Giving back to the community

CARP encourages its members to get out and volunteer.

The word volunteer may conjure up images of a few goodhearted seniors baking cookies or selling raffle tickets to support a local cause. And while that may be the case in some instances, it comes nowhere close to capturing the vast array of valuable contributions that volunteers make to improve our lives.

“Volunteers are people who work by choice, for the benefit of others and without pay,” says Marlene Deboisbriand, president of Volunteer Canada.

Each year, almost 12 million people – 45 per cent of all Canadians – give up some of their time to sit on hospital fundraising boards, coach kids’ sports teams, bring meals to shut-ins or help out at the local nursing home.

Beyond their societal contributions, the volunteering sector actually forms a large part of our economy. Recent studies suggest these volunteers contributed almost two billion hours of time. In economic terms, this is roughly seven per cent of Canada’s GDP, comparable to sectors such as the automotive industry.

“But we’re reluctant to put an economic value on a volunteer’s contributions,” says Deboisbriand. “Most of what they do can’t be measured in financial terms.” Judy Cutler, CARP’s director of government relations, agrees. “Volunteerism, often undervalued, ensures the provision of many essential services that would otherwise be unavailable and which society could probably never afford,” she says.

CARP itself is an organization that greatly depends on the talent and dynamism of its volunteers. “We value our volunteers tremendously,” says Lillian Morgenthau, president of CARP. “They help us determine the issues that affect 50-plus Canadians and then use their energy and expertise to help raise awareness and lobby local and federal politicians.”

Canada’s seniors are a truly altruistic bunch – at least, according to a 2004 Statistics Canada study. It found 32 per cent of Canadians 65 and older volunteer at least once a year and contribute an annual average of 245 hours, the most of any other age group.

Cutler feels that volunteering can have positive benefits, not only on the community but also on the individual. It’s an opportunity for 50-plus Canadians to make a contribution to the community and support a cause for which they have great passion. “They either use skills they developed during their professional lives or use the opportunity to learn a new one,” she says.

Both Cutler and Volunteer Canada’s Deboisbriand are hoping boomers are just as willing to get involved in volunteering as the generation that preceded them. Deboisbriand emphasizes how important this is, pointing out that as our aging population swells in size, there will be a growing number of social and community services required, pushing up the need for volunteers.

“That means boomers are going to have to step up to the plate and get out there and help,” she says. “Our challenge is to promote volunteering among the boomer generation and to create meaningful opportunities within the non-profit sector that will interest and challenge them.”

Deboisbriand detects some trends in volunteering that show positive signs for the future: entire families, from grandparents to grandchildren, are volunteering together, cleaning up parks or working the food banks. And technologies such as e-mail and the Internet have created the “virtual volunteer” who, for example, while at home in Halifax can write a newsletter for a charity in Vancouver and perform database help with another in Winnipeg.