Volunteers: Benefit or Burden?

February 5, 2003

Societies are made up of people and people help people. If it weren’t for volunteers, many a community wouldn’t be what it is today. But like everything else in life, times change and so do volunteers. Volunteers used to be considered the biggest benefit to an organization or a community but now, sometimes volunteers can be considered a burden.

The Volunteer Scene in Calgary and Alberta
Alberta isn’t quite “volunteer capital” of Canada but it’s a very close second to Saskatchewan. In a recent survey titled “Caring Canadians, Involved Canadians: Highlights from the 2000 National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating,” it was reported that 700,000 people volunteered 120 million hours in one year in Alberta. Loosely translated, Alberta averages approximately 200 hours per volunteer per year, which works out to be about 8.33 days per year. Now that’s a lot of volunteering!

Who Volunteers
The survey revealed 4 out of 10 people volunteer “formally”. This means a person approaches an organization and offers to volunteer for a certain position or offers to volunteer a certain amount of time on a regular, on-going basis. Three out of 10 people volunteer “informally”. This means people volunteer spontaneously. For example, if a person is asked and agrees to volunteer for one specific task, only one time per year, this person is considered to volunteer “informally”. In Calgary, the survey revealed that 7 out of 10 people over the age of 15 have performed some type of volunteer work, whether it was formal or informal. Surprisingly, the survey revealed that 2 out of 3 volunteers are employed, which eliminates the notion that people who work do not have time to volunteer. More Calgarians volunteer, and volunteer more hours, than Edmontonians do. “Calgary’s volunteer presence seems stronger than Edmonton’s because Calgary has a central place that refers large numbers of volunteers to non-profit organizations, called Volunteer Calgary. Edmonton’s volunteer center closed two years ago due to funding issues,” said Dawn Lasby, Manager of Volunteer Services at Volunteer Calgary.

Before You Volunteer
These statistics are impressive but people must remember that it’s a privilege to be a volunteer and each volunteer position brings with it accountability and responsibility. Having a “love” of something is great motivation, often assisting people in choosing where they want to volunteer, but people must remember that other people are counting on them to carry out the tasks they volunteered to do. If a person wants to volunteer for unskilled positions, such as painting fences, picking up litter, and setting up rummage sales, then no special skills, experience, or education is required, just a willing spirit and a desire to pitch in and help the community. If a person wants to volunteer for a position that does require special skills, experience, or education, such as an accountant, legal advisor or area planner, the person should make sure they clearly understand the duties of the position, know whether or not they are capable of carrying out the duties, and know whether or not they actually have the time to perform the duties, as the people who volunteer for these positions will be held accountable for their actions.

Why Some People Volunteer
Some people volunteer because they really want to help other people or they want to pitch in to make their communities better places to live in. If it weren’t for the tireless efforts of countless volunteers, a lot of things simply would not exist, things that most of us take for granted and that we think either the government or a corporate sponsor paid for. Volunteers are truly gifts from heaven and should be thanked graciously for their hard work.

There are also people who volunteer because it’s a requirement of a goal. People who want to switch careers sometimes do volunteer work to gain new skills or experience, which employers will accept on a job application. Or as in the case of students, they know educational institutions and employers look for volunteer work on their applications because it shows they are community-minded individuals. People also volunteer because a judge has ordered them to perform community service work as part of their sentence and a select few people volunteer because they have self-serving motivation to make themselves look good.

Most people who volunteer are generally good-hearted people with the best intentions but the people who feel obligated to volunteer, are forced to volunteer, or volunteer to make themselves look good, may not put their “heart and soul” into their volunteer duties, leaving the other volunteers performing the lion’s share of the work. The attitudes of these volunteers can also have devastating effects on the spirit of the other volunteers.

