Closing Plenary of the United Way of Canada National Conference: The Future We Desire
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Calgary, Thursday, April 14, 2011
Good afternoon and thank you for your warm welcome on this last day of the United Way of Canada National Conference. It is especially gratifying to be here during National Volunteer Week to acknowledge the fine work that you do. You are dedicated Canadians who know the importance of volunteerism and who understand the impact that you have in your communities. You have made a difference and have helped people in need. For this, you deserve our gratitude.
My favourite quote is from George Bernard Shaw:
“Some people see things as they are and wonder why.
We dream of things that ought to be and ask why not.”
In 2017, our country will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, and I have been inviting Canadians to think about the future they desire. Will Canada be the smarter, more caring nation we know it can be? Will we still be a strong volunteer country? What is our vision of volunteerism in 2017?
It is important for us to ask these questions and to try to provide answers. The tomorrow we seek will be a result of the objectives we set for ourselves today. As theologian Gregory Baum once said: “An idea about the future enters in the consciousness of people and will therefore determine the kind of life in which they live.”
By envisioning the country we want, we are able to work towards the realization of our goals.
First, let us take stock of where we are today. Canada has the second strongest voluntary sector in the world. Each year, 12 million Canadians spend over two billion hours volunteering.
That is impressive.
But consider that over three quarters of those hours—over 1.5 billion hours—are worked by only seven per cent of those people. That is a very small margin of people taking on a large proportion of our volunteer time.
In that context, we can see that there are still improvements to be made.
A substantial shift is needed in our perception of volunteering. Right now, it is looked at as an extracurricular activity. But what if that perception were turned around; what if volunteerism were incorporated into our daily lives?
Already, people are making volunteering a way of life, finding ways to contribute to organizations on a regular basis. Some provinces have made volunteering mandatory for high school graduation, a way to introduce young people to that world and to show them the impact they can have. Workplaces are also becoming more involved in charities, allowing their employees time off to volunteer and contributing to and raising funds for campaigns.
Each year, for example, the Government of Canada’s Workplace Charitable Campaign raises millions of dollars for United Way and other charities. Hopefully, many other businesses will follow this lead and bring volunteering into the workplace.
We must also take the time—as parents, as siblings, as teachers, as a society—to ignite and hand over the flame of giving. Think of this exercise as the Olympic volunteer torch relay. By passing the flame from one torch to the next, by passing on the importance of giving from one generation, one community, to the next, we are ensuring that young people understand this vital part of our country.
In each instance, by promoting volunteerism and by encouraging a shift in our perception of it, we are creating a new age of volunteering in Canada, which will continue to strengthen a loyal and ongoing base of givers.
Some two decades ago, Mother Teresa came to Montréal. One of our neighbours, moved by her work with the poor in Calcutta, asked Mother Teresa how she could help. She replied: “Just look around you. In your own neighbourhood there is a family who needs your care and love.”
Shortly afterward, I read a criticism of Mother Teresa’s work. Her shelter in Calcutta gave succour to perhaps 200 people in a city where millions lived in abject poverty. Her work was described as one small drop in an ocean.
A few weeks later, I realized the shortcomings of this criticism. It was looking at her work from the point of view of physics, rather than chemistry.
My children, aged 2 to 9 at the time, would criticize the entertainment I was providing at their birthday parties. They would ask me, “Why can’t you do a magic show like Dean MacFarlane instead of telling us ghost stories that no one believes?”
At that time, Andy MacFarlane was the Dean of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, where I was the Dean of Law. Being quite competitive, I attended the next birthday party at the MacFarlane home, where Andy was dressed as a magician, with a long cape and flowing sleeves. He was performing a magic trick, turning water into wine. He took a glass of clear water, raised it in the air, and uttered that magic phrase, “Abracadabra!” He then swept the glass into his sleeves while whirling 360 degrees, surreptitiously adding a few drops of red vegetable dye into the glass, and emerged with a glass of a lovely rose-hued liquid.
At that moment, I realized that Mother Teresa was changing the culture of Calcutta, and indeed that of the world. It was the transformation of the water—not the addition to it—that was improving the lives of so many families.
That is the caring part, but let’s be smart about it as well.
As we shift our view of volunteering, so, too, must volunteer organizations change. It is essential that they recognize the needs of volunteers so that they are able to evolve to meet those needs. It is also important for them to be innovative in how they approach recruitment.
How will they succeed? In a recent study by Volunteer Canada, volunteers indicated that they want opportunities that offer them the chance to gain valuable experience and to work with others to achieve common goals. Modern volunteers want to challenge themselves to achieve new heights and to obtain new and varied skills. They want to make meaningful contributions to society and to feel part of a team, working together to improve this country and the world. Organizations need to recognize this desire and accommodate this changing view.
