By Malcolm Burrows
“It is a very sad day for me when notable figures cannot donate time and energy to charitable causes they believe deserve support.”
This indignant observation came from a letter to The Globe and Mail on July 18, 2020 in response to WE Charity scandal that engulfed the Federal Government. The writer, Adele Robertson, described her late actor/writer husband, George Robertson, and a host of celebrities who volunteered for UNICEF in the 1970s and 1980s. She criticized the speaker fees received by member of the Prime Minister’s family to speak at WE Day events.
The WE story has brought the question of volunteering with charities into furious focus. When did volunteers start to be paid? Has volunteering in Canada really changed so much? Or is this just nostalgia?
The Volunteer Divide
First, it is important to acknowledge the continued importance of volunteers to charities. Almost all 86,000 registered charities have volunteer board of directors. These individuals give untold hours to govern and deliver the mission of their organizations.
But there is a difference between oversight and operations. Delivery of services by volunteers is a great dividing line in the charitable sector. I would estimate that 80% of registered charities depend primarily on volunteers to carry out their mission. These entities typically have annual revenue of less than $1 million. These entities may pay a bookkeeper, secretary or clergy, but paid employees are exceptions.
And then there is the minority of charities. The bigger ones. The government supported one. Often, the urban ones.
Yes, these charities usually have service volunteers, but they would not run without professional staff. Professionals provide expertise, dedicated time, and consistent—ideally sustainable—delivery of services. Despite the glorification of volunteerism, to have real, long-term social impact professionals are required.
Don’t believe me? Good luck with that amateur brain surgeon.
My point is that there are a lot of large registered charities that would not exist without paid staff. These include schools, hospitals, and universities, as well as social service, arts, environmental and international organizations. Professionals are essential in this space and impact is typically higher relative to all volunteer organizations. Impact means helping more people, more deeply.
The letter writer is conflating all volunteers with fundraising volunteers. Fundraising continues to be greatest activity of charities where the role of volunteers is essential. Volunteers help raise awareness, identify supporters, build networks, give and ask others to give.
A big change in the charity world since the late 1980s is the emergence of professional fundraisers. I was one of them. And it’s generally been successful. Many charities have increased their fundraising dramatically due to better fundraising.
Having a bit of grey hair, I remember the transition between the volunteer and professional fundraising models that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I worked with some terrific individuals who had dedicated themselves to volunteer fundraising. They were often business people (men) who viewed volunteering as both a civic duty and a way to network. And, the traditional service volunteer: women who didn’t “work outside the home”.
Whether the charity was a church, a hospital, a social service organization or an art gallery, women volunteers —often arranged as auxiliaries — were the labour that raised money and delivered programs.
And then society changed. Women’s participation in the workforce increased. One of the growth professions was, you guessed it, fundraising. The majority of professional fundraisers are now women.
In the 1990s, the professional infrastructure of fundraising came into being. In Canada, professional fundraising organizations sprung up and offered training, conferences, and accreditation. The ranks of pro fundraiser expanded. Sub-specialties such as direct marketing, special events, major gifts and gift planning blossomed.
While many charities still require volunteers to help with fundraising —including celebrity endorsement—many professional techniques work better without volunteers. Volunteers are increasingly focus on special events, peer-to-peer fundraising, and major gifts.
WE & Youth
The other debate that has come out of the WE Charity/Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program kerfuffle is over the very concept of volunteerism. CSSG was intended to provide students (anyone under 30) with meaningful work experience at not-for-profits and charities. They would get paid $10 an hour for up to 500 hours or $5,000.
This pay rate is under minimum wage, but it is not volunteering either. The largest national volunteer organization, Volunteer Canada, refused as a result to participate on principle. Critics complained about the abuses of the “intern” economy and bogus job opportunities dreamed up on the spur of the moment.
So what’s happening to volunteering at charities? It is not going away, but it is evolving. By definition civil society—not business, not government—needs citizen to give their time to society. This is recognized by established volunteer training programs. For example, high school students nationally must do mandatory volunteer hours to graduate.
The WE organization has muddied the waters by blurring volunteering and payment, charity and profit. Volunteering at charities will survive.
Malcolm Burrows is Head, Philanthropic Advisory Services for Scotia Wealth Management of Scotiatrust. He writes this column exclusively for each issue of Foundation Magazine.