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July 1997

Building Civic Society

Voluntary Action is a hallmark of civic society, rooted in citizenship and social responsibility and shaped by our concern for and obligation to one another.

Voluntary action or volunteering refers to actions taken by people of their own free will in shaping their communities. It is “active citizenship”; it is people accepting responsibility for, and participating in, civic affairs; and, it is people helping others, both formally and informally.

(Sustaining a Civic Society: Voluntary Action in Ontario, Advisory Board on the Voluntary Sector, March 1997)

Although these values will continue to exist, the face of voluntary action is changing rapidly. Unless a fundamental transformation occurs in how the voluntary sector interacts with the rest of society and how we build and manage the system, voluntary action will not flourish.

The Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation reported in April 1997 that:

Volunteers in Canada:

  • give more than one billion hours of their time each year,
  • more than 1.8 million Canadians serve as voluntary board members,
  • there are 72,000 charities and another 70,000 non-profit organizations,
  • women are more likely than men to become volunteers, but on average, when men volunteer they donate more hours of work,

and that in Ontario:

nearly 2 million volunteers contributed about 350 million hours annually; that is 180 hours a year per volunteer, the top five types of organizations (in terms of volunteer hours donated) are: religious, sport/recreation, youth education and development, social services and health.

The Halton Social Planning Council and Volunteer Centre reported that the Volunteer Centre alone in 1996/97:

submitted 185 volunteer classified columns to community newspapers, featuring 347 agencies, referred 936 volunteers to agencies, generated 112,320 volunteer hours in Halton – an equivalence of $1,779,149 worth of volunteer work.

Clearly, volunteers are the backbone of our communities. Without the energy, commitment, skills and dedication of volunteers the quality of our lives would not be as rich and varied.

Volunteer Myths

The contribution of volunteers are needed more than ever with human service agencies facing a growing demand for their services but with reduced resources to respond. Yet myths which undermine volunteerism are present in public discourse. Some of the common myths include:

Volunteers are free

A common belief about volunteerism is that it is free. It is important to realize that just as there is a cost associated with hiring and training new staff in the public and private sector, equally so, there are significant costs attached to recruiting and training new volunteers. It is an area that demands effective management if volunteerism is to be nurtured as a valuable tradition in our communities.

Volunteerism does not require infrastructure

Volunteers do not appear by magic. They must be supported in their important work by organizations and the community. They must be recruited, trained and supervised. We must ensure that the work they do is safe, meaningful and recognized.

Volunteers will do anything

People do not volunteer just anywhere, anytime, to do anything. As individuals they have skills, interests and considerations that require a mechanism such as a volunteer program to match them with the right position and support their efforts.

Volunteer programs do not need funding

This myth suggests that since volunteers are not paid, anything labelled “volunteer” should be free. So, although volunteers are crucial to service delivery, volunteer programs are not getting the funding required to recruit, place, orient, train, supervise, manage, support and recognize their volunteers.

Emerging Trends and Issues

The nature of volunteering has shifted dramatically in the last few decades, reflecting significant changes in the social and economic organization of daily life. New trends in volunteerism include:

1. Changing Pool of Volunteers

  • Growing number of highly skilled individuals turning to volunteering following a lay-off or forced early retirement from a paid job.
  • Growing number of physically and mentally disabled people being encouraged to volunteer as part of therapy and rehabilitation.
  • Dramatic increases in the number of youth looking to volunteer as a ‘resume-building’ tool. This correlates with the increase in the number of high schools setting up volunteer or community service programs for students.
  • Increasing number of new Canadians, who are professionals and wish to volunteer in their field (e.g. medical technology, engineering) in order to gain experience.
  • Increasing number of companies looking to participate in voluntary action as an expression of good corporate citizenship.

Substantiating these trends, one Ontario Volunteer Centre reported the number of unemployed people volunteering increased from 18-20% in 1984 to 35% in 1996 and the number of volunteers under the age of 24 increased from 10-15% in 1994 to 25% in 1996 (Volunteer Ontario, Nov. 1996).

2. More Demands on Voluntary Sector

  • Organizations are withdrawing resources from volunteer programs even as their dependence on them grows. The most dramatic illustration of this is the elimination of volunteer manager positions or the addition of multiple portfolios, including that of fundraiser.
  • Increasing demand on the voluntary sector, including volunteer centres, to fill in gaps, to replace services no longer offered by government or funded by them, at the same time as their own funding is diminishing or disappearing altogether.
  • Dramatic rise of compulsory unpaid community service programs are threatening to overwhelm the voluntary sector. These include Ontario Works, court-ordered community service, alternative measures program and school-based community service programs.
  • Increasing use of volunteers and community service programs to perform work that used to be done by paid staff, whose jobs disappeared due to funding loss and organizational restructuring.
  • Increasing demand on volunteer centres for consultations with agencies on volunteer program development and on training for agency staff and volunteers.
  • Increasingly “voluntary action” is equated with “unpaid work” which is seen as a serious, long-term threat to the future of volunteerism, as it focuses on cost saving and efficiency. This undermines the nature and value of the voluntary action itself.

3. More Demands on Volunteers

  • Increasing emphasis on fundraising has accelerated the search for “fundraising volunteers”. Intense pressure is placed on volunteers to fundraise, even if that is not what they signed on for.
  • Increasing difficulty in recruiting volunteer Board members. Reasons appear to be the lack of time to commit and concerns about potential liability.
  • Increasing complexity, responsibility and levels of risk attached to volunteer positions.
  • Increasing demand on time commitments of volunteers. Many agencies need people who can commit for an extended period of time, while increasingly many volunteers are looking for one-time, short-term or periodic placements.
  • Serious threats of volunteer burnout as people try to cope with increased pressures in their own work, with increased personal demands often related to cutbacks e.g. loss of services to families, loss of subsidies.


Produced by the Community Development Halton
860 Harrington Court
Burlington, Ontario L7N 3N4
(905) 632-1975, (905) 878-0955; Fax: (905) 632-0778; E-mail: office@cdhalton.ca