They can be found everywhere from hospitals, food banks, and museums to your local community garden. They are volunteers—those who donate their time, energy and talents to others without being motivated by financial or material gain.
National Volunteer Week, running from April 19 – 25, pays tribute to the 12 million Canadians who work to better the lives of others—an altruistic activity that at the same time contributes to the economy.
And that contribution is no paltry amount. With the support of volunteers, Canada’s161,000 charities and nonprofits contribute $112 billion in revenue to the GDP—more than the entire manufacturing industry, according to Volunteer Canada.
In addition, the voluntary sector’s 12 million volunteers, giving collectively two billion hours of their time, make up a considerable portion of the country’s labour force. There are over 80,000 organizations with no paid staff at all that rely solely on the contributions of volunteers.
Ruth MacKenzie, president of Volunteer Canada, a national non-profit organization, says that in the current economic downturn, the voluntary sector should be looked at by the government as an opportunity to stimulate the economy.
“Our federal government can do more for this sector, not to show generosity or compassion, but to provide opportunities for driving Canada’s national economy in the right direction as part of an effective economic stimulus,” Mackenzie said in an article circulated to media in January.
MacKenzie said that with a recession well under way, civil society and service organizations will be increasingly called upon to support the needs of people in communities across the country.
However, in tough economic times, the common reaction of governments and corporations is to reduce local community investment and to solely consider the role of the corporate sector as a source of economic stimulus.
“Now more than ever the federal government needs to recognize volunteerism as part of the social and economic infrastructure of this country,” Mackenzie said.
“To do so requires shedding the common perception that volunteerism just happens, when in fact promoting, recruiting, training, engaging and recognizing the efforts of volunteers requires support and expertise that is often unrecognized or overlooked and definitely under-resourced.”
An investment in volunteerism, said MacKenzie, will ensure that the efforts and skills of Canada’s volunteers will go right back into communities.
This in turn will provide skills training for Canadians, while helping the government acheive goals such as creating environmentally sustainable communities, safe neighbourhoods, and efficient healthcare and education systems.
South of the border, President Barack Obama has promised a volunteer fund as part of the Serve America Act. Under the Act, the government would support work such as tutoring students in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, cleaning up polluted rivers and lakes, and training the unemployed with job-related and job-hunting skills.
“This fund will help organizations of all sizes to increase their capacity to mobilize volunteers while responding to increasing demands on their services. It is exactly the kind of leadership that we need in Canada,” said MacKenzie.
To celebrate National Volunteer Week, Volunteer Canada is inviting organizations to submit photos and videos of their volunteers to its new website (volunteer.ca/nvw). The website currently features hundreds of photos and videos submitted by individuals and organizations from across the country.