It's not just fun and Games: The volunteer legacy of large-scale sporting events

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More than a thousand colour-coordinated volunteers came together to sing the theme song at the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Calgary Olympics, standing where they were told to stand. One of the volunteers said later, “We made a flag standing in straight rows — we didn’t know what we were doing at the time but when you look at it afterwards you can see what the plan was.”

It takes thousands of volunteers to make such multi-site, multi-day sporting events work, but the big picture is not always clear in the chaos of the moment.

As the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games are set to open in Toronto, CharityVillage takes a look at the big picture of volunteerism at such sporting events in Canada, and particularly at the volunteer legacy left behind afterwards. We also examine the plan for the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games to encourage volunteering on an ongoing basis.

Legacy from the past

Reflecting on the Montreal Olympics twenty years later, vice president of operations and sports of the Montreal Olympic Organizing Committee, Michel Guay wrote: “A city discovers an extraordinary amount about itself when it organizes the Olympic Games. It finds out about the quality and range of its own human resources. It discovers its own capacity for creativity and innovation. One of the impacts of the Games in Montreal has been its legacy of knowledge and developed ability so vital in the organization of further prestigious sports and other events."

Calgary continues to experience a positive legacy of volunteerism, more than 25 years after it hosted the Olympics. Of the city’s 10,000 Olympic volunteers, approximately 1000 of them worked with the Calgary Police Service (CPS). In 2013, the CPF honoured volunteers who had served with them continuously since 1988, noting that “almost a thousand people signed up to help out, and of those, 76 are still active volunteers with the CPS. Over the years, civilians have worked on over 800 projects, and donated almost 30,000 hours of their own time.”

The 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg were largely run by its 18,000 volunteers, whose “nearly spotless show” provided Winnipeg with a database of trained volunteers and the confidence to offer to host other events, including Grey Cups, the FIFA women’s World Cup and the 2017 Canada Summer Games.

The 2010 Vancouver Olympics/Paralympics is the most recent example of large-scale sports volunteerism in Canada— the final Olympics report noted that “more than 75,000 people volunteered to help” fill the 25,000 volunteer positions.

What have we learned?

Before the 2010 Winter Games, the organizing committee suggested the “unique experience of contributing to an international event will create an enhanced talent pool of volunteers for BC and Canada.”

Dr. Tracey Dickson, associate professor, Centre for Tourism Research with the University of Canberra was interested to find out if this would be true.

Before and after the Vancouver Olympics, Dickson and colleagues Dr. Angela Benson (University of Brighton), Dr. Deborah Edwards and associate professor Simon Darcy (University of Technology, Sydney) and Professor Deborah Blackman (University of Canberra), surveyed Vancouverites about volunteering for the Games, publishing a paper examining who volunteered, their motivations, and what affected their intention to volunteer after the event.

Among their findings:

  • Most Olympic volunteers had previously volunteered in another capacity (93.6%), with fewer than 7% being first-time volunteers. Volunteers were predominantly female, older, employed, and had diverse volunteer experiences.
  • Volunteers were motivated by “the chance of a lifetime” as well as interest in the Games, while personal reasons, such as making job contacts or getting employment experience, were the least cited reasons for volunteering.
  • Almost two-thirds (61.6%) indicated that they did not expect their volunteering to change from pre-Games level, while 23.7% intended to increase their volunteering, and 3.1% to decrease, with 11.1% undecided.
  • Strongest predictors of an intention to volunteer more after the Games were an individual’s own expectations as well as their satisfaction with volunteer orientation. A poor experience with pre-Games training as well as previous negative experiences with volunteerism were factors having the greatest negative impact on future volunteerism.

It woke us up

Lawrence (Lawrie) Portigal, president of Volunteer BC, and his wife were among the volunteers of the 2010 Olympics, while Lorelynn Hart, program director for Volunteer BC was involved with the organizing committee. Like most of the BC volunteers surveyed after the Olympics, their experiences were very positive and enjoyable. They noted that, as with any large scale events, there were definite glitches — despite best efforts, some volunteers were treated better than others while sometimes volunteers were underutilized by organizers who scheduled too many volunteers for a venue.

Dickson says, “The motivations and the legacy potential [for a mass event] may vastly differ volunteering scenarios where events may occur more frequently or the volunteer demand is more continuous” and this was true in Vancouver, where the Olympics was marketed as a once in a lifetime opportunity, something that was very attractive to volunteers.

The challenge for volunteerism in BC came after the Olympics when there was a significant drop off in volunteers, which was somewhat unexpected.

“It woke us up,” says Portigal. “It changed our approach to volunteering. The Olympics volunteer experience was very successful but it was intense and people needed a rest afterwards. It also raised expectations about the volunteer experience — people looked for similar experiences rather than coming back to ordinary volunteering. Our local volunteer centres now have a more significant volunteer training program in an effort to take care of volunteers so that they want to come back.”

