The Woolwich Observer

Volunteer work is shifting, but it’s still an essential part of community

- STEVE KANNON Editor's Point of View KANNON

Much of what makes the place we live a community is dependent on the efforts of volunteers. From healthcare to minor sports, environmen­tal programs to aid for the disadvanta­ged, what we take for granted would grind to halt in the absence of volunteeri­sm.

Recognizin­g that reality is the impetus for National Volunteer Week, which runs April 14-20.

The importance of our voluntary efforts is certainly clear to Jane Hennig, executive director of Volunteer Waterloo Region (VWR).

Prior to the pandemic, about half of the region’s population over the age of 15 – more than 233,000 people – provided some 25 million hours of volunteer time annually. While those numbers declined in the wake of the COVID19 crisis, volunteers are still providing about 20 million hours of their time.

Without those people, many agencies in the region would be sidelined – some are already in that position, even – unable to replace those hours with paid staff time.

In fact, if everybody in the country stopped volunteeri­ng tomorrow, it would be financiall­y impossible to replace the work with paid staff, even if there were enough people to hire.

“Volunteers touch every aspect of our lives. Health care and social services are the things that we automatica­lly think of, but arts and culture, environmen­t, sports and recreation. All of the sports clubs that your kids attend, they’re run by volunteers,” says Hennig. “Those are programs that we all expect in our community. And those are the things that we want to make sure continue into the future.”

Ensuring that such programs keep going means keeping a steady supply of volunteers. That’s not always an easy task. Shifting demographi­cs, for instance, pose challenges. Seniors typically provide the most hours among volunteers, but they’re aging out in some cases, with fewer people following in behind to take on traditiona­l day-to-day volunteeri­ng tasks.

Instead, younger volunteers are more project oriented, taking on events in a specific timeframe rather than ongoing tasks, Hennig notes.

“The new generation, they’re not sort of embracing the same process. So, how do you develop new processes when the old processes are still really substantia­l and holding on? We’ve hit that sort of precipice where the old guard can’t do it anymore – they have just run out of steam, and maybe they’re not able physically to do the tasks anymore – and that new generation hasn’t been brought in to take it from here,” she says.

“We’re finding that we’re just kind of at that peak where there’s no choice but to change. For those organizati­ons who were hanging on to the old way for a long period of time, they’re having to change dramatical­ly now to accommodat­e.”

Aging is indeed an issue. Surveys by Statistics Canada show that the country’s oldest citizens – those born before 1945 – had smaller numbers of volunteers as a percentage of their population (not surprising, given their age) but provided three times as many hours as the average volunteer born after 1996, about 222 hours per year versus 82 hours from Gen Zs.

As those older seniors age out of volunteeri­sm, it’s tougher to pick up the slack. While Baby Boomers provide an average of 197 hours of volunteer time each year, that cohort, too, is moving along.

Boomers are among the most affluent generation ever. They’re also healthier at retirement than previous cohorts. That being the case, many are opting for the likes of travel and other recreation­al pursuits rather than doing volunteer work after retiring.

“On top of that, we had the pandemic as well.

So, many things aligned against traditiona­l volunteeri­ng. But that said, we still have millions doing it. So, what I want to say during National Volunteer Week is ‘thank you very much’ to those who are doing it,” says Hennig, noting the number of volunteer hours for the kind of traditiona­l day-today volunteer services in the region fell to about

12.7 million hours per year from 13.3 million pre-pandemic.

Organizati­ons are learning to adjust to shifting preference­s that come with a different demographi­c. Likewise, greater mobility and increasing urbanizati­on have had an impact on our sense of community. While there are perhaps fewer attachment­s to where we live – a traditiona­l sense of place that comes with generation­s of living in the same location, for instance – people still require a sense of belonging.

“I think that something we’ve learned through the pandemic is how vital that sense of community is, how important it is to feel connected to the place. While there is moving around, there is a desire to really embrace the community, because we’ve seen what isolation can do in terms of the negative impact it can have. Isolation is not good for anyone – mental health or physical health. So, finding ways to connect is really important.”

For younger people seeking such connection­s, volunteeri­ng is more likely to be with an organizati­on or cause, often with specific goals in mind. Seniors, on the other hand, do much more informal volunteeri­ng, often on an ongoing basis.

Seniors and Boomers are more likely to participat­e in traditiona­l volunteer organizati­on structures such as boards and committees, while Millennial­s are more inclined to take on tasks such as raising awareness through social media and the like.

Younger volunteers – Gen Z and those that followed – have the highest rate of formal volunteeri­sm among all age groups, but that’s often tied to the likes of looking to improve job prospects – résumés-building. They’re also more likely to volunteer in conjunctio­n with school or work requiremen­ts, with Statistics Canada reporting about 10% of their volunteer hours representi­ng mandatory unpaid work.

Whatever the changes, however, volunteeri­sm remains a cornerston­e of our society, says Hennig.


 ?? ?? With road work cutting off access to the village for a second year, Bloomingda­le residents may head the list of
those taking issue with constructi­on season.
With road work cutting off access to the village for a second year, Bloomingda­le residents may head the list of those taking issue with constructi­on season.
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