The Cornerstone of Good Volunteers
Why is it that when people apply for a paying job, they have to go through the Spanish Inquisition – provide a resume which details their education, skills and experience, a list of references, and sometimes identification such as their Social Insurance Numbers, birth certificates and driver’s licenses? Although well-run organizations put potential volunteers through intensive screening procedures and interview review processing, many non-profit organizations are so thankful someone actually volunteered that they practically hand the job to them without so much as a “What’s your name?” Good volunteers as just like good employees – they are hard to come by. Productive volunteers are no accident either. “Organizations who rely on volunteers will do well to have a well-trained, experienced volunteer manager. The duties of a volunteer manager are: to review job descriptions and hold interviews to recruit qualified volunteers; orient and train new volunteers; motivate current and new volunteers; evaluate the volunteer’s performance on a regular basis; keep appropriate records of volunteers; and to show appreciation to all volunteers. Volunteer Calgary offers many courses and they can even teach a volunteer manager how to dismiss a volunteer, if necessary,” said Lasby.

The Downside to Volunteering – Volunteer Burnout
The survey clearly showed that the number of people who volunteer, and the number of hours they volunteer, dropped in 2000. What the survey failed to do is identify the reasons for the drop in numbers. Could it be a case of volunteer burnout? As in any organization, whether it is a not-for-profit or a for-profit, it is usually the select few that do the bulk of the work. It’s similar to the 80/20 rule where 80% of a company’s business comes from 20% of its clients. In a volunteer organization, 20% of the volunteers could be doing 80% of the work. After awhile, these volunteers get tired of doing all the work all the time, and eventually they burn-out and stop volunteering. If there is no one else to fill their shoes, then the work goes undone, and people and organizations suffer. Many people who volunteer complain that shortly after they volunteered to do one thing, they were quickly commandeered into volunteering for something else, usually entire positions, sometimes two. Soon, this person starts to drown in volunteer work and again suffers from burnout. Many volunteers feel they are not shown the level of respect or appreciation they deserve. If a volunteer is over-worked, not respected, unappreciated, and is tired of dealing with the politics of the organization and other volunteers who are not fulfilling their obligations, then the volunteer often ends up leaving the organization.

The Volunteer Who Is a Burden
Volunteers who do not put their heart and soul into their volunteer position, who do not perform the duties they volunteered to do, or who perform the duties so poorly they might as well not even bother, can be a drain on any organization. Volunteer horror stories abound. I have had several bad volunteer experiences “? a volunteer who said they don’t answer their e-mail so the rest of the organization can’t communicate with him; a volunteer who made a serious legal mistake that could have put the entire board in serious trouble (remember, being a volunteer does not absolve you from liability; you still have a duty of care); a volunteer who offered to do something very important and a year and a half later still has not completed the task; and the countless volunteers who said they are “too busy” to do what they volunteered to do. Why would a person volunteer to do something and then say they are too busy? Why even bother to volunteer? If a person cannot keep their volunteer commitment, then the proper thing to do would be to step down from the position and allow another person the opportunity to perform the duties. A volunteer board member once told me, “They’re volunteers, so we have to accept what we get and not complain.” This negative mentality has to go if the volunteer numbers are to go up.

Now more than ever, both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations are counting on volunteers to help run their organizations. A well-run volunteer program can ensure that the right volunteers are recruited for the right jobs. Hopefully, organizations will start to see the value in recruiting and training volunteer staff, and the number of people who volunteer and the number of hours they volunteer, will start to go up again.


1. Volunteer Calgary – http://www.volunteercalgary.ab.ca

2. Volunteer Canada: Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement – http://www.volunteer.ca/volunteer/pdf/CodeEng.pdf

3. Caring Canadians, Involved Canadians: Highlights from the 2000 National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating – http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/71-542-XIE/71-542-XIE00001.pdf

4. Canadian Administrators of Volunteer Resources: Standards of Practice Summary – http://www.cavr.org (Standards of Practice Summary)

Diane is a full-time, freelance writer. She specializes in writing technical articles for the oil and gas industry, but also writes feature length magazine articles of all genres, including Calgary-based magazines. She is working towards a Bachelor of General Studies degree.