The Changing Face of Volunteerism

Most nonprofit organizations depend on volunteers to deliver on their mission. They contribute in a variety of ways, serving on Boards of Directors, delivering services, contributing important skills, to name a few. We can talk about their value in terms of the hours they contribute, but their true value is qualitative. It is in how they bring the community into their organization, build connections, support a cause or specific individuals. They do this with their passion or their compassion, rather than because it is their job. This article looks at the ways in which volunteerism has changed over the past 25 years in Montreal and elsewhere, and how it has recently been disrupted by the pandemic with its lingering effects. Volunteers are essential to the functioning and resilience of our communities, and they are taken for granted at our peril. Volunteerism is evolving rapidly as is society itself. Nonprofit organizations are caught up in, and must understand, that shift and its impact.

I was introduced to volunteering by my mother when I was a young teenager. It was her idea. Once a week for a school year, I acted as a “candy striper” in a general hospital, tending to patients’ needs in a non-medical capacity. I enjoyed the experience but did not feel compelled to continue. After that early experience, I was more personally motivated to give my time, energy, and thought to various causes, and this contributed significantly to my education and personal growth. I have never stopped volunteering, but things changed for me when I entered the formal field of volunteer engagement in 2001, joining the team at the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal. Sixteen years later I moved to Volunteer Canada, the organization providing leadership, expertise, and advocacy on volunteerism at the national level.

I have often thought there was something auspicious about the timing of my career change. 2001 was the International Year of Volunteers, a year when everyone in the community sector was talking about the importance of volunteers, when governments were not only celebrating and recognizing volunteers, but also investing in research and in the development of tools and resources to support them.

The Volunteer Bureau of Montreal was the first centre of its kind in Canada, founded in 1937. It is part of a network of centres across Quebec and across Canada that were created to address community needs and gaps by involving local citizens in various ways. Apart from promoting volunteerism and helping build the capacity of local organizations, many of these centres today provide direct services and play important leadership roles in their communities.


Some Definitions

Perhaps the simplest way to define “volunteering” is as a gesture or action that is offered freely, made without financial reward, and intended for the good of another person, of a cause, or of the community.

While this definition covers most volunteering, there are situations where the principles implied can appear somewhat blurred or nuanced, for instance “volunteering” that is:

    • required for academic purposes (for graduation from high school, for acceptance to certain programs, e.g., International Baccalaureate, medical or law school, or for obtaining scholarships),
    • community service performed as a condition of parole or as an alternative to prison, or
    • part of corporate or other employer supported programs where employees individually or in groups volunteer while being paid.

Volunteerism was defined in a 2021 report by Statistics Canada as:

…the participation in purposeful helping activities without monetary compensation. It can involve a variety of activities, taking place occasionally over the course of a year, or a more consistent and sustained commitment, such as a weekly commitment to a specific cause. Volunteering benefits groups, persons, or the community, and can either be mediated by organizations (formal volunteering) or be direct help without the involvement of an organization or group (informal volunteering).

Volunteering counts: Formal and informal contributions of Canadians in 2018

This was the first report in Canada that recognized and tracked informal volunteering, i.e., individuals or groups participating directly in a cause or to help individuals, not through an organization.


Why is Volunteering Important?

When one is immersed in volunteer engagement as I have been, it can be easy to take for granted why it is important and to whom. Staff in community organizations often say, “We couldn’t do it without them!” and they are not referring simply to the financial impact of involving volunteers. The value for them is something else. Volunteers bring whatever is needed to the table – skills, attention, patience, time, knowledge, empathy – and do so because they freely want to. They bring the sensibility of the community into the organization, bearing witness to what it is doing, and they serve a governing role as trustees and board members. Volunteers create connections within an increasingly disconnected society.

Without volunteers, there is no community sector. In fact, well over half of the over 60,000 nonprofit organizations in Quebec have no staff at all. Community organizations, many with precarious budgets, are tasked with completing and complementing the work of governments on all levels and in all areas, including health and social services, arts and culture, sports and recreation, education and research, law and advocacy, housing and development, the environment, human rights, international development, and philanthropy—and they quite simply could not do it without volunteers.

