In the dimly lit Ocean Station at the Royal B.C. Museum, Andrew Hung pulls out drawers to reveal an astonishing variety of crab specimen.
“This is the most popular crab on Valentine’s Day — do you know why?” he asks, pointing out a small, spiky crab shaped like a heart. Passersby join in on the presentation. Nearby, Hung’s wife Yuli Hung Yeh has attracted a larger crowd as she points out various anemones in an aquarium.
This is the third exhibit the pair has been trained to interpret as volunteers.
“Ocean Station is the place that attracts us most because we can have more interaction with the visitors and that forces us to learn more because people give questions,” said Hung Yeh.
The pair of retired and semi-retired academics use their volunteer work as a form of social service. They also represent a growing cohort of baby boomers taking up volunteer work.
Co-ordinating their experience at the museum was Gail Miller, who retired from 20 years at the museum last week.
Over her career she’s seen a gradual shift among her volunteers from more women and working moms to more boomer volunteers keen to learn. She’s also seen a 10-fold increase in men willing to work with the public.
“We used to have one out of 400,” said Miller.
Volunteers these days require flexibility, she said. “Now, they want to go on a cruise in February.”
Training has also transitioned from a week-long course into smaller lessons and at-home reading.
It’s one of several shifts in the volunteer sector in recent years, some of which are directly related to the recession. As cash-strapped organizations deal with cuts to grants and dwindling donations, they’re relying more heavily on an unpaid expertise. At the same time, volunteers are stepping up in bigger numbers — but with a different idea about commitment.
A knock at the door interrupts Brent Donovan in his office at the Mustard Seed. It’s one of his volunteers, come to retrieve a jacket.
“Call me in the morning if you need me — I don’t have an alarm,” said the 17 year old, who is avoiding the criminal justice system through community service.
“Come in at 9 a.m.,” Donovan renegotiates. “If I don’t see you by noon, I’ll call.”
These so-called “floaters,” who show up and get assigned as needed, add to Donovan’s core group of 100 regular, scheduled volunteers.
“They’re piling up in all directions,” said Donovan. “My job is to get out there and generate interest (in volunteering), and there’s just no need for that.”
Recently, corporate or school groups started showing up regularly for a one-day work blitz. Donovan puts them to work painting, cleaning, or sorting. “They come in wide-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he said. “It’s a riot, because when they’re done they want to take pictures … and hand out T-shirts. They make a big day of it.”
In the past, one or two groups would show up each year. Now, about 30 groups come.
“People are looking for those high-impact opportunities to make a difference, but they don’t want to be connected to an agency for five years,” explains Lori Elder of Volunteer Victoria.
This desire for short-term, project-specific work contrasts the older generation’s expectations, she said. “They (seniors) volunteered out of a moral imperative, which is wonderful, and they’re very happy doing some of the things that agencies would need on an ongoing basis — the admin work, that sort of thing.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Victoria is also seeing more, but different volunteers walk through the door.
“I think that’s maybe the result of the employment climate,” said executive director, Rhonda Brown.
Since suffering grant cuts, the organization has moved to a volunteer, rather than paid receptionist.
It’s been a blessing and a challenge for the organization.
“Some of the challenges can be around turnover. It’s difficult for some people to make a longer-term commitment,” Brown said. Unlike volunteer big brothers or sisters who may commit for life, volunteer receptionists are more likely to come for a few months.
“It’s a change for us as an organization to be in that place of really being the trainer all the time,” she said.
Brown is also reaching out to volunteers to offer their expertise in a number of fields, such as finance and risk-management. Many of Victoria’s 1,000 charities are doing the same — and that’s where many baby boomers fit in.
About two years ago, Gord Warrenchuk figured he’d earned enough money in his life. Instead of ending his career as a computer database specialist, however, he just started doing it for free.
“I really like my job,” he said at his home office in James Bay. Doing it as a volunteer lets him do what he loves without the bureaucracy that came with much of his paid work.
The lover of puzzles lights up as he navigates the database he built for the Conquer Cancer Classic Golf Tournament.
“They had these two old guys, in their 80s and 90s, that knew how to take all these 150 golfers … and mix and match them onto teams (according to several rules),” said Warrenchuk. “This was all done manually … and they were the only guys who knew how to do it.”
Now volunteers can enter information about each participant, and the computer will spit out teams that balance golfers’ skill levels, ensuring players from the same home course don’t play together, and that those requiring carts are paired off.
“This is one of the most complicated pieces of software I’ve ever written,” said Warrenchuck. “It’s a masterpiece.”
The database is also one of 20 he’s created or tweaked for charitable agencies in Victoria.
It’s these newly-retired that the Victoria Foundation set out to capture, starting in 2008 when the economy collapsed.
“We called this our ‘more than money’ campaign,” said executive director Sandra Richardson. A survey of agencies pointed to a need for guidance in governance, communication, grant writing and other areas.
Now, the foundation has a team of 40 volunteer advisors.
“It’s just like a bit of a match-making game,” said Richardson.
Volunteer Victoria has a similar initiative, called its Retired Leaders program. Its team of 12 embarks on seven projects per year.
“We’re really wanting to catch those boomers and newly-retired people before they get so entrenched in other things,” said Elder. “We need their skills, their education, their ideas.”
Giving back, Gen Y style
Once a week, a friend swings by to pick Kaila Anderson up for their 7:30 a.m. shift at the Royal Jubilee Hospital.
There, Anderson volunteers in the renal dialysis ward until 10.a.m. before starting her day as a business student at Camosun College.
She chose this ward among many options because it offers a better connection with the patients.
“There’s this one guy — he always makes my day because he really likes to talk … He’s told me a bunch of jokes,” said Anderson.
At 19 years old, Anderson belongs to the generation with the highest volunteering rates in Canada. According to the 2007 survey by Statistics Canada, 58 per cent of people aged 15 through 24 volunteer, compared to only 46 per cent of the general population.
It’s also a generation with a specific set of expectations, inclinations and talents, which make them a hot commodity for some volunteer-driven agencies.
“Their optimism, confidence, strong morals and sense of civic duty make them very successful volunteers,” wrote Kathy Nies, manager of volunteer resources for the Royal Jubilee, in an email to the news. The hospital has 412 volunteers, 38 per cent of which are Generation Y, meaning born between 1981 and 2000.
“I love working with these bright, young, enthusiastic volunteers,” Nies said.
They are tech savvy and receptive to new ideas, but are also looking for a flexible schedule, and a level of responsibility and respect, she writes.
And that meant adapting positions at the hospital to attract and retain these bright young minds.
In a report Nies penned called Gen Y Volunteers, she outlined her strategy. It includes a greater reliance on the web, including the ability to schedule an orientation session via email, and to fill out a feedback survey online. Also, more experienced volunteers help to train new ones — a task which young volunteers are happy to have appear in letters of reference for future job opportunities.
According to Volunteer Victoria’s Lori Elder, more youth are volunteering, but they give less time per person.
“This is a challenge for the non-profit sector who have relied on these elder seniors to do more of the traditional types of volunteering on a more frequent basis,” she said.
Volunteer Victoria reaches out to potential volunteers and helps agencies tailor their positions to meet volunteers’ needs.
The organization’s Youth Volunteer Connections Program works with youth ages of 15 to 29 to promote volunteerism as a lifestyle choice. In 2010, it presented to over 1,000 youth. As a result, 400 followed up with inquiries of interest, 100 more than in 2009, said Elder.