Quebec: Volunteers wanted?

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Le Devoir, April 6, 2017: » Le bénévolat à son plus bas en dix ans[1]«. Voluntary action is found in all facets of human life, and  is a powerful engine of collective action not only in education, health and social services, but also in sport, culture, environment and professional services. So how is this apparent withdrawal possible? What hides behind this apparent disaffection? How to interpret it? Thanks to cumulative volunteer action, more than two million Quebec volunteers are promoting the creation and access to social, community, cultural and human activities for the well-being of Québec citizens. During the National Volunteer Week, which is a moment to thank, educate, recruit, recognize volunteers and promote volunteerism, we met with Mr. Fimba Tankoano, Executive Director and Mr. Michel Alexandre Cauchon, Research and Development, to the Fédération des centres d’action bénévole du Québec (FCABQ) for their opinions on these alarming indicators.

The statistical context

Volunteer work is important not only for each volunteer but also for the whole of Canadian society. According to the 2011 report on the status of volunteering in the world, by the United Nations, « le volontariat profite à la fois à l’ensemble de la société et à la personne qui se porte volontaire en renforçant la confiance, la solidarité et la réciprocité parmi les citoyens et en créant délibérément des opportunités de participation«[2]. In 2010, about half of Canadians spent their time, energy and skills volunteering for  charities or non-profit organizations (NPOs). These volunteers seek funding, provide counseling, serve seniors, prepare and deliver food baskets, work with youth groups, hold positions on boards of directors, and so on. The list is long. Overall, Canadians are investing heavily in their communities and enabling NPOs to offer programs and services to millions of their fellow citizens.

We note, however, that volunteer rates vary considerably by province and territory. The highest rate was in Saskatchewan, where 58% of adults aged 15 and over volunteered in 2010. Saskatchewan remains the most active province in volunteering today[3]. The proportion of Quebeckers volunteering and the total number of hours devoted to unpaid activities has recently reached its lowest level for the past 10 years [3]. The rate was 37% in Quebec in 2010 and would now stands at around 32%. While these numbers tend to fall, Mr. Tankoano recalls that historically, Quebec was the cradle of volunteering in Canada “C’est au Québec que l’on trouve le plus vieux centre d’action bénévole qui a 80 ans aujourd’hui. Sur 250 centres d’actions bénévoles partout au Canada, 114 se trouvent au Québec. Bénévoles Canada fait la même chose que nous au niveau du Canada, mais c’est un organisme plus jeune. »[4]

Do we really have to worry about the level of volunteer involvement in Quebec? 

For Mr Tankoano, the answer is clear: “non, ces chiffres ne sont pas alarmants, mais il s’agit d’un signal à prendre en consideration[5]. First of all, this downward trend in volunteer involvement is not just a Quebec characteristic, because all of Canada is in the same situation. Indeed, across the country, we observe a slight decline in formal volunteer engagement. On the other hand, informal engagement would tend to increase. This information is not apparent, as the statistical collection methods do not reflect the overall changes in  the sector. Similarly, these statistical data do not take into account the renewal of the cohorts of volunteers. Tankoano said, «Ce ne sont pas les mêmes personnes qui font du bénévolat chaque année. Je suis convaincu que comme les cohortes se renouvellent, le bénévolat a forcément augmenté. C’est le nombre de bénévoles en même temps qui est resté stable. Les statistiques ne calculent que sur une période donnée. Or on sait tous que le bénévolat c’est un parcours de vie” . The statistical data do not really do justice to the terrain, but they are “malgré tout très utiles comme signal, elles sont là pour ça[6]. Mr Tankoano reminds us that this information must be seen in both directions. Indeed, the statistics reflect a state, but they also serve to provide  a message. The press seeks to create a sense of urgency that is incompatible with the sector, because «ce qui freine les gens à faire du bénévolat c’est le poids de l’engagement. L’angle de l’urgence n’aide pas le bénévolat, mais c’est l’espoir qui fonctionne. Les médias ont besoin de ça pour leur travail, mais il faudrait dire l’inverse et c’est là qu’on intervient nous, pour passer un autre message plus positif”[7]. But we must not only blaming the statistical data and catastrophic messages. Community organizations have their share of responsibility. Communication and recruitment tools are paramount. «Plus de 50 % des non-bénévoles vont dire qu’ils ne font pas de bénévolat, car on ne les a pas directement sollicités[8]. Campaigns need to be more personalized to reach as many people as possible. Society is changing. Volunteering must also change to avoid periods of crisis. The Federation encourages organizations to adapt to these changes so that potential volunteers can easily access information. » Les organismes doivent comprendre que le premier contact avec les bénévoles est aujourd’hui virtuel. Les réseaux sociaux sont gratuits et ils aident beaucoup. Cela ne suffit pas ! Il faut également adapter les heures. Les bénévoles veulent s’investir en dehors de la période de 9 à 5. Il faut trouver un moyen de sortir des heures traditionnelles”[9].

Is the status of volunteering changing? 

