B.C’s volunteer crisis

No one can deny volunteering has its rewards. Why else would six million Canadians work without pay for one to 15 hours a week? To share the company of others? To learn new skills? Or simply to contribute to a needy cause?

Whatever the reason – or perhaps for all of them – the free time given up by 700,000 retirees, among others, adds up to many millions of dollars each year and keeps tens of thousands of local and national charities in operation.

But times are changing. Between greater demands on their time and less funding by governments, Canada’s 100,000 charities are not only finding it difficult to stay afloat, but, because of untrained or apathetic supervisors, many are having trouble holding onto their volunteers. As a result, senior consultants in B.C. have been working hard to come up with proposals to halt the drain on volunteer resources.

No rebellions – not even organized protests – have occurred among those thousands of volunteers who increasingly feel their contributions are being taken for granted. The worst that has happened, say consultants, is a rising complaint that volunteers deserve more kudos than many receive, and complaints that many supervisors ck the skills or time to match a volunteer’s talents to the task at hand. The result, say the volunteers, is frustration on their part and a waste of human energy by the charities.

Aggravating these problems is the fact they’re taking place in the midst of rising demands on food banks, second-hand clothing and hostel providers; the sharp reduction in public funding of charities and the sudden appearance of highly skilled professionals – accountants or lawyers enlisting as volunteers, who find themselves packing beans in boxes instead of counting them on computers.

Roy Crowe, consultations and program director for Volunteer Vancouver, an organization that helps recruit 500,000 volunteers annually in that city, concedes the problem and echoes what many in the volunteer sector argue today – that more paid volunteer coordinators will either have to be hired in Canada or the number of frustrated or ill-placed volunteers will continue to drop off. Crowe says steps are being taken by several charities to follow a now-common practice in the United States: hiring trained volunteer coordinators. And community colleges in several provinces have been toying with the idea of launching courses leading to a certificate in such a discipline.

“Apart from the problems that poor job assignments create for both the volunteer and the charity, such thoughtlessness can be devastating to others in the organization who rely on the output of the volunteer. And when that happens in a hospital, a prison or a school, the problem just escalates.”

The alternatives to introducing more professionalism into many of today’s charities are obvious – they either waste what finances they have or go under.

Although unable to offer a cure-all for the problems facing volunteering in the province, Crowe did offer one simple remedy for all charities: “Make people know they’re appreciated. What better payment can there be for a volunteer? Some may want a round of applause, but most volunteers would be gratified to know first that they’re doing a good job; and secondly, the job they’re asked to perform is made more fulfilling.

“Try both tactics”, he suggests, “and watch the results.”