Report of the National Seniors Council on Volunteering Among Seniors and Positive and Active Aging

Suggestions for Action: Volunteering Among Seniors

One of the most important issues participants raised on the issue of volunteering among seniors was that the definition of volunteering is not universal. Indeed, some participants noted that the definition of volunteering can differ depending on cultural background. Many Canadians do not view their community and family activities as volunteering, but rather as part of their personal and civic responsibilities.

Recruitment of Volunteers

Senior Volunteers

At almost all of the roundtables, participants identified the recruitment of senior volunteers as a key challenge. Participants maintained that the recent economic crisis may make recruitment more difficult as many people may need to work longer to ensure sufficient retirement savings. They also noted that seniors who are experiencing low income, facing health challenges or who are socially isolated may also be particularly difficult to recruit. Participants indicated also that recruitment strategies that work with one population group or generation may not be effective with another and, as such, noted the importance of strategies that specifically target seniors.

In developing such strategies, the participants indicated that the easiest way to recruit senior volunteers is to approach them, noting that seniors are often overlooked in recruitment campaigns. Participants encouraged organizations to use locations where seniors tend to congregate, such as libraries and other public facilities, to raise awareness of local volunteer opportunities. Participants also noted that while some seniors are comfortable using information technology, others are not. This led participants to caution against focusing too much on the internet and other forms of information technology as a method of accessing seniors. The internet may not be a viable tool to recruiting those seniors for whom English or French is not their first language.

In spite of the proposals outlined above, the participants noted that not all older adults identify themselves as "seniors," and therefore, may not respond to volunteer initiatives that are framed as such. Similarly, they noted that seniors are not a homogenous group and, therefore, other factors, such as geographical location and cultural or ethnic background should be considered when developing a volunteer recruitment strategy.

Baby Boomer Volunteers

As Canada's population ages, a new generation of volunteers will need to take the place of today's senior volunteers, albeit in new and different ways. Baby boomers are a large but distinct demographic group. While their interests may be diverse, they tend to have more formal education than the current cohort of seniors and prefer flexible, episodic volunteering opportunities that use their professional skills, have identifiable outcomes and are personally meaningful and challenging. Baby boomers also do not identify with traditional images of older volunteers but rather see themselves as being more youthful and dynamic than their parents. Finally, baby boomers face a series of barriers to volunteering, including the deferral of retirement due to the recent economic crisis, as well as competing responsibilities, such as taking care of children and elderly parents.

As a result of these characteristics, boomers may prefer to volunteer in a way that differs from the preceding generation and may find that volunteer organizations might not have adequately adapted to this new volunteering reality. Recruiting baby boomer volunteers will therefore require significant consideration of the characteristics of this group. For example, as boomers are increasingly technologically literate, the use of the internet to engage boomers will likely be an effective tool to gain and maintain boomer volunteers.

Suggestion for Action

Support and promote initiatives that encourage baby boomer volunteering.

The Government of Canada could support the development of initiatives to encourage baby boomers to share their expertise as members of volunteer boards, by mentoring and coaching younger generations in work, family and life skills, or by mobilizing community action to tackle social issues.

Creating a Culture of Volunteering

In many of the regional roundtables, participants noted that creating a culture of volunteering is at the heart of efforts to boost participation and should form the backbone of any volunteer recruitment campaign. In some communities, organized religion and the church were important sources for volunteers; however, some participants noted that boomers appear to be less interested in volunteering for religious organizations. With fewer people involved in organized religion, the participants considered other ways to promote volunteering. Participants maintained that, to entrench volunteering as a key element of civic participation, volunteerism needs to be promoted and encouraged both at a young age and throughout people's lifespan. To support lifelong preparation for volunteering, some participants pointed to the success of programs that promote volunteering through the school curriculum as well as those that connect the generations.

Creating Rewarding and Interesting Volunteer Experiences for Seniors

During the roundtables, participants identified particular volunteer experiences that they believed would be rewarding and of interest to seniors. It was noted that seniors tend to be motivated to provide volunteer services to other seniors. Participants also noted that volunteering is a way to maintain social connections as one ages. Finally, intergenerational volunteer opportunities were also considered to be of value and of interest to seniors as they provide the opportunity to share wisdom and experience with other generations, as well as allow them to learn new things from those who are younger.

Suggestion for Action

Develop and implement a national social marketing campaign to promote volunteerism.

Based on participants' comments, the Council proposes developing and implementing a national social marketing campaign to promote volunteerism. This campaign would focus on the benefits of volunteering to both the volunteer and the community, and would target the private sector and individual Canadians. The campaign could also include segments to reach out to different population groups and cohorts, including baby boomers, Aboriginal people, new Canadians, members of ethnocultural minority communities, as well as those who currently do not consider themselves seniors. Elements of this campaign could include media advertising, an online portal, promotional contests and celebrations of successful or important seniors and near seniors.

Support for Seniors Who Volunteer

During roundtable discussions, supporting volunteers was considered to be a key factor in the recruitment and retention of seniors. The following describe areas that were identified as needing improvements to better support senior volunteers.


