Carol Goar asks interesting questions about use of volunteers in recent Toronto Star article
Posted under News | Ethics and Canadian Charities
Carol Goar in her article “All dressed up and nowhere to volunteer” asks some interesting questions about why we are not adequately using volunteers. Hopefully the article will intensify the discussion on the point.
Goar: All dressed up and nowhere to volunteer
November 16, 2009
In just over a year, Canada will start experiencing the largest wave of retirements in its history. By the time it ends in 2029, a third of the workforce will be gone.
Many soon-to-retire baby boomers expect to volunteer when they leave the labour force. Giving back to the community has always been part of their life plan.
But they’re in for a surprise. Many well-known charities don’t use volunteers. Their day-to-day work is done by paid staff.
A retiree who wants to teach adult literacy, help people make their homes more energy efficient or give a non-profit agency a hand with its finances or paperwork is likely to find those jobs aren’t available.
An individual who has experienced poverty, hunger or homelessness and wants to help a social service agency design and run its programs is likely to be turned away.
There still is a need for volunteers at Meals on Wheels, Out of the Cold, churches, local charities, amateur sports organizations and theatre groups. There is always a demand for individuals with wealth and connections to sit on non-profit boards. And fundraisers are never rebuffed.
But for the most part, the non-profit sector is not waiting with open arms for retired baby boomers with skills to share and time to spare.
“Logically, it should be a great opportunity,” says Michael Hall, vice-president of Imagine Canada, the umbrella organization for charities and non-profit organizations across the country. “But few organizations have the infrastructure to manage volunteers.
“You need to orient them, assist them and integrate them into your team. But where are the resources? Most organizations are stretched thin.
“It’s harder to manage volunteers than paid staff,” he adds. “They generally want to give you a few hours a week. Paid staff are there, 9 to 5. You can count on them.”
Hall acknowledges that it was volunteers who founded and built the non-profit sector, that the movement was rooted in the philosophy of neighbours helping neighbours and that it was able to mobilize people in a way governments could not.
But that was a different era, Hall contends. “A lot of them (the volunteers) were women who weren’t working.”
Today’s non-profit sector is huge. It employs 1.3 million people. It accounts for 6.8 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. It is run by paid professionals, many with postgraduate degrees. And it is symbiotically linked to government. Its members deliver a vast array of publicly funded services: job training; child care; immigrant settlement; home energy audits; legal aid advice; counselling and support for people with mental illness; assistance for seniors, low-income families, aboriginal peoples and crime victims. Agencies compete for government contracts.
Initially, voluntary leaders embraced this model, thinking it offered them freedom from their chronic financial woes.
Now they realize it didn’t. And it brought a host of new problems:
Non-profit organizations have become mini-bureaucracies run by administrators and weighed down by paperwork.
They have lost their agility, their capacity to take risks and their connectedness to the communities they serve.
And they have become inhospitable to volunteers, who as Hall puts it, “don’t fit into the way our organizations are structured.”
For the last decade, a quiet malaise has spread through the non-profit sector. There never is enough money to do the job properly. Workers feel overwhelmed and undervalued.
“I call it the compassion trap,” Hall says. “You can squeeze them because they believe in the cause. I think Canadians are exploiting the goodwill of the non-profit sector.
There is another possibility. Non-profit organizations are alienating Canadians, asking for donations but providing no outlet for their talent and goodwill.
Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.