We live in a globalized and interconnected world that increasingly demands our time and attention. Over the past decade, new technologies have been evolving faster than ever; volunteer organizations must keep up to engage Canadians fully and to draw attention to important issues. Utilizing these tools is a way to grow both the volunteer base and fundraising capacity.
The recent disaster in Japan is a perfect example of this. Within moments of learning of the devastation, people across this country were raising money. There were the traditional methods of collecting donations over the phone, but Canadians were also able to use their mobile devices to text a donation.
Social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter created a call to action that reached around the world, spreading from person to person.
These viral campaigns may be the future of fundraising, not only because they are cost-effective, but also because they are a way for people to be personally involved and to spread a message in which they truly believe. The development of these online strategies also directly targets one of the most important groups of potential volunteers: youth.
Getting young people more involved in volunteering is necessary for the future. Many of Canada’s top volunteer leaders will soon retire, leaving behind a vacuum if their lifetime of skills and experiences are not passed on to a new generation of volunteers.
But although some schools and jurisdictions are making volunteering a prerequisite to graduate, it is up to volunteer-based organizations to hold students’ interest, so that they return on their own terms.
Consideration should also be given to attracting new Canadians to volunteer. Many newcomers to Canada already have a strong sense of volunteerism, ingrained through their culture. In fact, for many throughout the world, neighbour helping neighbour is a fact of life, including here in Canada.
My wife, Sharon, and I have spent many years in the Region of Waterloo in South-western Ontario. We’ve enjoyed our time exploring the many country roads, which twist and turn through places like St. Jacobs, Heidelberg, Winterbourne and New Hamburg. Many Mennonite farms dot the countryside along these winding roads.
Sometimes, as you make your way, you might be fortunate enough to witness a barn-raising: an extraordinary example of a community coming together to help someone in need. If you spend some time to watch, you’ll see men swinging from the rafters, hammers at the ready. You’ll see them straining together to lift and steady the barn’s massive beams. You’ll see women working together, quilting and preparing food to serve many. And you’ll see children mimicking their parents, anticipating the day when they step in and fulfill their responsibilities within the community.
The image of a barn-raising reminds me of what volunteers do within in their communities, what these new Canadians can offer to us and what we can aspire to. Volunteers “raise barns” every day. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder to achieve a common goal. And they develop innovative strategies to tackle new problems posed by a changing world.
And although newcomers often have to face language and cultural gaps, their passion for helping others should be recognized. We must ensure that we expose them to Canada’s own commitment to volunteerism.
They also want the opportunity to work as part of a team, to meet new people and to discover their new home. They want to work in an environment that celebrates diversity. And they want to gain a wide range of skills, including new language skills, which will help them to succeed in Canada.
By involving new Canadians, we are ensuring volunteering continuity between our current givers and those who will become leaders and contributors in the future. And because these newcomers often retain ties to their home country, opportunities arise for a global network of giving to foster a smarter and more caring world.
Through consideration of the needs of modern volunteers, clever uses of technology, and an understanding of future volunteer demographics, it is possible to sustain and even expand our reputation as one of the leading countries in giving.
There is one last thing I want to discuss with you today with regard to drawing in not only volunteers, but also donors: trust.
The Netherlands is the only country with a stronger volunteer sector than ours. There are a number of differences in how this sector has grown in our two countries—the influence of culture, language, history and attitudes being a few factors—but the one issue that drew my attention was that of trust.
Although our charitable organizations engender the trust of Canadians, the Netherlands has taken it one step further, promoting this trust in an official capacity for over 80 years.
The Central Bureau on Fundraising—the CBF—has not only monitored charities, as we do in this country, but also works to promote trust and to analyze fundraising trends to help these organizations. Those charities with the CBF seal of approval have been closely watched and vetted, and are therefore trusted by the public. As such, they are able to raise more money and attract more volunteers.
In Canada, volunteer organizations have built trust over the years—they, too, are being monitored and accredited by the government—but they must be willing to go further to promote this trust, with the public and with their own members.
Trust goes both ways, after all. The more trust and autonomy given to volunteers, the more they will feel confident in their abilities, and the more passion they will pour into their work. In turn, volunteers can trust that the organization has their own best interests at heart, while acting in the best interests of those in need.
Giving, as we know, always involves some measure of trust.
How can volunteer organizations better promote this trust to attract talented and dedicated Canadians to their cause? What lessons can be learned from the Netherlands and other nations? These are some of the questions I want to leave you with.
As you set your goals for the coming year and for the years to come, as we work towards the 150th anniversary of this country, I invite you to create your own “wish list” for volunteerism and philanthropy and to find new and innovative ways to create a smarter, more caring nation.
After all, Canadians have always imagined what can be and have worked hard to achieve it. We dream of new possibilities and set out to create them.