With volunteering in Canada in decline, contributor Yvonne Rodney looks at the data and talks to sector leaders to ponder the way forward. The solution, she writes, includes acknowledging the impact of the pandemic, understanding generational differences, and convincing funders to do more to help organizations.
Volunteer participation in Canada is at an all-time low – thanks to the pandemic.
Our societal infrastructure has come to depend on volunteer work and workers to support the care needs of our communities. From direct service delivery to board- and committee-level involvement, volunteers are engaged in critical and necessary activities that allow non-profits and charities to do what they do.
The data is telling and consistent, no matter the source. Statistics Canada data released in November 2022 show that more than 65% of non-profit organizations serving households and individuals are experiencing a shortage of volunteers and intend to recruit. Fourth-quarter data from the Canadian Survey on Business Conditions show that non-profit organizations are dealing with volunteer shortages, difficulty recruiting new volunteers, and volunteer burnout. A 2022 Ontario Nonprofit Network report indicates that 62% of 1,500 non-profit organizations surveyed – predominantly from health, sports, and faith communities – lost volunteers. More than 50% are struggling to recruit new volunteers, and 40% say they are having difficulty convincing former volunteers to return. And in the Charity Insights Canada Project survey, 59% of respondents indicated that the pandemic affected how they engaged with volunteers, and 57% said they were experiencing difficulty recruiting volunteers.
Volunteerism as well as donations have decreased.Daniele Zanotti, United Way Greater Toronto
According to Daniele Zanotti, CEO of United Way Greater Toronto, data from their own research indicate that “volunteerism as well as donations have decreased” and that around 25% of individuals in the GTA volunteer now compared to 40% four years ago. Kim Winchell, director of community impact and investment at United Way BC, says that of the 500 organizations they support, all are experiencing challenges with volunteer recruitment.
Large entities like Volunteer Canada, YWCA, and Habitat for Humanity and small organizations like Caravan Farm Theatre in rural BC all echoed a similar refrain of decreases in volunteer participation during the pandemic and difficulty getting people back. “We’re at a tipping point here,” says Andrea MacDonald, CEO of United Way PEI. “In rural areas especially, the same people are being asked to sit on every board and service clubs.”
We’re at a tipping point here. In rural areas especially, the same people are being asked to sit on every board and service clubs.Andrea MacDonald, United Way PEI
Though there seems to be a degree of forward momentum in volunteer reengagement within some agencies, a first-quarter report from Imagine Canada predicts that the volunteer shortfall woes will continue well into 2023.
What, then, is the way forward?
1. Acknowledge the impact of the pandemic and what it did to people’s mindsets
“If there’s one thing the pandemic did,” says Vicki Stroich, artistic and environmental programs manager at Caravan Farm Theatre, “it forced all of us to consider how we spend our time.”
Megan Conway, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, echoes that sentiment: “People are choosing priorities. We need to look at who are our volunteers and why they are not returning.”
We need to look at who are our volunteers and why they are not returning.Megan Conway, Volunteer Canada
Raine Liliefeldt, interim CEO of YWCA Canada, sees the post-pandemic level of commitment shifting – for staff as well as volunteers. Workers want a shorter workweek, more flexibility, and better quality of life. She says that employees who were in the pipeline as succession-planning hopefuls are being siphoned off by public- or private-sector employers offering more money and better values alignment.
Bottom line: volunteers and staff are simultaneously dealing with their own questions about what they want to invest in, how to stay safe, and how to better align their lives with their values going forward. Our sector cannot ignore this significant mindset shift and must factor this new reality into any re-engagement plans.
2. Understand what different generations consider to be work worthy of their time – and be flexible
Baby boomers as a group, with a history of volunteering longer hours for longer periods of time compared to any other age demographic, were forced to step away during the pandemic as organizations paused operations. Volunteer Victoria conducted a study on the impact of the pandemic on senior volunteers (those over 55 years old). Seventy percent indicated that closure of services, reduction of programs, and changes in roles contributed to their stopping volunteering. Yet, when asked about volunteering in the future, 76.25% want to return to contact (in-person) volunteer roles with safety protocols in place. This generation wants to connect face to face for the most part, as long as it is safe.
“So much of volunteering is about socialization,” says Hope Lovell, community outreach manager at Habitat for Humanity in Windsor-Essex. She believes that flexibility is the key to retaining volunteers and that the focus should be on the relationship, not just the service the volunteer is being asked to provide.
So much of volunteering is about socialization.Hope Lovell, Habitat for Humanity, Windsor-Essex
Unlike baby boomers, when young people hear the word “volunteering,” it likely conjures up the hours needed to graduate from high school or meet a particular program requirement. Stroich suggests that young people have been taught to think of time as a commodity, and since volunteering is time, if it is not giving them a payoff, it is not going to get their investment.