Even if volunteers are unpaid, they make an important contribution to the economy – and this is another angle on their value, one that is more tangible for some people. In 2017 the Conference Board of Canada estimated that volunteers added over two billion hours to Canada’s work effort and contributed a value of $55.9 billion, the equivalent of 2.6 percent of GDP. If volunteering were an industry, it would employ nearly as many people as those currently working in education. (The Value of Volunteering in Canada)

Volunteers create value for themselves, as well. They acquire skills, improve their employment prospects, and create their own social and economic networks. There is growing recognition of the many benefits of volunteering for neighbourhoods (social capital and social cohesion), organizations (increased capacity and cultural competencies), workplaces (improved employee engagement and public profile), and society at large (better public policy and citizen engagement).


Some Statistics and Trends

Statistics on volunteering among those who are 15 years or older have been gathered in Canada every five years since 1997, in what is now called the General Social Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating. It was originally undertaken every three years, later changing to every five years, and it takes at least a year before the data is analyzed and published.
Regardless of the lag, this information is useful for benchmarking and noticing trends.

The pandemic further delayed the release of all the data from the most recent survey (2018). When the results were finally published in the spring of 2021, they were eagerly awaited, despite the fact that they contained only information collected before the pandemic. People in the sector wanted to know if the recent trend towards lower formal volunteer rates was continuing, and also to see the data on informal volunteering.

Formal and informal volunteering
In fact, the trend downwards did continue. The number of volunteers was almost the same as in the previous survey (12.7 million), representing a smaller percentage of the adult population (41%, down from 44%), and they collectively contributed approximately 1.7 billion hours, down from close to 2 billion.

If you add formal and informal volunteering together, 79% of the population 15 years old and over in Canada volunteer formally or informally or both. In Quebec the percentage was 78%.

This is good news for Quebec. In all previous surveys, Quebec was at the bottom of the list in terms of volunteer numbers, percentages, and hours – some believe mostly because many Quebecers see their actions as entraide (mutual aid) or informal volunteering. In this survey, Quebecers, while still coming out at the bottom in terms of formal volunteering, were at the top for informal volunteers and were in the average range for those who volunteered both formally and informally.

What is important for nonprofits to take from this data is that there is less interest in structured, managed, or long-term volunteering, whether in Quebec or anywhere in Canada (and in fact world-wide). This trend started before the pandemic and is now well anchored.

As a society, we cannot see the increase in informal volunteering as bad news, because it provides evidence of much goodwill, kindness, and giving, and this is to be celebrated. For nonprofit organizations, however, this new reality presents a challenge. While many adapted their volunteer programs and recruitment practices during the pandemic, it is now obvious that there is nothing temporary about the situation. If individual organizations and the communities they serve are to thrive, change must be sustained.

Another First
For the first time in this survey, the data is broken down into five age cohorts instead of simple age-ranges. This is intended to introduce the notion that people’s actions are influenced to some extent by the significant societal events and cultural experiences within a given time-period. The five cohorts used in the report are:

    • iGen (also referred as Generation Z): Born between 1996 and 2012 (15 to 22 years of age at the time of the survey)
    • Millennials: Born between 1981 and 1995 (23 to 37 years of age)
    • Gen X: Born between 1966 and 1980 (38 to 52 years of age)
    • Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1965 (53 to 72 years of age)
    • Matures: Born between 1918 and 1945 (73 to 100 years of age)

According to the results, the younger cohorts tended towards informal volunteering, and, although higher in volunteer rates (percentage of them that volunteer), gave fewer hours than the older generations. The older cohorts tended towards formal volunteering, and, while their rates of volunteering were lower, they contributed more hours.

Note: The Canadian Knowledge Hub for Giving and Volunteering is a new website that brings together stats on giving and volunteering and, as a hub, will be updated over time as data becomes available. This tool should prove invaluable for those working in the non-profit sector.

The Pandemic Effect
Smaller, but still statistically significant surveys carried out since 2019 in Canada and in Quebec have shown that volunteerism has been seriously disrupted over the pandemic years. Initially individuals were inspired to come out in droves; the needs were obvious and so many had time to spare due to being forced to stop their work or studies. Early in the pandemic,, a website created by volunteer centres in Quebec to provide access to opportunities across the province, crashed within hours of the Premier encouraging people to sign up.

During the pandemic, nonprofits proved themselves both resilient and creative, cancelling services or shutting down only when it proved necessary. Mostly they scrambled for funding, recruited new volunteers, trained them while also learning from them, and managed to continue responding to an ever-increasing demand for services.

