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International Volunteer Day 2023

By Scott Lundell

If Everyone Did

It’s International Volunteer Day. A day to reflect and celebrate the voluntary contributions of the wonderful humans who improve the quality of life for others. From the scarf knitters to the board members. From the event planners to the litter collectors. From the soup servers to the coaches. There are inspiring examples around us every day. In fact, a lot of that is invisible, so let’s also take today to pay special attention to anyone donating their time.

Volunteering has many names. The word “volunteer” itself can conjure up an interesting stereotype. I’ve been around long enough to know about “candy stripers.” And if you do an online search for “volunteer,” you’ll see a lot of happy people in t-shirts – often seen in pictures using their hands to plant something or pick up litter.

We’ve also started using terms like civic engagement. Or community involvement. We use words like helping, sharing, doing, and caring. They all help to describe the generosity we see when people want something better for their community. However, the online search of these terms returns the same images.

Sadly, we have evidence that volunteerism is on the decline. The statistics tell us that it has been declining for a long time, but the numbers are starting to tell us that the pandemic has sped up that trend dramatically. Non-profit organizations are under immense strain to provide services and programs with fewer resources. And in some areas, we’re seeing demand for those services and programs skyrocket.

We also know that volunteerism is shifting. It’s moving away from that traditional stereotype. People are looking for less time commitment. They’re looking for the ease of online opportunities. They’re looking for less paperwork and administrative processes. They want to do it during their timelines and on their terms. And they want to know they’re making a difference.

For example, is shoveling your neighbour’s driveway considered volunteering? What about participating in a think tank or focus group? What about taking an online survey? And when does volunteering happen now? Late at night after the kids are in bed? On the bus on the way to work? On the beach? Do you need to be “registered” with an organization to be considered a volunteer? When we challenge ourselves in this space, we start peeling back the layers of possibility for a new way of thinking.

Looking ahead to 2024, we here at ECVO will be doing a lot more deep thinking and learning about transformational systems change in the non-profit sector. Volunteerism is going to be swept up in that work as we seek to understand what the new volunteer looks like. Helping, sharing, doing, and caring is still happening in our communities – just maybe not the way we’re used to.

This year’s theme for International Volunteer Day is “If Everyone Did.” It implies a utopian picture of a future that I think most folks would like to aspire to. But it also comes from an assumption of scarcity. I believe volunteerism is happening more than we think – it just looks different than it used to.

Today, let’s thank everyone who wants better for our communities. While the work may look different, the motivation behind it will always stay the same.