Volunteerism drops across region

(Graphic by Steph Truong)

Volunteerism is down in K-W, and people are taking notice.

The Waterloo Region Vital Signs annual report, which was released on Oct. 2, indicated that in the five-year period concluding in 2011, participation in volunteering had dropped 5.3 percentage points.

Jane Hennig, the executive director for the Volunteer Action Centre, an organization which connects volunteers to placement opportunities in Waterloo Region, said that she has seen the drop first-hand.

“I would say that we are lower and continuing to decrease in volunteer hours,” she observed, though she acknowledged that the statistic was more drastic than changes within their own membership.

The drop in volunteer service may, in part, reflect the demographic make-up of the region, according to Hennig.

“There are some real anomalies in this region,” she claimed. “Our region, in terms of demographics, skews younger and we know that younger people volunteer fewer hours than older people.”

Although youth are required to contribute 40 hours of volunteer work in high school, this is not required for most post-secondary programs.

For students who are attempting to balance school often with work and extra-curricular activities, volunteering can be low on the priority list.

“It’s really about how do we attract and find ways to engage that younger population that is going to be meaningful on both sides,” Hennig explained.

Many universities, including Wilfrid Laurier University, are working strategically with community partners to facilitate student volunteering as part of Community Service Learning (CSL) courses.

“If you can do it as part of a course, which is something that they’re going to have to do anyway, it’s not going to take away from the time they have for part-time work, for extra-curricular, for homework, for family,” Hennig added.

Taryn Graham, who is the business communication coordinator at the Volunteer Action Centre, noted that younger volunteers are often looking for positions in which they can apply skills they’ve acquired. “I know that something that youth volunteers tend to look for is a sense of responsibility,” she said.

For Sustainable Waterloo Region, a local business, which operates with 53 volunteers and only six staff members, it’s all about creating positions with substantial opportunities for contribution.

“We don’t have volunteers because we can’t afford to pay them, it’s rather that we see they’re valuable for the organization in terms of what the volunteer can contribute and then as well for the volunteer in terms of their development,” said Sustainable WR executive director Mike Morrice on creating a mutual partnership for volunteering success.

Finding volunteers who are passionate about where they’re providing their time, he says, is also key for engagement.

Morrice continued, “When we know that there’s that strong passion fit, when they have a lot to get out of it, whether that’s through network connections socially or professional development or connecting to the community in a meaningful way, that’s when we identify those volunteers that have that clear benefit.”

While Kitchener organization Mosaic Counselling and Family Services has maintained levels of volunteer support, volunteer coordinator Dale Gellatly was not surprised by the decline.

“It’s because of an aging population. It’s because people are busier with careers and have less time to contribute,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because people are less passionate or less caring.”

Recognizing these changes and structuring volunteer recruitment and programming strategically around them is needed for organizations that are concerned about levels of interest dropping, Gellatly believes.

For example, recognizing the different interests of varied demographics of volunteers is important to consider when creating positions, something which can be determined through formal communication about needs and expectations from both sides of the relationship.

“The places that feel the impact of that five per cent the most are the places that don’t have that professional management of volunteers,” she contended.

Underlying the discussion overall, however, is an agreement that volunteers are integral to the community and that the Vital Signs’ statistic should not be ignored.

“I think volunteers bring something to an organization and a community that you can’t buy with staff,” said Gellatly. “What they bring is a passion and a belief that it is possible for things to be better, for things to be different.”

People who are interested in volunteering can find many placement opportunities at volunteerkw.ca.

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