Meanwhile, as time went on, many older volunteers, by far the vast majority in our society, found they had to wait too long to be permitted to return to volunteering or to feel comfortable in doing so. They simply decided to stop.

With seniors not returning, and with eager pandemic volunteers being called back to work, school or to family responsibilities or having more leisure options, fewer volunteers were left for the required tasks. Some returning volunteers found that their previous activity had moved online during the pandemic, or now entailed an online component, which did not suit them. As a result of all these intersecting and overlapping changes, nonprofits found themselves coming out of the pandemic with a serious shortage of volunteers at a time when most were also having trouble finding staff.


Other Trends and Factors Impacting Volunteer Engagement

Apart from the impact of the pandemic, many factors, trends, and practices have come to light during my time working in the sector, some that facilitate volunteer engagement, and some that get in the way. Below you will find six of the most important, along with some of my own thoughts about their significance for volunteerism.

Professionalization of Volunteering
Professionalization takes two forms. First, the engagement of volunteers in nonprofit organizations has become increasingly organized and professionalized. This can be a good thing: staff adopt practices that better support effective volunteer engagement, become aware of the importance of having clear policies that protect both the volunteers and the organization, and learn to evaluate the impact of volunteer efforts. But it can also make their jobs and the atmosphere more bureaucratic and make volunteering itself less appealing and spontaneous, more like paid work. This aspect of the trend can certainly contribute to a decrease in formal volunteers. Organizations need to find a way to balance maintaining appropriate levels of paperwork and risk while offering maximum flexibility and autonomy to their volunteers.

The second form of professionalization is what is referred to as skills-based volunteering. Individuals and sometimes groups are engaged for their professional skills to undertake tasks or projects, or to educate employees at nonprofit organizations. This professionalization does not contribute to the decrease in formal volunteers, while it it allows volunteers to participate on a short-term basis or project basis, and in ways that are meaningful and satisfying to them. It also gives organizations access to many necessary and desirable skills to better accomplish their missions.

Virtual Volunteering
A growing but by no means new trend is volunteers offering their time and expertise remotely. From their home or office in Montreal or beyond, they are able to participate in communications functions (writing, editing, translating, graphic arts, photography, web development), perform various direct service tasks via phone or online (friendly visits, tutoring, mentoring, social skills training, group facilitation), join in fundraising campaigns, and more. As organizations adapted to pandemic conditions, some services moved online, and many more volunteer activities became what is called “virtual.” Some, but not all, of those services continue online, and organizations are finding more ways to engage people from afar. Virtual volunteering is alive and thriving.

Employer-supported Volunteering
When I first arrived at the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal, it was not common practice for organizations to welcome employee groups in to help; and, in fact, many nonprofits were somewhat cynical about the practice and did not consider it to be volunteering. Twenty-five years later, companies and other employers commonly engage in both group and individual volunteering projects as a way to invest in the communities in which they operate. Employers are willing to pay for costs directly associated with the activity, to pay employees’ salaries while volunteering, and often to make a contribution towards the time, knowledge, and skills of staff in the nonprofit. They see a two-fold return on their contributions: good will in the community and improved retention of employees.

Parallel to this trend, there is also a growing recognition among employers of the value of volunteer experience. It is not only “nice to have” on a CV, or simply evidence of a person’s character and values. Volunteering is also proof of skills and acquired experience, particularly soft skills. This recognition has crept into the hiring process, and also into ongoing evaluation and retention practices.

Volunteers Have Rights, but also Responsibilities
Volunteers give their time, their skills, their presence, their passion and so much more. But you will hear many say, “I receive so much more than I give!” Volunteering is a two-way street and it works best when the back-and-forth is in balance. According to Volunteer Canada (Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement), the guiding principles of volunteer engagement are that volunteers have rights, and volunteers have responsibilities. Organizations need to respect those rights, but they also can expect volunteers to deliver on their responsibilities.

Of course, in order for these principles to be followed, both the rights and the responsibilities involved need to be made explicit and be acknowledged by both sides. A good set of volunteer policies and procedures should reflect these simple principles and the implications that flow from them for the organization in question.

In years of consulting with community organizations in Montreal, I found that this back-and-forth being out of balance was at the heart of any problem reported by volunteers or those working with them.

