An investment in volunteerism makes good economic sense – Opinion – An investment in volunteerism makes good economic sense
Jan 26, 2009.  Ruth MacKenzie

As the federal government continues to steer our country away from the global economic crisis, it will be looking for more opportunities to save costs, invest for a guaranteed return, utilize and mobilize the strengths of Canadians, and enhance the nation’s infrastructure to stimulate our economy.

An investment in Canada’s voluntary sector and its 12 million volunteers is one that encompasses all of the above. Our federal government can do more for this sector, not to show generosity or compassion, but to provide opportunities for driving Canada’s national economy in the right direction as part of an effective economic stimulus.

Today, with the support of these volunteers, our country’s 161,000 charities and non-profit organizations contribute $112 billion in revenue toward the economy.

Canada’s voluntary sector is a significant component of the country’s economic framework, and is a bigger contributor to the GDP than Canada’s entire manufacturing industry. As well, the sector, with a paid workforce of 2 million Canadians, and its millions of volunteers make up a considerable, yet distinct, element of the labour force of this country.

Organizations, from small food banks to large hospitals, would not be able to provide their services and deliver on their missions without volunteers – active citizens who collectively give more than 2 billion hours of their time.

This is particularly true of the more than 80,000 organizations –with no paid staff – that rely solely on the contributions and passion of their volunteers. All of these organizations make our communities better places to live.

With a forecast for economic recession, our civil society and service organizations will be increasingly called upon to support the needs of people in communities across this country.

Paradoxically, in tough economic times, the common reaction of governments and corporations is to reduce local community investment and to solely consider the role of the corporate sector as a source of economic stimulus.

But real leadership should step outside of this box, and consider an investment in the voluntary sector as an added instrument of this stimulus with real returns.

Now, more than ever, the federal government needs to recognize volunteerism as part of the social and economic infrastructure of this country.

To do so requires shedding the common perception that volunteerism just happens, when in fact promoting, recruiting, training, engaging and recognizing the efforts of volunteers requires support and expertise that is often unrecognized or overlooked and definitely underresourced.

An investment in volunteerism will ensure that the efforts and skills of volunteers will be leveraged right back into our communities. And this will also help our government with its goals, such as creating an efficient health care and education system, environmentally sustainable communities, safe neighbourhoods, and providing skills training for Canadians.

In the United States, arguably the country that has the biggest hill to climb, Barack Obama has already promised a volunteer fund as part of the “Serve America Act,” legislation which would support and utilize the talents and skills of millions of volunteers from all age groups to tackle the nation’s challenges.

Under the act, the government would support important work from tutoring students in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, to cleaning up polluted rivers and lakes, and training the unemployed with job-related and job-hunting skills. This fund will help organizations of all sizes to increase their capacity to mobilize volunteers while responding to increasing demands on their services.

It is exactly the kind of leadership that we need in Canada.

During the coming months of economic uncertainty and political volatility, Ottawa must not forget the role of Canada’s volunteers and their organizations; they are an essential part of our nation’s social and economic infrastructure.

An investment in the voluntary sector promises exponential returns in community services generated, Canadians trained and skilled, social capital built and strengthened, and a vibrant and strong Canada.


Ruth MacKenzie is president of Volunteer Canada, a national non-profit organization that promotes volunteerism through research, advocacy, and awareness campaigns.


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