In hindsight, Hart and Portigal say they shouldn’t have been surprised, noting that the Olympics is a perfect example of episodic volunteering, an increasingly preferred form of volunteerism. They also observe that volunteering at the Olympics was attractive to the “sandwich generation”, a group that has never volunteered consistently during that phase of life.

With no problem getting volunteers for such an event, Dickson wonders whether “the organizing committees could be more selective and strategic with respect to their potential volunteer legacy, rather than recruiting, orienting, and training just for the event.” She suggests organizing committees “need to consider whether they are recruiting simply to deliver an event or whether, through more strategic recruitment, orientation, and training process, the volunteers may be developed to deliver on the promise of a post-games volunteer legacy.” To do this, she says, organizers can consider recruiting people who are more likely to volunteer after an event, such as retirees, new or lapsed volunteers.

Within two years of the Vancouver Olympics, the temporary dip in volunteers had recovered. “As long as volunteers find an opportunity interesting and attractive,” says Hart,” they will come out.”

Looking ahead

The Vancouver Olympics Committee notes that, “positive legacies do not simply happen – they need to be carefully planned from the earliest possible stage and be integrated within the project’s vision at every step.”

In an effort to establish a positive legacy from the July 10-26 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games — which has twice as many athletes as the 2010 Olympics, and which will involve more than 23,000 volunteers — the Ontario government consulted with the Ontario Volunteer Centre Network and developed three legacy projects connected with volunteering. The first is delayed repayment of student loans through the Ontario Student Assistance Program for Games volunteers, recognizing that students who volunteer would otherwise be working. The other legacy projects are SPARK ONTARIO, an online volunteering portal that connect potential volunteers throughout Ontario with opportunities, and PREB-Ontario, a web-based volunteer certificate program.


SPARK Ontario is an online portal designed to address gaps in the volunteer sector, whether those gaps are geographic (between volunteer centres), demographic (people sometimes want to volunteer in places other than where they live, want to volunteer in groups or want to test out a volunteer opportunity before committing). SPARK ON is designed not to replace volunteer centres but instead to enhance them, by helping volunteers and potential volunteers contribute, belong and be engaged.

The site contains stories of volunteer champions to give curious potential volunteers a face of modern volunteerism. It offers a resource area for both volunteers and nonprofits. It also allows people to participate by uploading their own stories, sharing volunteer job opportunities with friends, tracking their own volunteer experiences and building a profile. Users of the site can be as connected or disconnected as they choose to be.

“Thousands of people are coming forward to volunteer with the Games this summer,” says Liane Picot, engagement consultant for SPARK ON. “We hope they will want to do this more and in their own communities. There are also those who can’t volunteer for the Games — we want them to know there is much they can do where they live or work, or in their areas of interest.” The government has committed to these legacy projects for five years, with funding until March 2016 and with both SPARK ON and PREB-Ontario developing sustainable funding to take these projects through to 2019.

Having a long-term project like SPARK, says Picot, allows Games volunteers to take a break and then re-engage in the sector when they are ready. “We don’t anticipate that Games volunteers will jump into volunteering right away. However, if they have been sparked, they will at some point come back to it. As a sector, we’re moving toward the idea that you can volunteer in a more episodic way that suits your lifestyle. We will work with Toronto 2015 and the government on enabling Games volunteers to transition over to mainstream volunteering.”


PREB-Ontario is a certification program designed to help volunteers transition to paid employment, continued education or future volunteer positions by offering standardized, recognizable certificates detailing the specific attributes or skillsets of outstanding volunteers. Pan Am Games volunteers will be the first to receive PREB certificates. The certificate, completed online by participating organizations, outlines activities performed, skills acquired and special achievements or training received during the volunteer placement.

Cody Palmer-Almond, PREB-Ontario project manager, sees this program as benefiting both volunteers and nonprofits. “People have always been able to tell great stories, but PREB is the first time volunteers have been able to quantify those experiences in a standardized but personalized way. It enhances resumes for job interviews, allows newcomers to quantify Canadian work experiences, helps youth to demonstrate competencies and experience in scholarship and school applications.”

PREB began in Quebec City and then became a national pilot program with Volunteer Canada, but Ontario is the first province-wide system offering PREB. Volunteer centres across the province will train nonprofit organizations in the use of the system. Organizers hope that the system can move into other provinces and territories across Canada. Palmer-Almond believes the system is especially beneficial to small nonprofits, only some of which may have their own volunteer recognition programs, and which will appreciate the free cost of using this system.

Palmer-Almond says that the two legacy initiatives fill in missing gaps in the volunteer sector, “Spark ON draws volunteers in and keeps Games volunteers active in the sector. Once they have found their best fit and positions of interest, PREB enables those experiences to be recognized in a standardized way, allowing talk amongst sectors, ensuring that volunteerism is a cohesive part of the intersector movement.”

In its volunteer recruitment for the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games (now closed to applicants after more than 64,000 people applied), potential volunteers were invited to be “the heart of the Games” and “part of the home team that will make history.” Nonprofits hope that the voluntary spirit that infuses these Games will also lead to an ongoing legacy that will benefit the sector for a long time to come.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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