How do governments support volunteerism?

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Since hosting the 2010 Olympics, all levels of government have showed renewed interest in volunteerism. Locally and nationally, our elected representatives are convening conversations, seeking recommendations, and considering how to protect and encourage this valuable "natural resource."

We suggest they could begin by asking a fundamentally different question. It would be far more productive to consider "how can we increase the impact of volunteers, not-for-profit organizations, and the sector as a whole?" Not surprisingly, once we begin to consider the right question, the answer appears much more quickly.

The plain truth is this: organizations require both infrastructure and administration to meaningfully engage volunteers. Organizations must have strong leadership in order to create and maintain outstanding hubs of community engagement. A focus on paid people resources is essential for leaders to create meaningful opportunities, and effectively engage not-paid-with-money people in many ways. Indeed, the Olympics had significant resources to support their team of "blue jackets" — and just look at the impact they had!

And yet, in Canada and North America we have created a culture that undermines the creation of strong not-for-profit organizations. We demand all of our contributions/donations/funding go directly to the recipient. We denounce organizations who direct any donated dollars to infrastructure.  We view "administrative costs" as wasteful.

Governments — even those who state they want to support volunteers — strengthen this attitude by insisting administrative costs must be low. Ten percent of operating budget is what government now wants. How possible is that? This benchmark is fundamentally opposed to the goal of creating strong organizations that can engage passionate, skilled, talented people!

Yes, governments have a responsibility to ensure that organizations are accountable.  But low administrative costs do not necessarily equal effective organizations.  Quite often, it is just the opposite. In fact, a large group of thinkers (such as Dan Pallota, author of Uncharitable) are arguing for a very different viewpoint. We hope this perspective will begin to take hold.

So, what is our recommendation? Focus on the relationship between infrastructure and impact.  During the past 67 years, we have learned the organizations that have strength in their structure — and in their people — can have large impact. They can make big differences in community.  Isn't that what we are all seeking?

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