A bet­ter way to link vol­un­teers and causes

Cen­tral data­base would serve role as match­maker, Alan Shep­ard says.

Montreal Gazette - - OPINION - Alan Shep­ard is the pres­i­dent and vice-chan­cel­lor of Con­cor­dia Univer­sity.

Study­ing in Mon­treal — ranked the best stu­dent city in the world — isn’t un­usual. For some, though, the jour­ney here is ex­cep­tional.

Lana’s life changed dra­mat­i­cally when she had to leave her home in Syria as the civil war be­came more in­tense. Along with mem­bers of her fam­ily, she set­tled in neigh­bour­ing Jor­dan, where she would re­main for three years. A life-chang­ing ex­o­dus to Canada and eight months of in­tense prepa­ra­tion at Con­cor­dia later, Lana has just found out that she has been fully ac­cepted into a de­gree pro­gram in Art Ed­u­ca­tion in the Fac­ulty of Fine Arts.

When she touched down in Mon­treal last Septem­ber, she was met by a heart­warm­ing sight. A group of sup­port­ers were there to wel­come her at Pierre El­liott Trudeau In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

There are nu­mer­ous links in the chain of kind ges­tures that brought Lana here.

The World Univer­sity Ser­vice of Canada pairs young refugees with univer­si­ties. Lana was iden­ti­fied as a per­fect can­di­date. The cost of her trav­els, English cour­ses, lodg­ing and tu­ition have been cov­ered. All this thanks to those will­ing to give their time and of­fer funds to sup­port the Syr­ian Refugee Fund that was set up by Fine Arts in 2016.

As Na­tional Vol­un­teer Week (April 23-29) ap­proaches, it’s worth re­mind­ing our­selves that the good­will of ev­ery­day peo­ple makes our so­ci­ety stronger, kinder and health­ier. As Lana’s story il­lus­trates, it’s an ac­tiv­ity that re­quires ac­tors with dif­fer­ent skill sets — whether to teach English, to nav­i­gate im­mi­gra­tion pro­cesses, or to fundraise.

In the words of former U.S. pres­i­dent Barack Obama, “Change hap­pens when or­di­nary peo­ple get to­gether, get in­volved, get en­gaged.”

Many Cana­di­ans have al­ready taken up that call. Ac­cord­ing to vol­un­teer.ca, each year 12 mil­lion of us con­trib­ute $14 bil­lion in eco­nomic value through our vol­un­teer ef­forts. The av­er­age Cana­dian gives 154 hours an­nu­ally.

But where to get started? How do we find a vol­un­teer op­tion that co­in­cides with our pas­sion and our abil­ity to help?

De­spite the pres­ence of 200 vol­un­teer cen­tres Canadaw­ide, we lack a cen­tral­ized online data­base that would make match­ing po­ten­tial vol­un­teers with wor­thy causes an easy and ef­fec­tive process. A com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem would har­ness the dig­i­tal con­nec­tive power that is char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Fourth In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion. De­scribed by Klaus Sch­wab, founder of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, this era is one where tech­nol­ogy, bi­ol­ogy and the phys­i­cal world will be­come in­creas­ingly seam­less. It’s about in­te­gra­tion. Time and place are less im­por­tant.

Let’s re­turn to the ex­am­ple of Lana. Imag­ine a data­base where a web­site de­signer could use their smart­phone to ex­press their task pref­er­ence — such as the Syr­ian refugee cri­sis — and stip­u­late their ex­per­tise. A con­sol­i­dated data­base would link vol­un­teer-sup­plied pa­ram­e­ters to the user’s pref­er­ences — which mil­len­ni­als and Gen­er­a­tion Z have come to ex­pect. It’s a sort of vol­un­teer match­mak­ing ser­vice.

To max­i­mize vol­un­teerism, it is pro­duc­tive to dig a bit deeper into mo­ti­va­tion, too. Yes, Lana con­tin­ued to ex­cel, buoyed by the kind­ness of strangers, but the vol­un­teers ben­e­fit­ted as well. Re­search shows that al­tru­ism spurs 70 per cent of those who vol­un­teer. A sig­nif­i­cant chunk, how­ever, seek skill devel­op­ment to im­prove their job prospects. For some pop­u­la­tion seg­ments — at­ten­tion fel­low baby boomers! — vol­un­teerism is rec­om­mended by doc­tors as a key to healthy ag­ing. It’s a win-win sit­u­a­tion.

Within the next decade, those who have reached or ex­ceeded the tra­di­tional re­tire­ment age of 65 will sur­pass 20 per cent. This group has steadily closed the In­ter­net-us­age gap with younger gen­er­a­tions. Nearly 84 per cent of in­di­vid­u­als be­tween 45 and 64 are online, which in­cludes mo­bile de­vices. A dig­i­tal, cus­tom­iz­a­ble vol­un­teer tool could be a suc­cess with baby boomers — not just mil­len­ni­als and Gen­er­a­tion Z.

What­ever the cause, choos­ing to vol­un­teer aligns you with a proud tra­di­tion of so­cial ac­tors. The change peo­ple help ef­fect with their dis­cre­tionary time does, in many cases, trans­form lives and our so­ci­ety.

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