Christmas Unwrapped: A gift that keeps on taking

Originally published in the National Post on December 23rd, 2010. To go to the National Post website please click here

Ollie Domshy has been a volunteer with the Salvation Army for 12 years. Numbers suggest charities are relying on a devoted but graying demographic who will become too old to spend hours on their feet sorting donated toys and clothing

It started as a whimsical wish to be part of a pageant. For years, a 55-year-old Toronto woman had taken her children to the beautiful spectacle at the Church of the Holy Trinity Christmas pageant, one that never failed to get her into a festive mood. This year, she volunteered to take part and organizers eagerly accepted her offer. Rehearsals began in November. She was going to be a shepherd.

Soon, though, the woman, who asked not to be named to preserve the feelings of her co-volunteers, was being roped into a number of jobs she never signed up for — being the usher as the play began, taking on an additional role in the pageant, hauling out costumes from storage and ironing them. “That’s the whole thing with volunteering,” she says. “You always think you’re going to do a certain thing, but there are always 15 more things they don’t really have anyone to do. And you get guilted into it.”

Many of the approximately 12.5 million volunteers who lend their time and talents to non-profit organizations report similar feelings of malaise. While the number of people volunteering has stayed within the same range for decades, two-thirds of volunteers report having had a bad experience volunteering, according to a Volunteer Canada study released this month.

An Angus Reid survey that was released Wednesday noted a similar drop in enthusiasm among charitable donors. Nearly one in three Canadians did not give to charity at all this year, and many current donors reported giving as much or less than they did in 2009.

The Statistics Canada figures are just as stark. While about 5.6 million people donated money to a charity last year, those numbers are falling: Charitable organizations saw a nearly $1-billion drop in donations between 2007 and 2009, from $8.65-billion to $7.75-billion.

Scratching their heads over an unrelenting decline in donations and volunteer satisfaction, charitable organizations and research groups have spent 2010 studying what makes Canadians give. Some believe generational, technological and ideological shifts are forcing the not-for-profit sector to court a whole new kind of giver, one who wants to donate time and money in small but significant ways; who wants to receive as much as they give and who wants to give smarter, not sacrificially. Organizations recognize a need for change, and many are starting to make it.

On the positive side, observers say while Canadians may not be giving like they once were, they aren’t any less willing to help. They’re just waiting for someone to make it easier and more rewarding to give their time and money to a cause.

“People aren’t showing up to organizations saying, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do, whenever you do it,’ ” says Ruth MacKenzie, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada.

“Fewer people are saying, “I’ll work for you this afternoon,’ and more people are saying, ‘I’ve got six months, give me a clear start date and end date with a project in mind,’ or ‘I’ve got certain skills I’d like to contribute.’ That’s a big shift and change.”

Despite the difficulty of signing up would-be volunteers, charities often put hurdles in front of them. Some organizations demand background checks, which require paperwork and a fee on the part of the volunteer. It’s a development that even drove a group of flower arrangers at a British cathedral, some of them septuagenarians, to quit this fall. As longtime volunteers, they refused, on principle, to submit to criminal record checks.

The Volunteer Canada survey that showed two-thirds of volunteers harbour negative feelings gathered data from more than 200 interviews from sector professionals, while polling 1,000 Canadians by phone and questioning 550 volunteers. Respondents reported misgivings about volunteering due to organizational politics, a belief their skills weren’t being put to best use, a feeling that they weren’t making a difference, and a frustration that their volunteer experience was poorly organized.

Meanwhile, the numbers suggest charities are relying on a devoted but greying demographic who will become too old to spend hours on their feet sorting donated toys and clothing, or cooking for fund-raising dinners. The need to recruit younger volunteers is real.