April 11-15 is Volunteer Week in Canada and it got me thinking about the state of volunteerism both local and societal.
In my opinion, and those of other volunteers, there appears to be an impending crisis coming in the world of volunteerism.
My own direct experience with being a volunteer began in 1974 as a young 17-year-old desperate for more ice time in Terrace. The arena had just opened and minor hockey, figure skating and men’s hockey were bursting at the seams with registrants.
The arena was occupied between 5 a.m. and 2 a.m. seven days a week as people signed up for everything that they could find room in.
Local people stepped forward in droves to serve as coaches, instructors, referees and administrators in various organizations.
In order to get on the ice more, I decided that I and a couple of my friends would volunteer as coaches of a peewee house team.
These young peewees began what became an ongoing coaching career that lasts to this day. The players on that team, and teams that followed grew up and became the volunteers that coach in Terrace Minor Hockey and other associations past, present and future.
I have also had the pleasure to serve as president of minor hockey and on administration with the regional Hockey B.C.
As the years passed, I and many others noted that parents and others were becoming more and more reticent to give up their time for travelling, and the endless fund raising that forms part of hockey life in remote communities.
Time after time, parents and guardians offered up excuses as to why they could not possibly become more involved. The most frequent excuse was “I’m too busy”. And indeed, we are all busy and getting seemingly busier and people seem to be more and more selfish with their time.
The increase of camp work has made this even worse. Who wants to spend even more time away from the family when you’ve been away for the week, or even longer.
The old 80/20 adage in which 20 per cent of the people do 80 per cent of the work seemingly slid to 90/10, or possibly worse.
Local associations as diverse as the Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce, Terrace Beautification, Skeena Diversity, Cubs, Girl Guides and virtually every club, board, group or association are facing volunteer burnout.
Going to meetings and planning sessions, I’ve noticed that it is the same families and sometimes the same people that step forward and volunteer when they could just as easily enjoy a well-deserved rest on their laurels.
But these people realize that these associations, clubs and organizations make this a better place to live, to grow and to raise our families.
Research indicates that this is not a Terrace problem. Reports from the rest of Canada, the U.S. and even as far away as Australia indicates the “I don’t have time” phenomena is growing.
Australian studies show that younger people, seeing their parents growing lack of interest, feel it is not “their job” to volunteer and that “some other bloke can do it”.
So where do we go from here? How do we increase the number of volunteers to fill the need? Surprisingly, studies from Volunteer Canada indicate that a number of the associations themselves may be at blame.
The overworked and harassed volunteers may not even have time or skills to seek out and properly motivate new volunteers to join their cause.
How many times have you asked if you can help somebody out at an event only to be given a menial task and told to stay “over there” out of the way?
Associations may need to assign a member to take prospective volunteers aside and show them what needs to be done rather than assuming they will inherently know what needs to be done and how to do it.
Another possible source of new recruits may be in the aging boomer generation.
For the most part they are not very well versed in the types of social media that younger people take for granted.
For a large number of these people, phones are for phone calls, not pictures and Instagram is calling Grandma or Grandpa in to babysit a sick child at the last minute.
These people need to be called on, spoken with face to face and given a meaningful description of what is expected.
In the end, it comes down to asking people to get involved. This means being in the right place at the right time and knowing people who knew people.
Boomers have specific skills that they want to share and frequently, want to take something away from the volunteer experience such as a new skill or ability. Is your association willing to take the time to make that happen?
SoccerAmerica found that the greatest impediment to gaining new volunteers was what they called “The Club” or the “Untouchables”. There were people who may want to get involved but they have no idea how to break into the “club.”
Changing that perception and attempting to become a friendly inviting group with clear policies is key. Include detailed descriptions of the available positions and the expected time commitment.
In many cases, breaking down “the Club” made way for new people to join up, or at least ask “How can I help?” without feeling intimidated.
If a group needs a web site updated, can you tell a potential volunteer that you’ll need him or her for five hours per week, rather than an open ended commitment.
Canadian society was founded by sharing and volunteerism going back to barn raisings and church socials.
First Nations also had community strategies in place to look after widows, elders and the needy.
It’s nothing new to all of us, but maybe we have to look at new ways of approaching it.
Those of us who volunteer know the rewards. Volunteers aren’t dead – they’re hiding – and it’s up to us to go find them and encourage them to join us.
Steve Smyth has lived across northern BC since 1962 and is a past director of the Terrace-Kitimat Airport Society and a current director of the Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce in addition to his other volunteer activities.