Is forced volunteering helping anyone?
30 April 2007
by Mary Teresa Bitti, CanWest News Service

Is forced volunteering helping anyone?

The provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador are engaged in a social experiment. Each of these areas requires its high school students to put in anywhere from 25 to 40 hours volunteering in their communities in order to graduate.

The hope is that by forcing teens to give back, they will be encouraged to be good citizens and volunteers as adults. And, of course, non-profits will also benefit from an unpaid labour force.

"We do have very clear research that shows the earlier we get citizens involved in volunteering, the more likely they are to be lifelong volunteers," says Marlene Deboisbriand, president of Volunteer Canada from her office in Ottawa.

But there is one big drawback to the plan: Volunteering is something you choose to do because you want to, not because you have to. What message are we sending teens if we are equating mandatory community service with volunteering? Volunteer or risk not graduating?

"We make kids do things all the time, presumably for their own good," says Linda Graff, president of Linda Graff and Associates Inc., an international consulting firm based in Dundas, Ont., that specializes in volunteerism and non-profit management.

"To call mandatory community service 'volunteering' is a problem because then we begin to confuse the distinction between an activity that is freely chosen and something that is obligatory and perhaps not always rewarding. Volunteering should be something you choose to do because you want to do it, not because somebody made you do it."

"Over time, if we're not careful, I think we can erode that ethos of caring that really distinguishes us as a nation," says Ms. Graff. "We are known around the world as good, caring, helpful people, and that is important to who we are, what our identity is and what our communities are about. If we start to confuse that with being made to do something that is sometimes unpleasant, it's not a good thing."

According to Imagine Canada's most recent national research on volunteering, teenagers have higher rates of volunteering than any other age group. In 2004, 45% of Canadians in general volunteered, compared with 65% of teenagers.

The volunteer numbers include mandatory community service, defined by the survey as an organization that requires volunteering as a condition of membership, court-ordered community service, school requirements and employer requirements.

When the survey came out last year, Ms. Deboisbriand went on her own fact-finding mission, visiting provinces where mandatory community service was not a requirement to graduate high school.

"I wanted to see if we were skewing the numbers by including these hours. But even in provinces where they don't have mandatory community service in their schools, the rate of volunteering is higher among teenagers than the rest of the population."

It is too soon to tell whether students required to volunteer will carry that sense of duty into adulthood.

Ontario was one of the first to introduce its mandatory volunteer program, in September, 1999.

"What we do know," says Ms. Deboisbriand, "is that for these types of programs to work, the volunteer experience has to be a positive one for the student."

It has to be more than a forced work program such as Ontario's, that simply requires the student accumulate a certain number of "volunteer hours," says Ms. Graff. "The research out of the United States says the schools need to work with the community to co-operatively identify work that is meaningful to the kids and that is connected back to curriculum in the classroom. The experience needs to be put in some kind of context so they understand the larger meaning. The Ontario program completely misses both of these requirements.

"My guess is that where this program is successful it is happenstance, not by design."

What of all those hours and able bodies made available free of charge to the 160,000-plus registered non-profits in Canada? "Unpaid labour is not necessarily free," says Ms. Deboisbriand. "The student needs training, monitoring, support, [and] without any guarantee the young person will engage beyond the 40 hours, what have you gained?"

For her part, Gail Nyberg, executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, sees the program as mutually beneficial. "We help the kids get their hours and they help us get a lot of work done."

And the students? Many are stuck licking envelopes or mucking out stalls, which is how Grade 9 student Christina Lynn met her volunteer hours requirement.

"I volunteered at the stable where I ride," says Ms. Lyn, who lives in Oakville, Ont. "I chose something I enjoy and it was a good experience." As for volunteering as an adult, the 15-yearold said she would, so long as it was something she was interested in and had time for. Does that spell success?

© Financial Times

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