What do you do when there aren’t enough volunteers to go around?

That was the problem facing Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Toronto (BBBST). Though the organization services the entire City of Toronto, BBBST found that it was having trouble distributing its resources outside the centralized downtown core. The need for a new decentralization strategy became increasingly apparent. 

BBBST has always strived to have a strong understanding of the diverse communities in Toronto and considers it extremely important to be physically in the communities the organization serves. That need was especially true in Scarborough, where the number of waiting Littles far exceeded the number of available Bigs or volunteers.

Thankfully, the Ontario government was able to help BBBST tackle the discrepancy. The organization applied for (and received) a one-year Seed Grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to investigate the issue, and followed that up with a three-year Trillium Grow Grant that allowed BBBST to act on its findings.

As a result, BBBST is now pursuing a decentralization strategy and has established a dedicated team in Scarborough to better meet the needs of people in the community. So far, the program has been an overwhelming success. BBBST is attracting more volunteers and developing a stronger rapport with other grassroots organizations in the area.

“With alternate locations, families could access our services in their communities where they are more comfortable,” says Alexandra Drakos. Drakos is the Manager of Scarborough Service Delivery for BBBST. “Transportation, scheduling, volunteers – it’s much easier to do these things when our services are within walking distance.”

Caroline Kent, BBBST’s Manager of Grants and Strategic Partnerships, similarly attributes the organization’s recent progress to its initial Trillium Grant. BBBST sought the Grant to figure out if any barriers prevented people (and men in particular) from volunteering in Scarborough. The funding allowed the organization to identify the specific nature of the problem, and take more effective steps to address it.   

So what were the biggest obstacles facing BBBST?

“It comes down to brand visibility,” Drakos says, explaining that many people were unaware of the volunteer opportunities that were available in Scarborough. “People didn’t realize that we’re still part of the community and still offer services for volunteers.”

BBBST has since tried to raise its profile in the area. Led by Community Engagement Specialist Azfar Islam, the organization made a concerted attempt to reach out to community leaders, educational institutions, and other organizations and is now running programs out of local Scarborough establishments. Building that genuine relationship with the community offset the gravitational pull of downtown Toronto – and ultimately boosted BBBST’s recruitment efforts.    

“We were able to use the feedback from our focus groups to bring more visibility to the agency,” Drakos says. “Because of our intentional recruitment, we are seeing an increase of volunteers coming in.”

According to Islam, the Seed Grant also exposed some of BBBST’s organizational inefficiencies. Most notably, BBBST discovered that its onboarding process was too long, and was so much of a hassle that it deterred many potential volunteers. BBBST is now trying to update its infrastructure to make its services more welcoming and more accessible. The overhaul is still ongoing, but Islam suggests that decentralization has accelerated the transition.

“We came up with a much more streamlined process that’s already much better than before,” Islam says. “We’re able to process volunteers a lot quicker because of the dedicated staff for [the Scarborough] community.”

That’s equally good news for families in Scarborough. Thanks to the influx of volunteers, Littles no longer need to make the trek to the downtown core to take advantage of BBBST services or to be paired with a Big.

BBBST applied for a Seed Grant because it wanted to build a stronger foundation in Scarborough. The subsequent investigation encouraged the organization to allocate more resources to a Toronto community that often doesn’t get as much attention as the downtown core. One year on from the start of the project, that decision is already paying dividends – and the trend is likely to continue as BBBST uses its Grow Grant to implement its decentralization strategy.