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Rebooting the volunteer spirit

Giving by giving back

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A world without volunteerism: a dark and unfriendly place

There would be no CT scanner at the Whistler Health Clinic. No advanced heart rate monitor. No warming blankets to comfort broken bones coming out of the cold. 120 people, individuals and families, would go hungry. More than 150 would go without Christmas dinner on the table and presents under the tree. Wounded soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan might never discover their first pain-free day when introduced to the joy and freedom of adaptive skiing or kayaking. Suicides would take the lives of more youth and waterways would be trampled on by development.

The Olympics and Paralympics, guided by thousands of smiling volunteers in blue jackets, would have been a disaster.

Thankfully Whistler is far from this nightmare, and generally speaking volunteerism is always stronger in smaller towns than big cities where people don't know their neighbours' names. However, the landscape of Canada's volunteer sector is changing, declining at a rate of 2.5 per cent a year, according to the studies of Carleton University professor Dr. Paul Reed. In 10 years, he says the country will lose one quarter of its volunteer population.

So what will our world look like? How can we better understand why this is happening? And most importantly, exactly how do you create a volunteer?

 

The State of Volunteerism in Canada

Reed has devoted 30 years of his life to understanding the makeup of Canada's volunteer sector. The social scientist is the director of the Nonprofit Sector Knowledge Base Project, which has produced more than 50 studies. His findings come to light in the Graff-Reed Conversations found on canadawhocares.ca.

According to these studies, Canada's once consistent volunteer rate over the past 20 years has begun to slide. No longer mentioned in throne speeches with the government looking at the volunteer sector as a reserve of "free labour" to supplement program cutbacks, the future of volunteerism is declining - or what Reed calls "softening."

The senior social scientist at Statistics Canada attributes this failing to a number of factors, including the softening of the family unit due to the rise of divorce; increased time demands such as commuting; a decline in religion (always a strong volunteer driver); and the movement of Canada's population into bigger cities (where volunteering is less prevalent), among others.

"Volunteering has gone through a golden age of 10 to 12 years and it's very definitely weakening, softening and declining," Reed says, noting the focus and funding for volunteer studies is no longer a government priority.

67 per cent of all volunteering is conducted by only five per cent of Canada's population, and the character profile of this shrinking group is deteriorating. According to Reed's studies, there are fewer people volunteering and those who do are committing themselves to a fewer number of organizations. Volunteers are also shying away from long-term commitments, moving towards more episodic and quid-pro-quo opportunities.

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