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Many challenges face volunteerism in Newfoundland and Labrador

Penelope Rowe.
Penelope Rowe. - Submitted

Smaller communities, in particular, have a hard time attracting new people to get involved

In her decades of volunteering, Hilda Budden has prepared more cold plates, worked more bingo games and sold more tickets on gift baskets than she can count.

“Oh, I just love helping out any way I can,” said the 71-year-old president of the Buchans Lions Club. “It’s important for the community.”

But in a town of just under 650 people, finding new people to lend a hand and take over for the older members has become more difficult.

With 28 members, the club has mostly senior citizens who handle fundraisers, special events, club maintenance and financial management.

“There aren’t too many young people around anymore. Most of them have moved away to find work,” Budden said, adding that the Lioness Club is one of many volunteer groups that have folded over the years due to low numbers.

“One of our members is 85, and he does what he can, but you can’t expect him to be doing too much anymore. Like many communities (around the province), there’s mostly older people left and it’s getting harder and harder for us,” she said.

“And when we reach the point where we can’t do it anymore, I’d say we’ll probably fold, too.”

Trying to manage with an aging population has been one of the challenges facing volunteering in this province, according to Community Sector Council (CSC) NL CEO Penelope Rowe.

While many of the more than 3,200 incorporated and registered volunteer organizations in this province are alive and well and have few problems recruiting members, others, particularly those in small communities, worry about who will take over when active members are ready to step down.

“Succession is very difficult, particularly in leadership volunteer positions,” said Rowe, noting those roles, such as those handling an organization’s fiduciary and financial responsibilities, often require specific skill sets and much responsibility.

“All incorporated or registered organizations in this province cannot exist without boards of directors, and you can’t be on a board of directors if you just want to do something for a day or two a year. You’re taking on a commitment which requires you to be connected with that organization on a frequent and regular basis.”

But in a day and age when time is a precious commodity, getting people to volunteer has become a more difficult task, and the numbers show it.

According to the latest figures published by Statistics Canada, between 2010 and 2013, 46 per cent of people in this province age 15 years and over volunteered in some form. That’s down from 52 per cent from 2010 to 2013. The average number of volunteer hours dropped from 155 to 151 in that time.

Of particular interest, Rowe said, are the stats on male volunteers. Between 2010 and 2013, 51 per cent of the male population volunteered. Between 2010-2013, it dropped to 40, while the female rates remained stable at 53 per cent.

As well, Stats Canada shows that 75 per cent of all volunteering in Canada is done by 25 per cent of the volunteers. It means seven per cent of all adults are doing 75 per cent of the volunteering.

“That tells you a little bit about the people who are really committed and those who don’t bother to do anything,” Rowe said.

She said there are all kinds of reasons why people don’t bother, besides the lack of free time.

Rowe said when they asked some young people about barriers they face when it comes to volunteering, some reported they felt excluded in some organizations by being asked to undertake certain unfamiliar duties that put them in uncomfortable situations, while some have no family history of volunteering.

Having a low income can also be an inhibiter, she said.

“Some young people have said to us, in some ways, volunteer service may be perceived as a privilege,” said Rowe, adding that organizations should be accommodating and engaging.

“If you have a financial burden, it makes it challenging to participate.”

She pointed out that years ago, many women were housewives and had time to volunteer, while in these difficult economic times, a family needs two incomes to survive.

“What’s astonishing to me is how much time so many people actually give,” she said. “Some people contribute to everything that’s going on in their community — the (volunteer) firemen, Lions Clubs, the hospital auxillaries, Girl Guides and Boy Scouts. It’s wonderful.”

Rowe said volunteering can be personally fulfilling and a wonderful opportunity for young people to experience personal growth, create community networks and advance their careers.

“We see more and more employers putting value in volunteering,” said Rowe, who noted the CSC holds various programs and workshops to help volunteers needing help with certain skills.

Volunteers, she said, have become essential to the sustainability of a community.

“A lot of people don’t really think about the construct of the community sector, which requires this volunteer governance,” said Rowe, who added the work of volunteers helps contribute to bringing millions of dollars into the province.

“It becomes more and more evident this community sector, in all of its diversity, whether it’s sports groups, kids’ groups, seniors’ groups, tourism, heritage, they are absolutely central to social and economic progress.”

To help in its aim to celebrate volunteers and advance volunteer week in this province (April 15-19), the CSC will hold its annual volunteerism luncheon today in St. John’s. Premier Dwight Ball will be the guest speaker.

“It’s always important to acknowledge and recognize volunteers and people who contribute their time,” Rowe said. “They’re people who want to get involved and want to make their community a better place.”

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