When is a Volunteer Not a Volunteer

Post-COVID personnel shortages are creating a new hybrid: The paid volunteer

By Sarah B. Hood

Like receding floodwaters, the gradual return to normal life after COVID is revealing a changed landscape. For sporting event organizers, an unwelcome development is a grim reduction in volunteerism that’s changing the whole sector—and raising the question as to whether volunteers should now be paid.

A crisis in volunteering
Megan Conway, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, points to recent figures: “the Statistics Canada Business Conditions survey of November 2022 says that 65% of non-profits and charities surveyed had difficulty recruiting volunteers. We’re calling it a crisis in volunteering.”
The pandemic seems to have played a role in the drop in volunteerism, partly because it disrupted longstanding routines, and partly because it led so many people to re-evaluate how they were spending their time. Seniors have dropped out in the greatest numbers.
“We see greater numbers of youth volunteers, but the highest proportion of volunteering comes from seniors,” Conway says. Volunteer Canada is even calling for the creation of a national action strategy on volunteering to address the problem.
Dwindling numbers
Lac La Biche, Alta., is a case in point. In 2019, the community of about 9,000 drew close to 250 volunteers to help stage the World Archery 3D Championships, and they continue to host large events in 2023 such as the 40th Winter Festival of Speed, a racing event on ice (February 25-26).
It’s a small community that accomplishes big things, but it has become a challenge to find volunteers, says Staci Lattimer, manager of recreation and culture for Lac La Biche County. She differentiates between community volunteers and specialists like trained officials for large-scale sporting events. With specialists, it’s normal for a host destination to provide travel and accommodation. Finding volunteers to manage food concessions and assist with planning has become harder since 2020.
Creative solutions
Some organizers are getting creative and developing profit-sharing arrangements, not with individuals, but with community groups that mobilize their members to commit significant amounts of time.
“Some organizers conduct a callout and pay groups an honorarium with proceeds that come in through the event,” Lattimer explains. “After all expenses are paid, they divide it up between all the groups, which helps the event and the community groups who have been struggling with fundraising efforts since COVID.” The Festival of Speed is one event that is already using this model.
A fundraising opportunity
The City of Penticton, B.C., is another destination that is facing a volunteer crunch. In 2023, its roster of major events includes the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL) Championship (March 8-20) and the Okanagan Granfondo, a massive cycling race (July 9).
“Some of the larger events started paying volunteer groups an honorarium, as a way of giving back to the community,” says Jeff Plant, sports and events supervisor with the City of Penticton. “Now groups are looking at this as a fundraising opportunity; they recognize that they’re actually the keepers of the volunteers, and they’re looking for something that approaches fair market value for their work, so it’s almost coming around to paying volunteers.”

Blurred lines
This scenario raises difficult questions. Last summer, an Ontario court approved a settlement in a class action lawsuit to compensate volunteer tour guides working for a non-profit; they claimed that their work resembled assignments normally performed by paid employees.
“There is a line that needs to be drawn between the work of a volunteer and the work of paid staff, and it’s important not to blur those lines,” says Megan Conway of Volunteer Canada. “For a volunteer opportunity, we would encourage there not to be payment for time. However, in some instances, we might see compensation for travel or child care as an inclusionary practice.”

The power of recognition
Volunteer Canada worked with the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) to produce the report Volunteers and Decent Work: What’s the connection? that clarifies these distinctions and offers guidelines for non-profits and their funders. A key point it makes is that “although volunteers are expected to ‘carry out their involvement responsibly and with integrity’ and show up for their shifts, organizations cannot and should not require volunteers to commit to full-time work for any length of time.”
“I think volunteer recognition is really critical: written acknowledgement or a letter of recognition based on skills developed or services offered,” says Conway. “The organization may engage in more of a mentorship or more of a supportive relationship, understanding the goals of the volunteer and helping them achieve those goals and customizing their needs with whatever supports are available.”

Published April, 2023

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