Calgary community associations enduring volunteer drought, burnout

·4 min read
Residents celebrate at the Silver Springs Community Centre in Calgary on Friday. (Oseremen Irete/CBC - image credit)
Residents celebrate at the Silver Springs Community Centre in Calgary on Friday. (Oseremen Irete/CBC - image credit)

Calgary's community associations are volunteer-run, but for those already donating their time, a recent drought in help is running them off their feet.

As pandemic restrictions lift and things begin returning to normal, some associations are finding it hard to bring back the momentum needed to throw block parties, pancake breakfasts and community cleanups — annual traditions before the pandemic years.

Some think it's burnout that has spread throughout the pandemic as groups struggled to keep their lights on and care for infrastructure that no longer provided a reliable income through rentals. Others believe volunteers are taking a step back to reconnect with family and friends after distancing for two years.

In Ranchlands, the annual Stampede breakfast was cancelled for 2022 — the community just couldn't drum up enough volunteers to make it happen.

"People want the events but we just don't have the bodies to be able to support events," said Ranchlands Community Association vice-president Nadine Bird. "I get a lot of 'I don't have time for this right now.'"

 

Their pancake breakfast included a parade and would have needed more than 25 volunteers — along with countless volunteer hours to organize.

It's something Bird has seen with other groups she works with, other not-for-profit organizations. And it was a trend she saw coming before the pandemic. Ranchlands has had to scale down its pancake breakfast before, to match volunteer interest.

The Federation of Calgary Communities has heard from association members and not-for-profits that the problems are twofold.

"People are expressing some concern around not getting both the ad hoc and the one-off volunteers to come flip pancakes, but also, and perhaps more concerning, are volunteers for the board," said federation executive director Leslie Evans.

At the federation level, Evans said, they typically get more than 30 applications for board positions. This year, they got only five, which is unusual.

In some cases, people's priorities have changed, they are re-evaluating how to spend their time after two years of isolating themselves from family and friends, Evans said.

Boards burning out

Some associations haven't just seen board vacancies. Groups are also experiencing high turnover.

Erin Joslin, director-at-large for the Ramsay Community Association, said this is a problem for her organization.

One of the big things eating up her board's energy and resources is a responsibility to keep up infrastructure, like a community rink. Just before the pandemic, the Ramsay Community Association parted ways with its hall.

But even with less to care for, Joslin said the struggles continue with time and cash flow.

The board is so burnt-out trying to manage all the other pieces. - Erin Joslin, Ramsay Community Association

"It takes a lot of volunteer time and energy to deal with the aging infrastructure," Joslin said. "We're missing out on the fantastic pieces that should be a community association, which is building community, offering great events, doing all that kind of stuff."

She said that when it comes to throwing events, they've recently had some key members step back from the association, which means institutional knowledge and drive to throw a big to-do have moved to the back burner.

"Ramsay usually had … a Stampede kind of party for the community and there's just … the board is so burnt-out trying to manage all the other pieces," Joslin said.

How will community associations overcome this?

To bring in fresh volunteers and community-minded people ready to help out, Evans suggests going back to the basics.

"Developing relationships and asking people to help face to face, not throwing out, you know, advertisements," Evans said. "Meeting people where they're at, finding the leaders in the community."

In Ranchlands, Bird has already met with local businesses, churches and other groups to brainstorm how they can band together and create a database of volunteers.

"So it's not the same person volunteering over and over and over and that we can reach out to different volunteers … especially people who have different skills," Bird said.

For Joslin, the real help would come from City of Calgary funding and support that would help community volunteer groups to focus on building community instead of funding and managing infrastructure.

"The community association is such a huge asset to the communities," Joslin said. "Just wish that the city would understand that like we can't fully be free, you know, we need support with our aging infrastructure — those are their facilities."