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Celebrating National Volunteer Week 2014: In praise of volunteers

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With the latest estimate putting their numbers at 13.3 million, representing 2.1 billion hours of work, Canada’s volunteers are, in many ways, the backbone of the nonprofit sector. Considering how much they give and their impact on this country’s diverse communities, celebrating volunteers seems a mighty worthy endeavor.

In celebration

Welcome to National Volunteer Week, an annual initiative — running April 6 to the 12th — launched by the national voice for volunteerism, Volunteer Canada. “It’s an opportunity to recognize and thank those 13.3 million Canadians who make a difference in society and contribute to building communities,” explains president and CEO Steve Tipman. “Thanking and celebrating volunteers should happen on a regular basis but we take this week and make that a focal point to remind people about all that they bring.”

For volunteer and volunteer manager extraordinaire, Anne-Marie Koeppen, who seemingly spends the whole year planning for it, National Volunteer Week is an essential project. Of the many organizations fortunate to call her a volunteer are Volunteer Cowichan, Volunteer BC and Volunteer Canada. “I feel it’s important to do your part,” she explains.

That she does – in spades. This year, like so many others, she’s overseeing the activities for National Volunteer Week for Volunteer Cowichan. There’s the second annual Leaders of Tomorrow Awards, recognizing youth between the ages of 6 and 24. Not to mention the Helping Hands volunteer recognition program, which celebrates adult volunteers and their impact on their organization and the greater community. The ceremony takes place on April 11th during the organization’s yearly Volunteer Fair.

And let’s not forget about Volunteer Coffee Break, a very popular initiative that sees local businesses, coffee shops and restaurants participate by supplying a cup of coffee to volunteers via coupons made available through their organization. “It’s an easy form of recognition and it costs organizations close to nothing," explains Koeppen of an event that has understandably seen huge uptake.

She also gets local newspapers to put in complimentary ads, secures advertising on marquees across town, among other efforts, all in the name of National Volunteer Week. “It’s about thinking outside the box,” she says, adding she’d be thrilled if other organizations were inspired to adopt her initiatives into their own programming.

Returning to tradition

Of course, sometimes thinking outside that proverbial four-sided box means going back to the basics. This year Volunteer Canada’s special week will be celebrated with a brand-new campaign. From March 23 till April 12, the Volunt-Hear Hotline will allow Canadians from across the country to call the toll-free number and leave a brief impact statement thanking a particular volunteer for their efforts. The messages will then be organized into playlists on Soundcloud, and listeners will be able to download and share them through social media, hearing first-hand how volunteer work changes lives and shapes communities.

The grassroots project is in line with a recent study released by the organization in the fall that found volunteers prefer to be thanked and recognized than feted at fancy galas (as nice as those are). “We’re going back to a more traditional way of thanking volunteers,” says Tipman. “We hope it’ll be impactful and tangible, that it will mean something.”

Talking about impact, Tipman cautions that, though this week is very important, it shouldn’t take the place of regular recognition and thank yous proffered to volunteers. “It should be a year-round thing organizations do on a regular basis, and not just wait for that week.”

Continuous gratitude

Amen says Anne McTiernan-Gamble, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society of New Brunswick. “We depend on volunteers in a huge way,” she says, explaining that her province boasts 74,000 of them, with 140,000 giving of their time across Canada. “And while we think volunteer week is great, we really see recognition and our relationship with our volunteers as an ongoing thing because we rely on them to do everything, from soup to nuts.”

Volunteers — who help with fundraising, supporting survivors, leadership positions in prevention and efforts in advocacy and policy change — not only run the gamut, they also represent diverse demographics, with a recent rise in youth engagement. “We’re really blessed and fortunate to work with a variety of people that are so passionate,” says McTiernan-Gamble.

As for ways they recognize these invaluable people, the organization provides appreciation pins and each province has their own recognition awards program. Each region gets to take part in the national impact awards too. With the approaching National Volunteer Week, the provincial offices sends out thank-you letters and engages in extensive social media engagement. What’s more, every staff member in McTiernan-Gamble’s St. John office is mandated to acknowledge the role of volunteers and their importance.

What matters to you

The challenge, however, is trying to recognize volunteers when there’s no “one-size-fits-all” and people appreciate different forms of gratitude. “They do such a variety of things, you really need to understand what’s important to them to keep their interest and to keep them coming back,” she explains.

It’s possible Ulla Rose, district executive director of the Barrie, Ontario branch of VON Canada, would face similar challenges. Numbering 9,000 volunteers overall in the national organization — known for its long and distinguished history that dates back to 1897 — 1,116 help in the Ontario region alone, offering 113,000 hours a year of their time. The individuals help with a full spectrum of programs, from hospice visits to meals on wheels to transporting people to appointments. “It’s huge,” Rose says of the volunteers’ impact, stating emphatically what has become a self-evident truth for this and other organizations: “If we didn’t have volunteers, we wouldn’t have these programs.”

She adds that compensating them monetarily would be impossible, referring to a recent article that put the value of volunteers in the healthcare and community support agencies at $23.51 an hour. “If I costed mine out, that would be over $2.5 million worth of labour,” says Rose. “We are forever grateful to have them.”

As for how they show gratitude at VON’s Ontario headquarters, milestone events are celebrated with special pens and flowers. In their SMART exercise program, each volunteer gets a vest with the words Smart Volunteer printed on the back. There was a boat cruise in September, special celebrations in May, a day in St. Jacobs and potluck dinner on Christmas.

Bottom line, says Rose, echoing the words of McTiernan-Gamble, “It’s knowing who our volunteer is so we can do something meaningful for them.” Toward that end, the organization polled the volunteers at one of their biggest regions, asking them what they enjoyed. “We used to have a big black tie dinner event but they said they didn’t enjoy that so we listened.” Instead, they run local events in more familiar settings that don’t require the need to drive long distances.

Another organization that decided to forego their annual formal recognition event is Special Olympics Manitoba, comprised of seven regional offices across the province. Citing the research by Volunteer Canada and surveys the organization had conducted on their own, manager of community support Lesley Camaso-Catalan explains that an increasing number of volunteers have become less interested in formal recognition. Instead, “They want to see the impact of their work and to be thanked the day of [their service].”

Now that the banquet is no longer, every regional office is responsible for demonstrating their appreciation of volunteers — currently numbering 1,400 and who offer coaching and program and event assistance — in whatever format that suits them. There are also volunteer ‘years of service’ pins, t-shirts – and as many in-person thank yous as possible throughout the year. “We like to do things right in the moment, says Camaso-Catalan. “We say thank you there and then.”

For the Central West Ontario Division of MS Society in Kitchener, saying thank you is par for the course too. Faced with limited funding, the organization demonstrates its gratitude by, “thanking volunteers in-person, on the job and via email after events and during National Volunteer Week,” shares volunteer coordinator Sandra Clarke. They also use their newsletter as a particular tool for recognition. And, when possible, volunteers are provided with free services, like a hot lunch. This year, in honour of the special week upcoming this April, they plan on inviting 25 of their key volunteers for a celebratory pizza dinner.

No matter how an organization decides to demonstrate their gratitude, one thing is abundantly clear: there is much to be thankful for.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

Photos (from top) via All photos used with permission.

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