The Higher ED Blog: 5 Ways Volunteers Make your Job Easier
Meg Ronson / April 10, 2017
This article is the first in our Volunteers: The Extra-Economic Developers series, which explores the beneficial ways that economic development and volunteerism can intersect. This is in recognition of National Volunteer Week, running April 23rd to 29th, 2017.
Spring is just around the corner, so it’s time to swap out those winter tires, get those flowerbeds prepped, and … do a volunteer head count? That’s right – spring cleaning and organizing tend to go hand in hand, so it’s a perfect time to take stock. With National Volunteer Week coming up, the opportunity is upon us to consider the crucial—yet often unrecognised—role that volunteerism plays in our local economies.
Civic engagement and information gathering
Community profiling and other information-gathering exercises depend on those citizens willing to take time out of their day to attend forums, town halls and community sessions, respond to surveys, or even to be stopped on the street to have a conversation about their town. It’s easy to forget that these are all voluntary acts that take time and effort, but also that they are a huge help to economic developers looking for the most effective, tailored solutions to their area’s challenges. Volunteers like this are demonstrating that powerful, intangible resource called ‘community engagement,’ which can range from simple input to active decision-making for their municipality. This Higher ED post from two years ago shares some tips and tricks on how to tap this essential resource.
New Canadian assistance
Canada welcomes on average 235,000 new immigrants per year. While we like to celebrate our accepting and inclusive society, we don’t often realize the extent to which that acceptance and inclusivity is upheld by unpaid volunteers. A study from 2008 made an effort to better understand this under-researched phenomenon in the hope that more awareness could lead to more leveraging of such an important resource for new Canadians. Some programs involve a pairing relationship between new Canadians and volunteers who offer informational, experiential, or emotional support. Finding a job, learning English or French, building a network of friends, these can all be done more quickly and with less stress when a volunteer is there to help. As these new Canadians settle into their new Canadian life, they contribute enormously to their communities.
Labour force assistance
Developing labour skills, looking for a job, writing a résumé and cover letter, preparing for interviews: these are the behind-the-scenes activities that economic developers sometimes pay less attention to as they focus on the bigger picture of making sure these activities have a market to fit into in the first place. But let’s not forget those not-for-profit institutions and the volunteers they rely on that collect and distribute donated suits and office wear, that conduct mock interviews and review and revise job applications, that gather labour market information and curate job postings. Kitchener’s The Working Centre is just one example of an invaluable, entirely non-profit development hub that keeps those gears grinding with mostly voluntary efforts.
Social capital and networking
At this point, most of us have at least skimmed through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the hefty tome that touts civic participation and engagement as the slowly eroding bastion of western society. Whatever one might think of the gloomy predictions or political implications of Putnam’s work, his insights into social capital and the role it plays in local economies continue to echo throughout theory and practice. Volunteers are performing an important community-building function for others to benefit from, but they also benefit by expanding and diversifying their own social networks. A city with lots of volunteerism finds that spontaneous connectivity generates all kinds of benefits, such as a more egalitarian, diverse and accepting social structure, more trusting, connected neighbourhoods, and efficient economic advantages like reduced transaction costs and faster information dissemination.
Festivals and tourism
Last but certainly not least, volunteers are the bread and butter of their community’s festivals, and any town that has ever gotten a surge in tourism income thanks to a successful cultural event can never thank its volunteers enough. Sure, those volunteers probably get perks like free event access and maybe a pizza lunch, but the town is gaining much, much more. After all that press and attention, all those visitors spending on local products and services, and all those non-measurable social benefits like increased positive affect and stronger community ties, maybe it’s time to give your special event volunteers an extra high-five.
Volunteer Canada has done a lot of work on the subject of the economic value of volunteerism. Simple measures can assign a hypothetical hourly wage to volunteer work and then multiply that wage by the number of hours volunteered. This practice can help with soliciting more funding for the non-profits involved by demonstrating the community support and success of the initiative. But what this article looks to do is simply mention some of the hidden ways that volunteers make economic development that much smoother—for free. If you have a chance in the coming weeks, give a thought or two to the volunteers in your town. Consider ways to say thank you, to help them do their work better, to get more people in the community volunteering. The more you connect and communicate with these unsung extra-economic heroes, the better!
About the author
Meg Ronson is the editor of Higher ED, Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and Masters candidate of Economic Development and Innovation at University of Waterloo. Her research involves studying credit unions and co-operative businesses as potential tools for strengthening and diversifying local economies.
About the series
Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.
Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.
The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.