The changing face of volunteering in Canada

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The recent Global Volunteer Conference addressed the vital role of volunteers in an increasingly polarized and fragmented world, calling on all sectors to make volunteering a priority and to recognize the contribution of volunteers in making the world a better place.

Canadians continue to rise to this challenge, generously volunteering more than two billion hours annually — the equivalent of 1.1 million fulltime jobs. The latest statistics (2010) show that more than 47% of Canadians volunteer an average 156 hours each year. Many Canadians volunteer out of a desire to contribute to their communities, to use their skills and experience, and because they have been personally affected by the cause. Click here for a visual representation showing why Canadians volunteer.

But for both volunteers and the organizations that depend on them, the traditional attitudes toward volunteering are in flux. CharityVillage spoke with volunteer managers to get a sense of this changing face of volunteerism in Canada.

Changing demographics

It's true that Canadians seek different volunteer experiences throughout their lifespans, depending on circumstances and priorities, but this is not the only factor at play in the changing demographics of Canada's volunteers.

The nonprofit sector has long anticipated the retirement of the large baby boomer cohort as an opportunity for a fresh infusion of volunteers, but as Cathy Taylor, executive director of The Ontario Nonprofit Network notes, “That is not happening, or at least not as anticipated.” Bonnie Filipchuk, service director, community and clinical services of Family and Children’s Services of Niagara, notes that retirees used to volunteer to fill their time, but now with increasing mobility and travel, it seems the same demographic is spending fewer, regular hours volunteering.

There is no dramatic increase or decrease in numbers of volunteers, says Steve Tipman, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, but there is a shift in the length of volunteer commitment with volunteer appreciation events showing fewer and fewer 25- or 30-year “life volunteers.”

Instead, as Taylor adds, “The type of work people want to do is different. We’ve had direct service opportunities in the past or board positions and not much in the middle. Now there’s a whole new group of volunteers who want to use their skills, work in an episodic way and not make a multi-year commitment.”

Traditionally, volunteering has been a feel-good way to give back to the community, says Tipman, but it has also now become a means for young people and new immigrants to gain skills for the labour market.

In today’s competitive job market, many volunteers face significant stress with volunteering being just one more task added to a busy schedule. Research studies report that individuals cite what Dr. Nora Silver calls time poverty as the biggest barrier to volunteering. Time-impoverished volunteers increasingly weigh their return on investment, assessing what is required of them and what they will get in return for their investment of time. Consequently, Filipchuk notes that volunteers report higher stress and when life becomes overwhelming, volunteers are more likely to quit than they would have in the past.

Some of this stress may be due to pressures from within the nonprofits themselves. “We may be asking volunteers to do something more stressful,” says Filipchuk, who also manages a volunteer department of 250 volunteers. “We’re also finding when staff have so many responsibilities that they have less time to support and mentor volunteers, these volunteers may be left to fend on their own. Alternatively, sometimes volunteers don’t have enough to do because staff are too busy to make best use of the volunteers.”

What volunteers want: A two-way street

In the past, volunteering was about donating time to an organization, with the organization deciding how the volunteer hours would be spent, but today, as Filipchuk says, “Volunteers are looking for reciprocity, a win-win.”

What this looks like may be different from one volunteer to another — some may want a very responsible position where they can exercise or gain skills and experience while another may want a fun, relaxing experience. Taylor is a former director of the Volunteer Centre of Guelph/Wellington and she says that on a regular basis, many potential volunteers might say, “Yes, I see you have hundreds of volunteer roles listed, but here’s what I’m passionate about and what I want to do.”

Liz Weaver, vice-president of Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement, suggests that the important question nonprofits need to address is “How do we bridge these conversations to what volunteers are interested in and what their role could be?” Currently, says Taylor, there is no clear mechanism to capture the energy and enthusiasm of volunteers — while still making sure the phones are answered.

Fewer people want to just answer phones and stuff envelopes, notes Filipchuk, and Taylor agrees: “We need to think differently – perhaps administrative tasks can done by staff while volunteers serve in program. Another alternative is to share administrative tasks between nonprofit organizations.” Taylor also suggests that organizations creatively reframe their volunteer role descriptions to demonstrate the real value of necessary work. “Instead of calling it receptionist, you could say we need an enthusiastic customer service person.”

As yet, there is no shortage of volunteers willing to do traditional tasks - but some of those dependable volunteers are tiring of being relied upon so heavily. Rosemary (not her real name) says, “I’ve volunteered most of my life, but if I ever want to stop, I can’t because there’s no one to take my place. It’s expected that I will do it or find my own replacement. I’m looking for short-term volunteer roles now rather than ‘do it till I die’ roles.”

It takes time to find out what volunteers want but as Taylor says, “When we don’t match the needs of the volunteer with the needs of the organization, we lose them.” Investing time with the volunteer about what they need will result in more productivity and potential long-term support.

On the other hand, sometimes a volunteer’s wants and an organization’s needs are simply not a fit. “If a volunteer has a great idea of what they want to do but it would shift our direction or takes too much time, it’s better to redirect them to other organizations or opportunities,” says Taylor. “As much as organizations need to accommodate volunteers more, a volunteer’s ideas can’t take them away from their mission or priorities.”

Recruiting, reporting and retaining

A growing trend in nonprofits is to move away from the volunteer coordinator being the only point of contact for a volunteer. Volunteers are now engaged with various staff in the areas of work and interest, which helps an organization build capacity and get its work done. At the same time, Taylor advocates having one person dedicated to recruiting and managing volunteers. This is especially true since one of the challenges of short-term, episodic volunteering is that recruitment needs to be an ongoing process.

In terms of retaining volunteers, Filipchuk advises reaching in deeper into your current volunteer base, noting that the more you invest in supporting and recognizing your volunteers, the more likely you are to retain them and the more likely they are to serve as ambassadors to your organization, recruiting other volunteers. Many of FACS Niagara’s volunteers began volunteering at the recommendation of another volunteer.

Risk management

Risk management is becoming more and more a factor in nonprofit organizations where volunteerism has become more formalized. “Back in the day,” says Filipchuk, “someone could just volunteer. Now, organizations may be hesitant to give a task to a volunteer if too much could go wrong or too much is at stake.”

While risk management systems are put in place to protect the most vulnerable, Taylor says, “There has been an over-emphasis on risk that is a deterrent to volunteering.” The volunteer intake process has become lengthy and onerous. Taylor says volunteers want to get started soon after they call to inquire. “We put processes in place where we can’t accommodate that and we lose them, and in fact the whole sector might lose them as they believe that volunteering always needs such an extensive intake process.” Filipchuk notes that with volunteers who are available only during the school year, the approval process takes so long that “by the time they are finally set up, they have a short time to actually volunteer.”

Taylor suggests the pendulum is beginning to shift back with organizations now determining when they need those processes in place and when they don’t.

New partners

No longer does each nonprofit have to work alone to secure volunteers or rely solely on local people with time to spare. Innovative new partnerships are allowing nonprofits to do more and to engage new people and organizations in their work.

Technology: Increasingly technology is allowing new means for volunteering and supporting volunteers. Whether through virtual volunteering where volunteers at a distance can engage in microvolunteering or the use of technology to share knowledge, technology is playing an increasing role in enabling nonprofits and volunteers to work together.

MultiSectoral Partnerships: “The most recent statistics show that of the 13.3 million Canadians who volunteer, a little over five million of those did so through their employer in some capacity,” says Tipman, adding, “This broadens the definition of what constitutes volunteerism and is positive civic citizen engagement.” Weaver sees emerging cross-sector initiatives with nonprofit, private and public sectors coming together on big community issues.

Local-Global: “There seems to be more and more of a connectedness between local and global volunteer initiatives,” says Tipman. “Many Canadians volunteer overseas, bringing support and best practices to developing countries, but then return and get engaged as committed volunteers in their home communities.”

Other Nonprofits: “Collaboration between different nonprofit organizations is a growing trend around volunteers,” says Taylor. “As time and resources have become more limited and as we’ve formalized risk management, that kind of collaboration has proved to be more necessary. People are now thinking of volunteers as a community resource, not just a resource for a single organization.”

Canada has a rich history of volunteering. While the landscape is changing, the constant is the continued engagement of Canadians who want to make a difference.

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.

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

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