Video: Catherine, volunteer with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra for over 40 years.

However, just like the issue of unpaid internships, the relation between volunteer and paid work can be a bit of a grey area: a UK cultural institution was recently branded “unethical” for replacing paid Front of House staff with unpaid volunteers (a recurring issue that TUC and Volunteering England already addressed in 2009 in their Charter for Strengthening Relations Between Paid Staff and Volunteers). The Museum Association’s Cuts Survey 2013 reports this development across the sector as a growing and rather worrying trend, with Mark Taylor, the MA’s director, commenting:

Unpaid work can be exploitative and, even worse, it reduces the diversity of people who can enter the museum workforce: only wealthier young people can afford to work for nothing, especially in expensive cities like London.

In the three years I spent in Canada, I noticed that volunteering in the arts – and in the community at large – was a widespread and often well defined practice. The organisations I worked with fully acknowledged the diversity of volunteers’ motivations and depth of commitment and clearly recognised their rights and responsibilities. In this series of posts about Arts Volunteers in Canada, I am featuring some interesting resources and examples that are not quite addressing the paid/unpaid work polemic, but instead highlighting the positive role of volunteers in successful initiatives and programmes that complement employees’ efforts and further organisational missions.

This is part 1 of a series of 4 posts on arts volunteers in Canada.

Note: just as my previous posts on Funding for the Arts in Canada and Shared Spaces & Cultural Hubs, this is rather Toronto-biased than truly pan-Canadian.

Volunteering in Canada

Volunteering is considered as a civic responsibility in Canada: it’s a way to build skills, strengthen community links and improve well-being.

Volunteering is encouraged at all ages and levels:

National Resources

There are plenty of resources available, for example through Volunteer Canada, the national advocacy organisation for volunteerism and civic participation. They have developed a Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement, conduct research (for example on volunteering & healthy ageing) and influences public policy.

Specifically for the art sector, Hill Strategies regularly publishes a statistical report on volunteers & donors in Canada, summarised elsewhere on this blog.

Other national initiatives of interest include ArtsScene, a “network of leading young business professionals who support the arts through volunteerism and patronage”, and Timeraiser, a silent art auction at which participants bid volunteer hours instead of money.

Arts Volunteers in Toronto

The City of Toronto is managing an extensive volunteer programme, especially for all its city-wide events and festivals (such as Doors Open Toronto and Nuit Blanche). Around 1,500 volunteers are currently registered with the Special Events Office.

Toronto Arts Foundation – the fundraising arm of the Toronto Arts Council – runs the Toronto Arts Volunteer Network. They promote volunteering opportunities in a bi-monthly newsletter and feature a selection of volunteer stories on their website.

In the next 3 posts, I’ve selected examples from a range of large Toronto arts institutions who have developed their own dedicated volunteer scheme, looking first at the performing arts (part 2), then multi-arts venues and festivals (part 3) and finally museums & galleries (part 4).