Alice Lam, founder of Volly, wants to make it easier for people to volunteer. PHOTO COURTESY: ALICE LAM

A Calgary-based web application designed to connect volunteers with opportunities in the city is now using its platform to help students get work experience since many job opportunities have disappeared due to COVID-19.

Alice Lam, who founded the Calgary-based Volly, started the volunteer concierge service with the help of numerous volunteer software developers, with the simple goal of getting more Calgarians to help in the community. 

After moving to France to pursue her master’s degree and then living in New York and working for a consulting company, Lam moved back to Calgary in 2014. Once arrived back home, she wanted to get involved in the community but found it difficult to find volunteer opportunities. 

“Even as somebody who is, like, really interested and invested in doing it, the information that was out there was not always super easy to navigate or I never got a response,” says Lam.

Fast forward a few years and Lam says she still hears those same complaints from people looking to volunteer today. 

“That’s the problem we’re trying to solve.” 

Volly works by posting volunteer opportunities and making it easy for people to apply to them. The website often has postings for event-based volunteering positions – though fewer now due to the pandemic – as well as ongoing opportunities that ask for weekly or monthly commitments, group volunteering opportunities and even non-monetary donation requests. 

“Charities were constantly just like, ‘Oh yeah, donate money to us’ you know — that’s the easiest thing — but then that didn’t really spark people’s desire to give back as much because it was just money,” says Lam. 

As a result, Volly often has postings for donations like water bottles for Alpha House and books for Calgary Reads. 

“What we’ve done is we’ve talked to different non-profits in Calgary and figured out, ‘What are items that you would use the money to buy that we could potentially help you gather?’”

This year, the platform went a step further and also started working to help students find work experience on a volunteer basis. 

“Something that Volly has been doing this summer because of so many students who had jobs lined up but didn’t end up getting hired on because of COVID, a lot of them wanted to volunteer cause they wanted to keep learning, learning workplace skills, doing things that would be helpful to the community,” says Lam.

But it’s not only about helping the community. 

“I think it can be a mutually beneficial arrangement, where there’s a lot of skill sharing, so that’s kind of what we did this summer just in response to the number of students that didn’t have anything to do but wanted to build up their resume a little bit.”

Helen Trang graduated from the University of Calgary this past June and used Volly to help her find experience this summer. She messaged Lam through Volly’s Instagram page inquiring about administration and communication volunteer opportunities and was ultimately put in touch with Ullaco, a local marketing agency. 

“I signed up for like a six-week period where I was supposed to volunteer for 20 hours a week and just help out in their writing department, and then I got here and got hired full-time after a couple of weeks,” says Trang. 

Ullaco’s general manager, Shannon McClure says it’s a great way to get to know potential employees before committing to hiring them full-time in such uncertain times. 

“It helps as a company too, because especially in a time like COVID, hiring isn’t always something we can do. So it gives us a chance to kind of meet people, build these connections and kind of understand how some of these people work and get insight into potential new employees,” says McClure. 

Maybe one of the best features of Volly though, is it’s free for everyone to use. 

“The long-term goal of Volly is really just to get more citizens active in their communities whatever way that means.”

alice lam

“We don’t want to charge anybody to use this website, when we didn’t really have to pay for it to begin with. We also didn’t want cost to be a deterrent in terms of people volunteering or not,” says Lam. 

The software is all open source, meaning that anyone can take the code and implement the same program in their own communities. Lam says that the country of Scotland has actually reached out about creating a similar platform there. As far as what exactly that would look like, she isn’t completely sure. 

“I can’t speak for what Volly will be if it ever leaves Calgary’s borders, because every community and municipality and country will have their own localization of Volly and what volunteering means to them.”

Whatever the case, Volly is sure to continue growing its presence in Calgary. 

“The long-term goal of Volly is really just to get more citizens active in their communities whatever way that means,” says Lam. 

“If you have an idea, or you want to volunteer, or you have a plan to make the city a better place, let us know and if we can help, we’ll help, if we can advise, we will advise, if we can help you find volunteers, we’ll help you find volunteers.”