The Future of Formal Volunteering In Question
Many volunteer programs in nonprofit organizations were facing recruitment and retention problems long before the pandemic. One-time events and short-term projects have become popular, as has micro volunteering, meaning short projects taking from 10-15 minutes to a couple of hours.

At the same time, fewer volunteers are interested in a long-term commitment. Many want to experience other organizations, different causes, or perhaps find it difficult to fit anything long-term into their busy lives. With so many older volunteers not returning after the pandemic, this trend has become even more problematic.

In addition, other less formal types of engagement have continued to increase in popularity, for example, direct involvement through neighbourhood or online groups, petitions, fundraising, social media campaigns, and, of course, responding directly in emergencies. This informal volunteering is in itself positive, as noted above, but not when it is at the expense of nonprofit organizations with their significant dependence on volunteers.

There are, in fact, more than enough potential volunteers in Montreal to go around. In order to rise to the challenge of finding sufficient and appropriate volunteers, organizations must prioritize volunteer engagement at a strategic level and focus on three fronts.

    1. Communications: become compelling storytellers, explaining their mission and impact in such a way that attracts today’s volunteers, and develop social media savvy.
    2. Integration: be open and inclusive from the first contact with volunteers, seek to understand their motivations and expectations, and be clear about the organization’s own expectations and goals.
    3. Operations: find a safe and sustainable balance between flexibility and structure.

Organizations that are aware of all these various trends will be the most successful in their recruitment, even in these difficult times. They will develop different types of opportunities that allow them to engage volunteers remotely when appropriate, seek out volunteers specifically for events, and recruit volunteers who want to offer skills on a one-time or project basis. They will also find those who are happy to become “regulars”. They will know that volunteering is a “two-way” street and will have a balanced approach that means those “regulars” will be more likely to stay longer.

Perhaps the Biggest Barrier of All
Volunteering has long been suggested to immigrants and other new arrivals as a way to learn about and integrate into their new environment, whether that be a large city like Montreal, a small town, or a new neighbourhood. It does, in fact, often prove a pathway to meeting people for social and employment purposes, to better understanding the local culture, to learning the language, and to finding much needed information and resources. Many nonprofit organizations report high numbers of immigrants in their volunteer ranks, the highest not surprisingly being those that work within settlement and cultural communities.

There is, however, a larger issue of inclusion within the community sector as a whole in Montreal and in Quebec and in volunteer engagement. We are not immune from the diversity, equity, and inclusion barriers that exist in our society and are becoming more visible. Apart from the historical and cultural origins of specific community organizations and institutions here, volunteerism itself is a white, colonial structure with assumptions that are often implicit and unacknowledged. Many cultures have practices of mutual aid and supporting each other, but these are not recognized as volunteering by the dominant culture and the term itself does not resonate with those from all cultures.

Organizations have their work cut out for them if they want to create a truly welcoming and inclusive environment for staff, volunteers, and boards of directors. There is growing awareness of this complex issue and the history that lies behind it. I am encouraged to see some organizations looking deeply into and changing their practices. Others may take longer as will the political, social, philanthropic systems with which they are necessarily interconnected.


Some Concluding Reflections

It would have astounded the women who founded the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal 85 years ago to see what today’s volunteers are doing and how they are doing it. Volunteers from 2001, the year I started working at the centre, would also be very surprised. Volunteering has been changing all along and continues to do so. The pace is merely accelerating.

As stated in the introduction to this article, volunteers are essential to the functioning and resilience of our communities. Resilience is a word that we hear frequently, whether in reference to urban renewal, economic improvement, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, environmental recovery, confronting our mental health crisis, and the list goes on.

The community sector in Montreal is strong and many nonprofits are becoming increasingly savvy as they adapt to the current challenging environment. Volunteers are not the only answer to what confronts them, of course, but in order to contribute in a meaningful way to the crises and processes named above, organizations need volunteers more than ever. Significant investments of financial and human resources are required and must be prioritized by both board and staff leadership. The public sector and philanthropic institutions also have a role to play. They could formally recognize the enormous contribution of volunteers and find ways to provide or support the infrastructure required by organizations to deploy them. How else can they continue to produce the miracles they do?

Alison Stevens

Alison Stevens

Former Executive Director, Volunteer Bureau of Montreal. Specialist, Volunteer Centres and Volunteer Engagement Volunteer Canada