Shortage of volunteers looming issue for St. Mary’s recreation

SHERBROOKE – A deepening shortage of local volunteers – and ways to solve the problem – rose to the top of the agenda as council for the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s approved its first recreation master plan in Sherbrooke last week.

The move followed a vigorous discussion led by Halifax consultants Carol Davis-Jamieson and Max Chauvin – who helped draft the plan in collaboration with Upland Planning and Design Studio of Dartmouth over the past seven months – on the importance of engaging the community in any work targeted at improving and delivering recreational services.

“We know that there is a crisis in volunteer recruitment and retention across the country and North America,” Chauvin told the committee of the whole meeting on Nov. 16. “[But] the municipality can help organizations [here] do better. [Is there a way to] offer support to help [community organizations] remain sustainable? [Is there] a shared marketing and promotion strategy – not just for municipal programs, but for those programs and services that are offered by others? We think that the municipality should be able to promote everybody, and thereby raise everybody up.”

Although hard numbers on volunteerism in St. Mary’s are difficult to ascertain, elsewhere the trend has been tracking downward for several years. According to a report from Imagine Canada – a leading umbrella group for Canadian charities – published in March, “almost 13 million Canadians volunteered annually [based on 2018 survey]. According to public opinion polling last year, 17 per cent of people planned to volunteer during the 2021 holiday season … well below the pre-pandemic level.”

Earlier this month, The Journal reported on the crisis in volunteer leadership at one of St. Mary’s signature events, Old Fashioned Christmas. “[It’s] lost so many of its [volunteer] members,” lead organizer Dana O’Connell said. “If [it] is to succeed, it needs buy-in participation from key stakeholders, namely: the Nova Scotia Museum, the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s, and the business community. Without [this], it and Old-Fashioned Christmas will continue to struggle and may dissolve.”

O’Connell reports that financial contributions and the number of volunteers from the community are now up significantly. “We average 20 volunteers a day at five hours. So far, we have had ten businesses provide and serve meals to our volunteers. Plus, we have volunteers in the community who are decorating 40 doors and ten windows.”

During the committee of the whole, Chauvin suggested a series of measures designed to support long-term volunteerism in the municipality, beginning with more coordinated marketing and promotions. “This can’t just be all online,” he warned. “There are a number of residents and groups who just don’t process content that way. So, how do you get out there and make sure everybody knows what’s going on?”

He added: “Another recommendation is the recruitment, training and development of program leaders. It is very difficult for some programs to find qualified volunteers, so that will be done better if it’s done as a group in collaboration. If you have program leaders in the community, you can offer programs; if you don’t, you can’t. So, this is a high priority under community collaboration.”

District 1 Councillor Courtney Mailman asked Chauvin about best practices elsewhere in the world. “Do you know of any other municipalities that have a template or roadmap that is proving to be very successful? Are there any resources, any suggestions of where we could look? I know that some of the Scandinavian countries are really far ahead of us in many areas.”

Chauvin noted that while, “We could spend a lot of time talking about volunteer recruitment, one thing is clear: The next generation of volunteers do not want to volunteer in the structures that you and I would have grown up in and volunteered in. And this requires some fairly radical re-thinking of volunteering. And, so, that is the kind of support that we think the municipality could offer — helping people reconsider how they structure volunteers and those opportunities.”

The committee of the whole unanimously approved the plan – one of several new social and economic programming tools, including active transportation and public accessibility guidelines.

Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal