The future of volunteering? It’s a campus thing

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Volunteerism. It’s one of the noblest, most selfless activities one can undertake. Giving a “hand-up not a handout,” as the popular saying goes. Numerous organizations, for-profits and nonprofits alike, across the country rely on volunteers to move their projects and programs along.

But over the last decade, a slightly disturbing volunteering trend has emerged. Namely: more volunteering is being done by less people, and those people are more often than not, of the Boomer generation and older.

In April 2015, reported on the most recent statistics from the last General Social Survey – Giving, Volunteering and Participating (GSS-GVP 2013). It revealed the following with respect to volunteering:

  • In 2013, 28% of all Canadian volunteers were aged 55+, compared with 26% in 2010, 24% in 2007 and 23% in 2004.
  • These older adults, when they volunteer, are more likely to perform certain types of activities. For example, in 2013, 42% of volunteers aged 55 and over sat on a committee or board, compared with 34% of volunteers aged 35 to 54, and just 26% of volunteers aged 15 to 34.

It’s no wonder then, that at the recent Canadian Alliance for Community Service Learning (CACSL) Conference in Calgary, this past May 2016, many of the participating organizations were discussing and encouraging youth engagement.

Building a CACSL for the young

The conference, which was co-hosted by CACSL and Volunteer Canada, brought volunteer sector leaders together to discuss and find solutions to the above trend.

Deborah Pike, director of knowledge assets at Volunteer Canada in Ottawa, says while certain trends are being captured, some may be off the radar of the GSS-GVP.

“Canadians continue to be generous with their time and are highly engaged in their communities. In 2013, 12.7 million Canadians, 44% of people aged 15 and over, volunteered an average of 154 hours each year. As impressive as these two billion volunteer hours may be, we are seeing a slight decrease in the number of volunteers and the hours they are giving,” she said. “Some of these lower volunteer rates may be explained by an aging population or the multiple demands on middle aged people - the ‘sandwich generation’ - who are balancing the needs of their children, aging parents, and their own careers and health. We need to better understand how changing demographics and generational characteristics will influence how people volunteer in the future.”

But Pike adds that it’s important to understand that there is also much “informal volunteering that goes on in neighbourhoods throughout the country.” The GSS-GVP, she noted, does not capture “organic movements and viral social campaigns.”

“Are fewer people volunteering or are more people choosing to get involved outside of defined positions within organizations? While many people continue to volunteer through charitable and non-profit organizations, others are successfully mobilizing networks through social media and doing great things outside of these structures,” she said.

Students of change

Over in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON, Jane Hennig, executive director of the Volunteer Action Centre, notes one of her messages to colleagues and partners at the CASCL Conference was a renewed focus on volunteerism for students, faculty and administrative staff alike on post-secondary campuses.

The idea, she says, is to first begin enshrining the merits of volunteering on a campus – it being its own, fully formed community. Also, to reconceive the notion of what a student “volunteer centre” actually does. Instead of it being a place where students come to look for jobs and volunteering opportunities, the student volunteer centre can become a much more robust, counselling and guidance-rich resource for everyone living on a campus.

For instance, Hennig says, her organization is partnering with the University of Waterloo’s student volunteer centre – now called the U Waterloo Career Action Centre - providing arms-length guidance on how it can best impact and help its community.

“There is a great deal of potential for the sector in multiple relationships with post-secondary institutions,” Hennig says. “But it needs to go beyond students. Students are the drivers, but to add value and sustainability there needs to be engagement of others [on campus].”

Hennig says when she speaks about this idea to her colleagues across the country “they are absolutely interested in this model.” Her Volunteer Action Centre’s nascent partnership with U Waterloo is only six months old, and data is still being gathered about its impact.

And the idea is gaining traction.

Spreading the message West

Over in Alberta, Diana Sim, executive director of the Volunteer Lethbridge Association, talks about her organization’s new work with the University of Lethbridge, where it has initiated the “UVolunteer Program,” she says.

The UVolunteer Program, Sim says, works off the university’s philosophy of Liberal Education, which “includes a focus on engaged citizenship to promote the public good, which has made a collaboration with Volunteer Lethbridge a natural fit. The program has been in development for several years and is currently laying a solid foundation for anticipated rapid growth to come.”

UVolunteer provides a framework for many University of Lethbridge students who already volunteer, “to organize and document their volunteer work, as well as inspire and motivate more students to volunteer in their communities. This will create a campus culture that engages students, faculty and staff, improves student life, encourages community involvement on campus and in the surrounding community, and attracts new students to the [university] by communicating the value and impact of civic engagement. This program will set a standard across Canada for Volunteer-University collaboration,” Sim declares.

It’s about creating opportunity

On the ULethbridge campus, Tiffany Herrell is the program coordinator for UVolunteer. A student herself, she says providing the opportunity for volunteer engagement is one of the main elements that leads to the program's success.

She says running a bridge organization for students to find opportunities for both personal and career growth on campus – and beyond – has given her great joy.

“When I first applied for the job - which is a yearly co-op - I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As a student, I have gained so much experience and learned more than I ever imagined. I have gotten to actively make a difference, do things that I’ve never dreamed of and to live an inspired life,” Herrell says, adding that this sentiment is one of the key drivers for all student-volunteers.

Making that emotional connection with others has been one of her goals.

“It is not a hard sell. Volunteerism is an amazing form of experience-building, networking and self-development. It also lets students actively get involved with their communities and the causes they care about. By providing students with a ‘Volunteer Transcript’ they can see their impact on the community and t may even get them a job,” she states.

Herrell notes that the transient nature of student bodies creates the need for very active engagement with campus-dwellers, to get the most out of their limited stay in their communities, before they move out into the working world.

“Students are episodic...and this is a challenge for both the students and community organizations. Student-to-student interaction is where our program is unique. Having a student in my role helps to connect students to the program and engage them meaningfully,” Herrell says.

She adds: “Students want to be engaged, someone just has to ask [them] and be there to give them information on how. In my role, I have come to find that many more students already volunteer than we had originally estimated. You see it in the university on club executives, the radio station and volunteer groups on campus; but there are also many already in the community.”

Meaningful opportunities for students, in Herrell’s experience, are ones that help them work towards some sort of personal goal and where they can see their impact.

“All you have to do for this to happen is be open to the possibilities and engage students in a conversation.”

Challenges remain

Looking ahead, while this new focus on campus engagement for volunteerism holds much promise, Sim notes there are still hurdles to jump...and some myths about volunteerism to bust.

“The key challenges and opportunities for volunteerism really come with matching people to opportunities that mean something to them. I often hear that volunteerism is on the decline. I personally don’t believe that,” Sim states.

“Volunteerism is one way people can help each other in building a strong, healthy community. Engaging people in meaningful ways that allows them to demonstrate their passions and to know they impact change is invaluable. It all takes time. Valuing people for who they are and what they have to offer the world is so important. In doing this we change our neighbourhoods, our communities, our provinces, our nation and our world.”

What do you think? Would increased volunteerism help your organization? Do you know anyone on a post-secondary campus that would benefit from more robust volunteering options? Let us know in the comments section below.

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

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