What's Behind the Volunteer Crisis

Statistics Canada data released in November 2022 show that the majority of non-profit organizations are dealing with volunteer shortages, difficulty recruiting new volunteers, and volunteer burnout. Surveys show that over half of non-profits are struggling to recruit new volunteers and just over half are struggling to retain the volunteers they do have. Volunteer participation in Canada is at an all-time low, some undoubtedly due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t account for all the shortages being faced. Across the country, large entities like Volunteer Canada, YWCA, Habitat for Humanity, and small rural organizations are all reporting losing volunteers during the pandemic and struggling to recover that number. In an article published in the March 14, 2023, edition of The Philanthropist, Andrea MacDonald, CEO of United Way PEI is quoted as saying, “In rural areas especially, the same people are being asked to sit on every board and service clubs.” ( So, what has changed?

Senior citizens, as a group, have a history of volunteering longer hours for longer periods of time compared to any other age group but were forced to step away during the pandemic as organizations paused operations and older citizens were advised to limit their social interactions. Unlike this older generation, younger people have been taught to think of time as a commodity, and since volunteering is time, if it is not giving them a payoff, it is not likely going to get their investment. Vicki Stroich of Caravan Farm Theatre in rural BC believes that charities and non-profits have to shift their expectations and systems. “If we are having a problem engaging young people in our work, is it the young people’s problem or our own outdated modes of thinking and working?” she asks. Raine Liliefeldt of YWCA Canada sees changing the volunteer language to something more appealing to a younger generation as a way toward increasing their participation, changing the culture of volunteer work to a culture of care work. So, is it a problem of expectations? Is it a problem of language?

According to a study conducted by the Stanford Center on Longevity, two of the most common reasons people give for not volunteering are a lack of free time and that volunteer schedules and commitments are too inflexible. The stress of living in the 21st century has more people than ever before feeling overburdened with commitments in both home and work life and this leads many to believe that the precious hours that they claim as their own, cannot be given away to others. Another very common reason given is that people feel they don’t have information about where to volunteer, or if they do, the volunteer jobs available do not provide a meaningful experience or a personal sense of gratification. Volunteers want to feel included in the goals of the organization, and that their work (even if unpaid) is valued and appreciated. While one out of four people say they don’t volunteer because no one asked them to. (

In the past, volunteers donated their time and the organization then decided how best to use those donated hours, but according to Susan Fish in a 2014 article, The Changing Face of Volunteering in Canada, volunteers are increasingly assessing what is required of them and what they will get in return for their time…what intrinsic need will be met. Consequently, this weighing of cost vs. reward makes for a situation where when life becomes overwhelming, volunteers are more likely to quit than they would have in the past. (

The nonprofit sector is said to have long anticipated the retirement of the large baby boomer generation as an opportunity for a fresh infusion of volunteers, but that is not happening, or at least not as anticipated. One must keep in mind that the baby boom generation spans a twenty-year time frame, and the early boomers are now nearing 80 years old while the last of them are just beginning to enter retirement. Thus, simply being a “boomer” does not automatically place a person on one side or the other of the volunteerism issues. Retirees in the past used to volunteer to fill their time, but now with increased opportunities for mobility and travel, and many having pensions that facilitate that lifestyle, retirees are spending fewer, regular hours volunteering. One volunteer who did not want her name used revealed, “I’ve volunteered most of my life, but if I ever want to stop, I can’t because there’s no one to take my place. It’s expected that I will do it or find my own replacement.” Society has changed and retirees view retirement not as a time to slow down, but a time to focus on themselves after a lifetime of focussing on work.

Historically, volunteerism has been seen as a benefit to those on the receiving end of the volunteering action, but according to Volunteering and Its Surprising Benefits by Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. and Lawrence Robinson in, recent studies show that there are benefits for the volunteer as well. By measuring hormones and brain activity, researchers have discovered that human beings are hard-wired to give to others. Apparently, the more we give, the happier we feel. (

Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose and increase self-confidence. Whatever a person’s age or life situation, volunteering can help take the mind off its own worries, keep a person mentally stimulated, and provide a natural sense of accomplishment. As well, dedicating time as a volunteer helps individuals make new friends, expand their network, and boost their social skills. Giving to others can also help protect one’s mental and physical health. It can reduce stress, anger, and anxiety, combat depression, keep a person mentally stimulated, and even lessen the symptoms of chronic pain. The social contact aspect of helping and working with others can have a profound effect on a person’s overall psychological well-being by helping develop a solid support system. While it’s true that the more a person volunteers, the more benefits will be experienced, volunteering doesn’t have to involve a long-term commitment or take a huge amount of time out of an already busy day.

Volunteering can be a fun and easy way to explore interests and passions. Doing volunteer work that a person finds meaningful and interesting can be a relaxing, energizing escape from the day-to-day routine of work, school, or family commitments, but it doesn't have to take over a person’s life to be beneficial. It should not become another chore on a to-do list. The important thing is to volunteer only the amount of time that feels comfortable. Check it out, there are many organizations and service clubs eagerly waiting.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder