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Volunteering in Numbers

Daniel Schwartz, CBC's The National, February 4, 2002

Canadians have long had the reputation for leading the world in volunteering but as fewer Canadians are now helping charitable and non-profit organizations, that reputation is probably not deserved today. Between 1997 and 2000 the number of adult Canadians volunteering fell from 31 per cent to 27 per cent of adult Canadians—a drop of a million volunteers over three years. Those Canadians who do volunteer are giving more of their time to the organizations: 13.5 hours a month in 2000, an increase of more than an hour from 1997.

The key source for information on volunteering in Canada is the National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating. The survey was conducted by Statistics Canada in 1997 and again in 2000 and includes Canadians 15 years and older. The survey focuses on formal volunteering with organizations but also asked about "informal volunteering" – helping others directly, including relatives. Unless otherwise indicated, the statistics in this article are for formal volunteering, not because it's more important but because it's easier to measure. Highlights of the 2004 survey in pdf format.

The number of Canadians volunteering dropped by almost one million from 1997 to 2000, a 13 per cent decrease, according to the survey. With the increased effort by those who did volunteer and the population increase, the total time volunteered fell by just five per cent. Although the volunteer rate fell over those three years, the 27 per cent figure was the same result Statistics Canada found in a 1987 survey. But in 1987, volunteers averaged 16 hours a month in, 2.5 hours more than in 2000.

In total, volunteering in Canada represents the equivalent of almost 550,000 full-time jobs. In December the federal government said it would spend $50 million over five years to reverse the decline in Canada's volunteer rate and to strengthen the volunteer sector.

The survey breaks down the population by age, sex, marital status, education, labour force status and income, and in every category the volunteer rate fell, 1997-2000. The biggest declines were for people employed part-time and people with university degrees. In average hours, there were big increases for seniors, the widowed and those with incomes under $20,000. Note that as income rises the volunteer rate consistently rises, but the average number of hours falls (with one exception). The table shows that in both 1997 and 2000, the older the age cohort the higher the average annual volunteer hours. Seniors who volunteer gave 22.4 hours per month, on average.

People with at-home children six and over frequently volunteer because of the educational and recreational activities of their children, and those with younger children are often unable to volunteer because of the demands of caring for those children.

Mandatory volunteering
While some provinces in recent years have made it a requirement for students to volunteer in order to graduate from high school (40 hours in Ontario), the volunteer rate for people 15-24 years old has actually fallen, from 33 per cent in 1997 to 29 per cent in 2000. Mirela Vukosa Giannidis, the volunteer co-ordinator at St. Christopher House in Toronto, is critical of these "mandatory volunteering" programs. "By making this mandatory, it unintentionally contributes to a negative view of volunteering," she says. She is concerned that "a cynical view is developing that just sees volunteering as thinly disguised free labour."

Attendance at religious services also seems to be a significant indicator for volunteering. Those who attend weekly had a volunteer rate of 41 per cent compared to 24 per cent for those who did not, and weekly attenders averaged 202 hours in the year versus 149 hours. Weekly attenders volunteered a higher average number of hours for non-religious organizations than did non-attenders and infrequent attenders of religious services (158, 136 and 122 hours respectively, 1997 survey). Frank Jones of the University of Ottawa, examining the 1997 data, found that "liberal Protestants" and "conservative Christians" had significantly higher rates of volunteering than Catholics. Those first two groups have significantly higher volunteer rates than Catholics for health, education, social service and environmental organizations, as well as religious organizations.

Rural vs. urban
Small towns and rural areas have a higher rate of volunteering than big cities (37 per cent vs. 29 per cent, 1997 survey).

Why volunteer?
"It's a good feeling, it really makes you feel that you're doing something for somebody else. I think that's what life is about. We've got to help each other."
–Wilma McQuade, volunteer at Oshawa Community Care
"You make the child that you're with laugh or you make them smile and it's so genuine. It's so nice to come back to that because society today isn't like that, and just knowing that you can do that, that you can actually make someone happy and excited, and when you see their eyes light up or anything like that it's such a great feeling, you feel on top of the world, it's amazing.
"Reactions that I get when people find out that I volunteer is: 'Oh, that's so sweet, you're so nice.' It's not about being nice! It's about doing something that you love, making a difference."
–Keely Weinstein, volunteer at Bloorview Macmillan Centre in Toronto, a residential treatment centre for children with multiple, serious disabilities
"Because it's you at your best as a human being because you are acting outside of self interest.... Volunteering is participating as a citizen in your society."
–John Ralston Saul, philosopher
"When I would ask people while doing this story why they volunteered, they would look at me like I had asked them, 'Why do you wear shoes?'"
–Brian Stewart

Why don't Canadians volunteer more or volunteer in the first place?
The number one reason they told the surveyors was a lack of extra time.

What are the benefits of volunteering?
At the top of the list are improved interpersonal skills, communication skills and increased knowledge. One quarter of volunteers 15-24 years old said that volunteering had helped them get a job.

What do volunteers do?
Most volunteers (57 per cent) helped with organizing or supervising events. Their second most common activity was serving on boards or committees.

Which organizations do volunteers support?
The category that includes culture, arts, sports and recreation organizations is at the top of the list, benefiting from about a quarter of all volunteering. Social service organizations are next, followed by religious, education and research and then health organizations.

How does Canada compare internationally?
(Formal) Volunteer rate
Average # of hours volunteered per year
Canada, 2000 - 27% - 162
U.K., 1997 - 48% - 211
U.S., 2001 - 44% - 288

Canada's reputation as a world leader in volunteering was strong in 1994 when the International Giving and Volunteering survey was published. It is the only study to date that was specifically designed for comparing the countries surveyed. Canada led in both the volunteer rate and the average hours volunteered, followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and France. But that data was from 1991. While Canada may still lead when informal volunteering is included, the latest numbers seem to indicate that both the U.K. and the U.S. are ahead in formal volunteering.

The definition of informal volunteering can include visiting relatives, for example. (If a teenager is told by his parents to go visit his grandparents, is that really volunteering?) With different definitions, comparisons involving informal volunteering are especially dubious but let's take a look.

1997 National Survey of Volunteering in the U.K.
In the U.K., the latest survey was in 1997 and found a 74 per cent informal or direct personal volunteer rate. The 2000 survey in Canada found that 77 per cent of Canadians did informal volunteering. The U.S. last counted total volunteering in a 1998 survey and found that 56 per cent of Americans volunteered. Total volunteering in Canada was 79 per cent in 2000. A figure for total volunteering in the U.K. was not provided.

Giving and Volunteering in the United States 2001
Both the U.K. and the U.S. now lead Canada in formal volunteering, according to the later surveys. The volunteer rate in the U.K. was 48 per cent in 1997 for ages 18 and older. It was 44 per cent in the 2001 survey of Americans over the age of 21. That compares to 27 per cent for Canadians 15 and older.

"A small core"
Canadians who volunteered at least 188 hours in the year, just seven per cent of all adult Canadians, put in 73 per cent of all the volunteer hours! And their share of the volunteer workload has increased, too. People who volunteer also contribute more to charities and are more likely to engage in 'civic participation.' (Saskatchewan has both the highest rate or volunteering and the highest rate of civic participation in Canada.) The survey report identifies what it calls "core supporters." Together, the core supporters – this time just nine per cent of the population – "provide 46 per cent of the total dollar value of all donations and 40 per cent of all volunteer hours." The authors of the survey report observe that Canada "depends heavily upon the contributions of a small core of particularly engaged citizens."


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