If we are having a problem engaging young people in our work, is it the young people’s problem or our own outdated modes of thinking and working?Vicki Stroich, Caravan Farm Theatre
“We’re trying to get a new generation to fit into a system that is no longer viable,” Stroich adds. She argues that the pandemic has thrown the concept of certainty out the window and that charities and non-profits have to shift expectations and systems accordingly. “If we are having a problem engaging young people in our work, is it the young people’s problem or our own outdated modes of thinking and working?”
Some organizations are recognizing the need for greater flexibility on their part in order to attract more volunteers. Lovell recalls how Habitat for Humanity pivoted during the pandemic and developed a formal Virtual Volunteering program so that 27 high school students could get the hours they needed to graduate. She cannot stress flexibility enough.
3. Change the volunteer nomenclature to ‘community care,’ ‘community mobilization,’ and ‘community engagement’
Two organizations, 4Rs Youth Movement and the Muslim Association of Canada, report increases in volunteer engagement during the pandemic and attribute this increase to community belonging and a commitment to community care.
“People volunteer when they have a bigger stake in the outcome,” says Abdul Nakua, a member of the Muslim Association of Canada’s executive team. He says that within his community, helping each other out is part of one’s faith, thus creating a deeper connection than just an obligation to serve. In other words, helping is embedded in community members’ belief system.
People volunteer when they have a bigger stake in the outcome.Abdul Nakua, Muslim Association of Canada
Jessica Bolduc, executive director of the 4Rs Youth Movement, insists that community care is ultimately more sustainable, as a way forward, than a mere transactional volunteer engagement. She sees community care as a movement with “everyone having a place in [the] community and feeling the responsibility of taking care of each other.” To her, this “feeling of responsibility” may take the form of a protest march or a public outcry because activism is one of the many ways people in marginalized communities care for their communities.
Strengthening the culture of the volunteering infrastructure includes greater promotion of volunteer work as care work.Raine Liliefeldt, YWCA Canada
Liliefeldt agrees: “Strengthening the culture of the volunteering infrastructure includes greater promotion of volunteer work as care work.”[Note: The United Way Hi Neighbour program is one example of a community engagement partnership connecting neighbours with neighbours.]
Important as well is the fact that millennials and Gen Zers as a group relate to “community mobilization” and “community care.” We saw their mobilization en masse during the pandemic as they protested threats to social justice. Changing the volunteer language to be more appealing to a younger generation will go a long way toward increasing participation from that demographic.
4. Funders can and must do more to help organizations
When volunteers fall away, employees try or are expected to take on more, leaving staff tired, burning out, or completely burnt out. MacDonald and Winchell describe coming out of the pandemic only to be hit by a hurricane, flooding, and fires within their respective regions.
People cannot continue to serve from deficit, but having time for a long, deep replenish does not seem possible. As one interviewee commented, “There is no funding for rest.”
Winchell insists that funders can play a huge role in taking on some of the work that agencies do not have the bandwidth to do. MacDonald concurs: “We are never going to address the volunteer crisis if it’s individually done by each organization.”
Because funding dollars do not typically cover strategic redesign of programs, the volunteer fallout becomes intertwined in the HR crisis concurrently plaguing non-profits and charities. MacDonald believes that a shared service model for volunteers, for example, could be developed and provided in a coordinated way rather than each organization creating their own.
Gone also are the days when non-profit employees were prepared to suck up and deal with low wages. They’re walking – not because the work is not good work but because it’s getting to be too much for too little. Can funders pay a little bit more so that employee salary offerings are more competitive? Can funders create less time-consuming application forms? Do funders have the capacity and will to coordinate, on behalf of the agencies they fund, administrative infrastructures that can be shared across agencies, thus freeing up staff to provide direct services?
5. It’s time to invest in us
While everyone we spoke with admitted to tiredness and ponderings about their own lives, none sounded defeated. Time is the one luxury they all wished they had more of: time to invest in self, family, causes that matter; time to do good work really well; and time to engage with and be replenished within communities of care.
Stroich captures this idea well: “Meeting people who are enthusiastic and contributing, it feeds my hope and desire to contribute. Nothing is going to be sustainable without human sustainability.”
That said, some big questions remain: How do we inspire people to continue to volunteer when there isn’t a crisis? How do we foster volunteer communities of care when people are afraid? How do we keep our communities vibrant? And how do we keep ourselves feeling nourished?
It is indeed a volunteer crossroads that we are facing, after all. Human sustainability – therein lies the way forward.
In the next article in our Work in Progress series, we will examine the new and emerging non-profit workplace – the tensions, issues, and potential fixes.