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Volunteers are a diminishing resource in Canada
28 April 2006
by Harmail Basi

Danny Katsorov has been named volunteer of the year by Queen's Park for his outstanding work. The longtime supporter of Cambridge Memorial Hospital was photographed in October 2005 in his barbershop in Cambridge with a petition seeking funding for the hospital expansion. (Photo courtesy: The Record)Danny Katsorov has been named volunteer of the year by Queen's Park for his outstanding work. The longtime supporter of Cambridge Memorial Hospital was photographed in October 2005 in his barbershop in Cambridge with a petition seeking funding for the hospital expansion. (Photo courtesy: The Record)
Toronto, Canada: David Graham is the treasurer of the KidsAbility Foundation and the Walter Bean Grand River Community Trails Foundation. This enthusiastic semi-retired chartered accountant has provided his support for over three decades to various health and education organizations, the Canadian Red Cross and the United Way.

Graham helped to get Leadership Waterloo Region started. He continues to give his time because he wants to leave his community a better place than he found it. For him, like so many of Ontario's volunteers, this is an act of giving rather than getting. The impulse to volunteer comes from the heart.

Canadians rely heavily on volunteers to improve community life. A 2005 study by Statistics Canada estimated that the total value of volunteer work in the not-for-profit sector in Canada amounted to a staggering $14 billion, or 1.4 per cent of the gross domestic product.

What volunteers give to our province is, in many ways, beyond calculation. Thanks to them, children get a head start in life, newcomers and people of all abilities and backgrounds overcome various settlement barriers, and Ontarians of all ages enjoy readier access to the arts, a safer environment, healthy living or community sports, to name just a few examples.

As many volunteers as there are, organizations everywhere bemoan the fact that there are never enough. And in some parts of the province -- smaller rural and more isolated northern communities, for instance -- the volunteer base is shrinking.

Now more than ever, we need to refresh the ranks of volunteers who will keep our community organizations thriving. Statistics Canada reports in its most recent National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating a decline in the number of Canadians who volunteer. To compensate for this decline in number, Canadians who offered volunteer services contributed more hours on average.

As the pool of ready and able volunteers dwindles, not-for-profit organizations are now competing fiercely for the same unpaid workforce. According to Statistics Canada, much continues to come from the few. In Canada, 73 per cent of all volunteer hours come from 25 per cent of all volunteers -- and regrettably only seven per cent of all Canadians.

For too many community service organizations that keep local charities alive, their volunteers are aging and, sadly, the next generation of volunteers is not there to replace them. Longtime volunteers -- people who have been giving their time for years, often decades -- are now taking on even heavier workloads. They are volunteering longer and harder because there are too few trained volunteers to whom they can pass the torch. They also do it because they care deeply about keeping valuable community services available.

For not-for-profit organizations, volunteer work represents a much larger resource than monetary or in-kind donations. A Statistics Canada study valued the donations from Canadian households at an estimated $6.5 billion, just less than half the value of volunteer work.

Few people realize just how much it matters to give one's time. Some sectors are more affected by the lack of volunteers than others. According to Evergreen, a national not-for-profit environmental organization, volunteer burnout is the most significant challenge facing community greening groups today.

At the Ontario Trillium Foundation, we know first-hand the tremendous difference volunteers make in this province. Our foundation receives $100 million annually from the Ontario government to build healthy and vibrant communities. Every year, we invest that money in about 1,500 not-for-profit groups across the province that rely solely or in part on volunteers to carry out their vital work in and on behalf of communities.

In Waterloo, Wellington and Dufferin areas alone, in the last 12 months, approximately 23,000 volunteers contributed more than 330,000 volunteer hours to support the work of Ontario Trillium Foundation grant recipients. If you could a put a price on their benevolence, it would have an estimated value of more than $5.6 million.

We rely on volunteers ourselves. More than 300 unpaid volunteers serve on the foundation's board of directors or on one of our 16 grant review teams. Thanks to their time, passion and leadership, we can strengthen community organizations and improve the quality of life for all Ontarians.

During National Volunteer Week, April 23 to 29, the dedication of volunteers like Graham is being celebrated. Ontarians have a chance to recognize the generosity of their 2.3 million volunteers.

I encourage anyone who is not already volunteering to consider getting involved in a cause that matters to you and matters to others. Volunteering is a powerful way to influence decisions and make a real difference in shaping the kind of community we want for ourselves and our families.

Most volunteers do not expect to be recognized -- making a difference has its own rewards for them. But showing our gratitude during Volunteer Week will confirm for them that their contributions count in their communities. Let's not take our volunteers for granted. The best way to thank a volunteer is to become one.

(Harmail Basi is on the board of directors of the Ontario Trillium Foundation located in Toronto.)