It is necessary to understand the different forms of volunteering in order to answer this question. There is formal volunteering and non-formal/informal volunteering. How to differentiate them? Supervised volunteers voluntarily provide unpaid services, through a group or agency, at least once in the reference year (Hall et al., 1998 [10]). Non-supervised volunteers provide assistance on their own during the reference year, either directly to a person who is not part of their household or indirectly by providing services to the community or Without going through a group or an organization(Duchesne, 1989[11]). Thus, organizations are not the only ones to benefit from the time and energy Canadians spend on social engagement. In fact, compared to the proportion of Canadian volunteers who volunteer, almost double the number of people aged 15 and over offer direct, untrained assistance to people living outside their households. Relatives, friends or neighbors. According to Statistics Canada, in 2010, 83% of Canadians came to help someone who needed it at least once during the year, the same proportion as in 2007. «Quand on regarde le bénévolat non encadré, les statistiques augmentent ! Cela nous démontre que ce n’est pas tant l’engagement qui baisse, mais les formes d’engagement qui changent. On ne voit donc pas le verre à moitié vide, mais à moitié plein !«[12] Says Fimba Tankoano. In addition, retired baby boomers are the most active future volunteers who will join the market for volunteers and hold important positions in teams. Organizations will have to adapt how to manage these newcomers. » Ils sont comme des jeunes, ils aiment s’impliquer et voir le changement de leur implication immédiatement[13]. These volunteers will question a traditional approach to their involvement. A structural change will be required. If these organizations miss the mark,  the baby boomers will not commit and will choose other retirement activities. The other concern is the volunteering after school. The idea is to do a «volunteer initiation» program. Some international schools (and provinces in Canada) already offer opportunities for students to volunteer in the school curriculum with credits. The Federation would like to extend this program and make it universal to all establishments in Quebec. «Les implications citoyennes intéressent les jeunes, ils trouvent cela in, dans l’air du temp[14] and through this initiation, young people will be more likely to volunteer. By making the program universal, there will be more youth to host in voluntary organizations, but these organizations must adapt to properly accommodate these young people. «Il y aura un roulement de bénévoles sur un plus long terme. Les écoles ont parfois 500 élèves, un organisme communautaire n’a pas besoin de 500 bénévoles par semaine, mais de 3 ou 4. C’est un roulement de bénévole assuré” [15].

A sector threatened for only $ 85

As mentioned earlier, the community sector faces a number of challenges. Michel Alexandre Cauchon and Fimba Tankoano told us about a structural issue, which may be a problem in the voluntary ecosystem / community organizations: the amendment to the regulation concerning the verification of criminal records. Each organization is responsible for screening candidates who will be in contact with the beneficiaries. As a result, the organization must initiate a heavy administrative procedure for security reasons. There are ten steps, nine of which are predominantly bureaucratic and one tenth of which is a police record check. It should be understood that this last step concerns not only the volunteers selected during the recruitment process, but all the candidates. It is essential to know if a person has been convicted of a crime before retaining him/her. However, it is equally important to know the nature of the crime. A a sexual assault may be more relevant than tax evasion. The organization must therefore take the time to select crimes that automatically eliminate candidates. Through codes, the organization will never have access to the nature of the crimes committed by the candidate. Formerly, it was enough to fill out a free form made available by the police. For the past two years, organizations have had to pay to verify the volunteers’ backgrounds. According to Mr. Cauchon, «On fait des actions auprès des instances gouvernementales pour que cela soit gratuit, car on s’entend que cela devient vite une petite fortune. Il y a un choix à faire : soit on fait les vérifications gratuitement, soit on ne le fait pas, mais ne nous tapez pas sur les doigts après. En plus chaque province a sa propre façon de faire.”[16] Soon, we will not have to go through public bodies, but by private companies that will have access to all the criminal records of Canadians. If this is not done, agencies risk reducing their quality of volunteer involvement. This is an important issue concerning the safety of the community in general. According to Tankoano, this is too great a risk. «Il faut s’assurer que les bénévoles qui vont donner des services à des personnes vulnérables soient des personnes qui montrent patte blanche[17]. Private companies will bill between $ 45 and $ 85 depending on the records. Let’s take the example of a small organization that needs five volunteers on a continuous basis to run its business. How much will it cost to respond to the last security step? Approximately fifteen volunteers are needed to retain only one. Volunteers do not stay in the organization on a continuous basis, maternity / paternity leave, studies, travel … So you need a database provided to make sure you have five volunteers at the same time. Records must also be reviewed every four to five years to ensure that volunteers do not commit crimes during their practice.

Let us summarize:

15X$85 (to retain 5 main volunteers) + 5X$85 (check the traps of these same volunteers every four years) + 15X$85X2  (to replace departures, and to ensure a full activity of the organization on the principle that + $ 10X85 (criminal record check of satellite volunteers) = $ 5,100 for a small neighborhood organization that needs 5 volunteers to carry out its activities.

Do you find that huge? Mr. Cauchon encourages you to imagine the sums disbursed for a large organization with a high level of risk: “imaginez ce que cela represente” pour les Scouts du Québec»[18]. Organizations will end up not being able to pay for criminal background checks or having to charge volunteers for volunteering. However, the latter solution is inapplicable since it is killing volunteer recruitment in the bud, the rate of volunteer involvement risks falling drastically. What is the real risk that the voluntary commitment rate will fall? «(Laughter) La société tomberait « [19]Mr. Cauchon. According to Mr Tankoano, mutual aid is « le ciment de la société et de la communauté ».[20] Without community, no community can develop properly. Mr Tankoano adds, « On peut penser que l’État prenne le relais. Mais c’est utopique de penser qu’un État soit capable de répondre à tous les besoins ! »[21]. Innovation comes from citizens who are looking at a question and which goes back to the state. The first disaster would then be the disappearance of organizations that live only through volunteering, we obviously think of the community sector. Are we ready and willing to run such a risk?