Help wanted:

🕔Sep 27, 2010

A few months ago, someone in Prince Rupert came up with an idea for raising awareness of the need to volunteer for community organizations. Instead of each group trying to attract new members on an individual basis, a fair was advertised where groups could set up a booth and potential recruits could browse through a marketplace of volunteering opportunities.

As a member of a volunteer service organization, I manned a table that day, ready to hand out pamphlets about my group and sign people up to an email list. This could be just what we need, I thought, a chance to mine some fresh energy, new people and new ideas.

After five hours, I had handed out one brochure and added just one name to my mailing list.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that my group is about something so kooky that every well-balanced individual would steer clear. No, the problem lay more in the fact that, as I looked around at all the booths in the vast, echoing civic-centre gymnasium, at the bright displays and posters of smiling men and women helping people or animals in need, I realized that there were at least three times more people behind the tables than there were checking out the booths and looking to get involved.

A couple of thirty-somethings and a few forties-and-up wandered around trying not to make eye contact with too many people. There were no teenagers or young adults. When my single ‘customer’ did stop and express interest in joining my organization, I was probably so overly enthusiastic that it’s no wonder I never heard from him again.

Fading away
Volunteering has been on a slow decline—not just in Prince Rupert or northern BC but in Canada as a whole—for more than twenty years. A wide variety of service organizations are still active in many communities, but their memberships have dwindled to the point that the same people are putting in more of their time and energy simply to keep things flowing.

The most recent Statistics Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering, and Participating showed a 13 percent decrease in the number of Canadians giving their time to others between 1997 and 2000. In terms of numbers, that means almost one million people stopped volunteering. The same survey showed that those who stayed involved ended up giving more of their time to make up the difference. Also, fewer young people are donating their time, leading to a widening generational gap in the kinds of causes and events.

There are no hard numbers that specifically compare rates of volunteerism in northern BC to the rest of our country, but there is little doubt in many minds that a perceived drop in volunteers can be attributed to the stuttering economy over the last 10 years or so. Prince Rupert’s population fell by more than 12 percent between 2001 and 2007, and other northern towns like Terrace and Kitimat have not been immune. With the closure of big industrial employers in these towns, many people have had no choice but to pull up stakes and move where the work is. What’s not immediately apparent is that jobs gone from the community also mean volunteer hours lost when people leave town.

In total, volunteering in Canada as a whole equals almost 550,000 full-time jobs. Often it is not that an organization’s entire member base disappears as a result of job loss, but any erosion of membership has an effect on the others.

In the case of one Prince Rupert service organization, the pulp-mill closure meant that one of the most involved individuals had to move to Alberta to keep paying his mortgage. Without the energy and drive that he personally inspired in the group’s other members, the organization gradually crumbled, and still has not recovered to this day. According to one former member, “Here’s this one guy with all the skills and the energy, and once he was gone a lot of us kind of faded away.”

Therein lies the troubling conundrum of volunteerism in the north: the members might fade away, but the events or causes that they support do not. Popular community events in Prince Rupert such as Seafest and the spring Children’s Festival rely almost 100 percent on volunteer manpower. Emergency groups like the Coast Guard Auxiliary are made up of people who spend a lot of unpaid time mastering complex skills to be available at a moment’s notice when lives hang in the balance.

The power of the volunteer
Volunteer efforts also continue to make our northern communities nicer places to live by the infrastructure they maintain. The creation and maintenance of walking trails, children’s parks and tennis courts are some of the ways community groups such as Rotary and the Loyal Order of Moose contribute to the fabric of Rupert life, and other towns along the Highway 16 corridor are no different. Somehow, despite the shrinking populace, we keep managing to get things done.

In Prince Rupert, for example, the local chapter of Rotary International, the second oldest in BC, has been going since 1921 and has managed to remain in existence through the last 89 years of boom and bust. Like other community groups in the port city, it has seen a slight decline in membership in these lean decades since the mill closed down, but Treasurer and past-president Bill Nicholls attributes that only to the decrease in general population and not a waning of volunteer spirit. He points also to the fact that Rotary strongly encourages current members to actively seek out new members to mitigate any decrease in numbers.

He believes that social factors play a strong role in why people decide to volunteer. “It starts off as networking,” says Nicholls, “and it’s a good source for meeting people in the community from different walks of life.” He is proud, and rightly so, of the many things the Rotary Club has done to make life better for people in Prince Rupert and around the world, all through the power of the volunteer.

However, the day of the volunteer fair, as I sat alone at my table straightening and re-straightening my carefully arranged brochures, I wasn’t really getting the sense that there is a reservoir of fresh energy ready to burst onto the scene. Rather, the impression I got that afternoon was one of fatigue and disinterest. Those who currently volunteer find themselves signing up for more than their share, and it’s getting tiring. The sense from some people I spoke to that day was that they are fighting a losing battle, swimming upstream against a steady pressure of shrinking government funding, increasing need for the service being provided, and an utter flat-line in committed members. There’s a feeling that not everyone is pulling their weight, that a few people are taking the strain for all, and that things can’t go on this way forever.

Volunteerism in the north is at a critical point. Despite population decline, for every person that dishes out bowls at the church soup kitchen or organizes a teen group to paint murals on an abandoned building, there are vast numbers of people in each community along Highway 16 who don’t donate their time, their energy, and their ideas. The reasons are myriad and complex: perhaps their parents never volunteered or taught them the value of volunteering; they don’t have enough time; there’s nothing out there that interests them enough to get them out into the community and giving.

Does the responsibility lie with them to find the motivation within, or is it with those of us looking for their help? Perhaps recruitment for volunteers needs to be on a more personal level, like the Rotarians do. Maybe if the information was on the web, rather than in a newspaper or posted on a library bulletin board, that young fresh spirit would be tapped. I think the people we need are definitely out there; maybe it’s just a matter of getting their attention.