In 2013 United Way Perth-Huron raised over $1,133,500 and they definitely could not have done it without their team of dedicated volunteers.
Lesley Spencer-Cooper, Campaign Manager, explains, “Although the mission of United Way Perth-Huron is to ‘build strong, local communities’, it is reciprocal, as our organization is dependent on the dedication of ‘strong, local community members’. These citizens give back in so many ways: sharing time, expertise, and commitment to improve Perth and Huron Counties.”
In their newly released research report entitled `The Heart of Community: A report on Volunteerism in Perth and Huron Counties`, The Social Research and Planning Council (SRPC), which is a division of United Way Perth-Huron, celebrated the fact that thousands of local volunteers are enriching our lives in countless ways, shaping the kinds of communities we live and work in.
Volunteers play a critical role not only at the United Way, but also in our communities and without them many non-profit and service sector organizations would be forced to close their doors. They sit on boards, raise money, share talents, provide transportation, deliver meals and offer companionship to the sick and dying. Their value often overlooked, it is estimated that the economic value of volunteering in Canada is somewhere in the range of $50 billion a year.
The not-for-profit sector, which is highly dependent on those volunteers, is a key economic driver in its own right. In 2006, (the most recent year for which figures are available) the not-for-profit sector added more to Canada’s GDP than the entire accommodation and food services industries combined – or more than double that of agriculture, and six times as much as the entire automotive industry.
Ryan Erb, Executive Director of United Way Perth-Huron, describes the importance of volunteers, “Regardless of whether they are answering phones, working at events, stuffing envelopes, leading work-place campaigns, connecting with potential donors, or serving on committees, each volunteer is a necessary part in the workings of a successful campaign. “
Although rates of volunteering differ from province to province, they are consistently higher in rural regions. Right here in Huron County volunteers gave more than four million hours of their time – equal to roughly 2,000 full time jobs. This contribution is of such great value to our communities that 84% of the local non-profit organizations that were surveyed said they simply could not function without them. In fact, while the national average for volunteerism participation in arts and culture organizations is 66%, here in Huron County they are 88%.
A shining example of local volunteerism was heard through the story of local example of volunteerism of 97-year-old Marshall and his 87-year-old wife Marion. Being able to live independently as long as possible is important to most people, but without volunteers they simply wouldn’t still be able to.
Marshall finds it very difficult to get around and relies on a walker, while Marion suffers from severe arthritis in her leg, which makes standing difficult. Just doing the simplest of day-to-day chores is challenging.
The Exeter couple currently live in an apartment, and are recipients of both formal volunteerism through One Care Home & Community Support Services, as well as informal volunteerism through friends, neighbours and fellow church members.
Volunteers deliver Meals on Wheels four times a week and Easy Ride volunteer drivers take them to appointments at least once a week. Other people offer to get them to coffee dates and church on Sundays. Without volunteers, both Marion and Marshall agree that they would have to start looking for somewhere else to live.
Most people who were surveyed that volunteer do so for many reasons, some of which include being personally affected by a cause, wanting to meet people, a desire to explore personal strengths, hoping to improve job opportunities and the need to fulfill religious or educational obligations. But the single biggest reason people volunteer is simply to make a contribution to their community; which is why our volunteers are truly the heart of our communities striving to make our lives a better place!
And while we celebrate these findings whole heartedly, and cherish the contributions made by all of the good people generously giving of their time, it is also important to note that the total number of hours donated remained unchanged from 2007 at just over two billion hours. The bottom line of this emerging trend is that although more people are volunteering, as a whole, they are able to give less time. For those that don’t volunteer at all, not surprisingly, a lack of time was stated as the main reason why.
While it is evident that the rural culture of ‘pitching in’ and ‘looking after our own’ is alive and well in Huron county, volunteerism in the larger, more formalized sense faces significant obstacles.
