Fighting the impulse to despair: How the current political climate impacts volunteer engagement

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Every generation has its challenges and every era comes with its own brand of social upheaval.

For many Canadians, contemplating the current state of economic, political and societal shifts can cause a certain amount of panic, or at the very least concern over what will be.

Interestingly, a new field of study on how this state of world affairs is impacting donor giving and volunteering is emerging. Some have coined the term “rage donation” to describe the phenomena. Others use milder descriptors, such as “engagement surge” or “frustration donation” or “exasperation donation.” Whatever the terminology, it all amounts to the same core study – how external, socio-political events beyond the control of the donor or volunteer are inducing people to give more money, time and thought to charitable causes.

Sifting through the rage

Erin Spink, principal of Spinktank, a Toronto-based consulting agency that focuses on volunteer leadership and engagement, is conducting ongoing research into the influence of political leadership in North America on volunteer behaviour. She may actually be the only one doing this so far.

“To my knowledge, no one else in Canada or elsewhere is actually looking into this, which is why I stepped up. It's not actually an area I normally gravitate to,” Spink says. “Basically, I wanted to see whether the changes in other forms of civic engagement - donating, protesting, etc. - were being reflected in volunteer activity. I.e., are new people volunteering, are existing volunteers doing more?”

To that end, earlier this year she set up an online survey asking Canadians all about their volunteering patterns in today’s societal climate. The preamble to the survey, conducted through Spink’s Centre for Advanced Research in Volunteer Engagement (CARVE), explained it this way:

“Have you ever wondered what things can spur changes to volunteer behaviour on a societal level? In the past year across North America and Europe we've seen unprecedented growth in civic engagement activities like protesting and marching, donating to causes and political involvement. CARVE wondered if, beyond anecdotal stories, there was any change in volunteer involvement due to the political landscape.”

The survey is now closed to Canadians, but she has taken it to researchers in the US to see how Americans will reply to the questionnaire. Overall, some 1,400 Canadians and 200 Canadian charities replied to her online form.

Initial findings from that survey seem to advance the theory that Canadians are indeed feeling more urge to engage (or perhaps “enrage”) in increased charitable activities as a result of external influences.

"Individuals are self-reporting significant changes in how they volunteer due to the political climate, namely by increasing their hours, volunteering for more organizations and becoming active in advocacy-related activities. Especially shocking is that of those who identified as new to volunteering, 58% indicated the motivation was due to the political climate. This has far-reaching implications for nonprofits and for leaders of volunteers," she says.

Taking the (increased) pulse of the nation

For its part, Imagine Canada has also begun taking note of the anecdotal uptick in charitable activities by Canadians, though the organization is cautious in its analysis of the situation north of the US border.

“We've seen this in the [United] States, but there is no sector-wide data on this in Canada. Some individual charities might have experienced this but we haven't seen it on a large scale," according to Marnie Grona, Imagine Canada’s director of strategic communications.

“We'll keep an eye on the phenomenon, but it will be challenging to measure exact figures,” she adds.

However, talk of increased donations, volunteering and sundry philanthropic activity continues to build, permeating mainstream media and being disseminated by thought-leaders across North America.

The headline of an October 23 report in the Globe and Mail covering a Toronto talk by famed US journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem quoted the activist saying that the current socio-political climate of her country “...has inspired a level of activism never seen ‘in my whole life’.”

Meanwhile, over the last year, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post have all printed similarly-themed investigative reports about increased donations, activism, volunteerism and general surges in civic engagement on the part of Americans as a result of unstable times.

Speaking of surges...

While Canadians digest this steady news coming from south of the border, Spink’s research up here continues to seem ever more prescient.

In Ottawa, Volunteer Canada’s President and CEO, Paula Speevak, has also taken note of a general uptick in volunteer activity across the nation.

“We have been following incidents of ‘surge volunteering’ - that is large numbers of individuals who step forward to volunteer for, or respond to, an emergency or disaster, to support refugees, or when their community is hosting a major event,” she says. “These situations bring out the generosity and natural human reflex to help or provide hospitality. The challenge for the sector can be the screening, training, and deployment of large numbers of people in a time-pressured situation.”

More data coming

Sometime soon, Spink says, her research will be officially published. It will be interesting to see just how quantifiable the phenomenon of surge engagement has become in response to the modern day socio-economic climate.

Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is a professional writer living in Toronto. He can be reached at

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