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Why It Pays to VolunteerWhy It Pays to Volunteer

Why It Pays to Volunteer

Peter Jon Mitchell, acting Program Director of Cardus Family, writes that while no one disputes the personal and social benefits of paid employment, National Volunteer Week is a time to remind ourselves of the significant contribution from those who labour for love of neighbour.

Peter Jon Mitchell
3 minute read

What do you do? It’s the first question many of us ask each other in social settings. We ask about paid work because it consumes much of our time and our identities. Yet, it’s worth remembering during National Volunteer Week that we owe much of our wellbeing and quality of life in Canada to unpaid work that legions of volunteers perform. In fact, Statistics Canada estimates that Canadians contribute enough volunteer hours in a year to equal about a million full-time jobs. Clearly, paid employment is not the only measure of our wellbeing. 

Volunteering is an important contributor too.

To be clear, high levels of full-time employment are important. They correlate with healthy communities. In addition to a steady pay cheque, full-time work contributes to a sense of fulfilment, purpose, and social connectedness. Public policy often prioritizes getting more people working more hours. The federal government monitors the level of full-time employment among women as an indicator of gender equality. Yet as a measure of wellbeing, full-time employment is only one indicator.

Understanding our wellbeing as individuals and communities is complex. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing maintained by scholars at the University of Waterloo captures this complexity, measuring eight domains of wellbeing through 64 indicators. Formal and informal volunteerism is an indicator of wellbeing. We strengthen our communities when we volunteer with community organizations or offer informal help to a neighbour in need. Giving of our time contributes to our own sense of wellbeing. It also builds up our connectedness to the invisible network of relationships that hold communities together.

This raises a key question: Who is doing the volunteering in Canada? 

In part, the answer is that those who are in the paid workforce are volunteering. Data from Statistics Canada suggests that employed Canadians are more likely to volunteer than those not in the labour force. In many cases, workplaces offer volunteer opportunities to employees. These could be regular opportunities at a charity supported by an employer. Often, they’ll be one-off opportunities at a special event tied to a holiday, like an Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas dinner for those who are struggling to get by. 

Interestingly, the same data also suggests that those not in the labour force, such as stay-at-home parents and retirees, make an important contribution too. When they do volunteer, they’re more likely to volunteer a greater number of hours annually than those who work full-time. Often it’s these folks who take time away from their other duties in order to help at a nursing home, read to children at a school, accompany kids on a school trip, or prepare meals at a soup kitchen. Schools, charities, and community organizations rely on this diverse group of men and women to do their work. 

Counting paid work and trying to increase Canada’s GDP are important goals. But they don’t capture the necessity or value volunteers work or the contribution they make to improving our lives and neighbourhoods.

In the push to emphasize the importance of entering the paid workforce and increasing Canada’s GDP, do we risk giving short shrift to Canada’s volunteers? Could we end up with more folks available every now and then to help in a volunteer capacity, but unable to commit to a regular and sustained volunteering?

The way we work is changing and this may have implications for how we contribute to community wellbeing. Many Canadians telecommute, rely on contract work, or have seasonal employment. Some workers balance a slate of part-time jobs. Employers are increasingly aware of the tension many workers face between paid work and spells of caregiving, and are working with employees to increase flexibility. This flexibility can help in terms of volunteering. 

Regardless, volunteer availability will also depend on how families choose to balance and manage their households and community involvement. If we’re to take anything from Statistics Canada data on the topic, there isn’t one model that works for every family. Among couples with at least one child under 16, about half have two full time workers. An additional 17 percent have one spouse working full-time and one spouse working part-time. Another 18 percent of couple-families with one child under 16 have one single earning parent and one stay-at-home parent. Statistics Canada data also suggests that having school aged kids influences volunteer commitments. Many children’s activities rely on an army of parent volunteers – many of whom are fortunately available during daytime hours.

Full-time employment is an important measure but does not tell the whole story about healthy communities. National Volunteer Week reminds us that Canadians, regardless of employment status, contribute to creating vibrant communities.

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