Of our local volunteers, it is our seniors that have truly been making a volunteering difference in our community and although their volunteerism participation rate was just over 35%, they gave almost double the hours of younger Canadians (225 hours vs. 130 hours). With day-to-day life getting busier for most and half of our local organizations surveyed reporting that they rely on volunteers of an average age of 55 or older, this could create a future decline of available help.
The reality of our society today is that younger volunteers are increasingly busy looking after children and careers and have little time left over to give. Unfortunately, those who are not in the practice of volunteering when they are young, they are also less likely to begin when they are older.
A significant finding however was that a lack of time however is not the only reason people do not volunteer, for many surveyed, they responded that they have simply not been asked to volunteer and they are unaware of what is available. This is clearly something of significance to organizations that are in desperate need of them.
Considering this, it is particularly important to note that while Statistics Canada reports that the relationship between volunteerism and the internet is on the rise, close to 70% of organizations surveyed said that they do not clearly highlight volunteer opportunities on their website homepage and only one organization surveyed uses Facebook. This translates to a potential oppourtunity for connection that needs to be harnessed!
And while Perth County has Volunteers in Perth (VIP), a non-profit organization that promotes volunteerism, there is no equivalent organization in Huron County. Nor is there a one-stop resource center where people can go to learn about local volunteer opportunities, or where organizations can receive volunteer training and support that would help them to attract and retain the volunteers they need.
Another issue that was identified was that of the local non-profit organizations surveyed 84% of them said they never had enough volunteers. Of those receiving help, the top 3 three sectors people volunteer for are 1) sports and recreation sector, 2) faith sector, 3) social services sector. Of those that are not in the top 3, it can be a continual struggle to get the word out and find the help they need.
In addition to a shortage of volunteers, there is also a lack of volunteer co-coordinators and best practices in place to properly support the work being done by volunteers. Over 90% of local organizations surveyed did not have a full-time or part-time volunteer co-ordinator, and more than half of not-for-profit organizations do not follow a Volunteer code of Best Practices.
Add to these shortages a change in societal expectations and it becomes increasingly difficult for organizations to keep up with what volunteers truly want from the experience. “Many organizations focus on what they need but many volunteers come with their own goals to be met,” says Volunteer Canada.
“In general, people seem to have less time than they did 10 or 15 years ago and they’re more particular about the volunteer work they take on. They want richer experiences and shorter time commitments, plus there are more organizations competing for their time. It’s a real challenge for us.” commented Paul Lloyd Williams, the Fundraising Volunteer Co-ordinator for St. Marys Minor Hockey Association.
There have also been changes in screening requirements, and while few people dispute the importance of screening, especially where children, the elderly and the most vulnerable among us are concerned, the time, cost and energy it takes can be a deterrent to volunteering. The more reporting requirements and regulations there are; the less likely volunteers are going to want to do the work.
And finally, the vastness of our rural County can also present significant transportation challenges. Not surprisingly, it can be a challenge to recruit volunteers when they may need to travel large distances and who may have to cover their transportation costs out of pocket. With public transportation being extremely sparse in Huron and Perth counties, volunteer opportunities are often limited to those who either have a vehicle or live ‘in town’ close to an assignment.
Through these identified challenges, the SRPC`s Volunteerism report gives solid recommendations on how volunteerism in Perth and Huron County can be strengthened and supported in our communities. Some of which include improving current websites for volunteer opportunities in Perth-Huron, developing volunteer recruitment strategies, and putting together a working group to assess the need for a Volunteer Centre. All of which will be positive steps toward improving the experiences of those the SRPC is calling the heart of our community, our volunteers. Working together, we can all make our communities a more vibrant and enriching place to live in!
For more information on the Social Research and Planning Council or to read a copy of their Volunteerism report, please visit www.socialresearchandplanning.ca or for more information on United Way Perth-Huron visit www.perthhuron.unitedway.ca or call 519 271-7730 or 1-877-818-8867.