As with positive and active aging, transportation was identified as a key issue. Transportation to and from a volunteer placement can be a significant barrier to senior volunteering due to both costs and lack of access to either private or public transportation. Participants also noted that many seniors do not feel comfortable driving at certain times of the year due to factors such as inclement weather or lack of light.

Participants across the county called for strategies that facilitate transportation to and from volunteer placements including: reimbursing volunteers for their transportation costs; providing free transportation; and ensuring volunteer sites are conveniently and accessibly located. Participants also proposed the creation of volunteer opportunities that could be conducted from the home, so as to eliminate the need to travel outside the house.


Participants noted that seniors have different and changing levels of physical, mental and cognitive abilities. To encourage everyone—including those with disabilities—to volunteer, participants called for volunteer placements to be more made accessible to all and to be adaptive so as to meet the changing abilities, capacities and needs of more seniors.

Ensuring Placements are Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate

To both recruit and retain senior volunteers, volunteer placements must not only be adaptive to the cultural values and norms of the volunteer, but should also be provided in the volunteer's language of choice. As such, participants proposed that existing programs could be adapted to address the needs and interests of Aboriginal Canadians and ethnocultural minority groups.

Volunteer Costs

There are many costs associated with volunteering such as transportation, clothing and safety equipment appropriate to the volunteer activity, security checks and costs for respite care related to care giving responsibilities. To address these challenges, volunteer organizations should ensure that there are as few costs as possible associated with their volunteer work or that volunteers are reimbursed for their costs. This is particularly true for senior volunteers who experience low-income or are living on a fixed income.

Suggestion for Action

Implement a tax credit for volunteers that allows for a certain amount of money per year to be claimed for eligible volunteer expenses.

The Government has taken steps to reimburse the expenses of volunteers. The current guidelines of most federal grants and contributions programs allow not-for-profit organizations to reimburse volunteers for reasonable out-of-pocket expenses—such as transportation and other associated costs—required to achieve project objectives.

While this is a positive step for organizations that receive federal grants and contributions, there are many not-for-profit organizations that do not receive grants and cannot afford to reimburse their volunteers' expenses. The federal government should investigate the implications of a more universal program, such as providing a tax credit for volunteers. This would not only provide additional recognition for their contribution but would also reimburse volunteers, including seniors, for many of the hidden costs associated with volunteering.


To retain seniors who volunteer, participants noted the importance of recognition on an immediate and continuing basis. Ideas to provide such recognition included publicly commending senior volunteers through the local newspaper, holding volunteer appreciation days (local or national level) and providing tax credits for volunteer work (as noted above).

The Government of Canada currently has the following awards to recognize the work of Canadian volunteers. The Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award recognizes and promotes volunteerism by honouring two extraordinary Canadians annually who have demonstrated lifelong commitment to volunteering. In addition, the Governor General's Caring Canadian Award honours Canadians for voluntary activities, most often behind the scenes at the community level, and consists of a certificate and a lapel pin, which are presented to the recipients by the Governor General or by a delegate, such as a Lieutenant-Governor or a Territorial Commissioner.

Suggestion for Action

Create a prime ministerial award that recognizes the contributions of Canada's senior volunteers.

The National Seniors Council wishes to recognize the creation of the prime ministerial award for volunteerism announced in the March 3, 2010, Speech from the Throne. Consideration should be given to establishing a seniors' component for this award as an effective initiative to promote volunteerism.

Support for Organizations Using Volunteers

Not only do senior volunteers require support, but so do the organizations that provide the volunteer placements to senior volunteers. Participants noted the many different ways in which these organizations require support. These could include improvement of recruitment, management and awareness of volunteers. It could involve grants to improve and disseminate existing volunteer recruitment and management tools, capacity-building grants to not-for-profit organizations to improve their readiness to absorb and develop new recruits and a media awareness campaign to increase awareness among Canadians about the need for additional volunteers in the not-for-profit sector and to increase the supply of volunteers.

Volunteer Coordinators

Participants at most of the roundtables noted the importance of volunteer coordinators to recruit, train and support volunteers. Volunteer coordinators also assist in adapting volunteer work to the needs of the individual volunteers and match potential volunteers with the appropriate placement. To do their job effectively, volunteer coordinators require specific training and education. Unfortunately, many volunteer organizations do not have the financial or human resource capacity to either hire a volunteer coordinator or to provide this individual with the required support. Volunteer coordinators should be viewed as a critical business function for organizations so they can continue to recruit, retain and train the volunteers they need to achieve their organizational goals and mandate.

Volunteer Resource Agencies

Volunteer resource agencies were identified as being an important support and a valuable resource for organizations that use volunteers. The services that these agencies can provide include assistance in matching volunteers with placements, information on succession planning, capacity building, training and information on funding availability.

Funding for Organizations

Participants also noted the significant costs associated with recruiting, training and supporting volunteers for not-for-profit organizations. This led to calls for increased funding for volunteer organizations as well as changes to how funding is provided. In particular, participants called for more sustainable grants and contributions that go beyond the start-up phase, are not project-based, and last for more than one or two years.

Participants also maintained that reduced administrative burdens associated with grants and contributions would be an effective support to volunteer organizations as many work with limited human resources. This issue was raised in the March 3, 2010, Speech from the Throne, where the Government of Canada noted the difficulties that many grassroots organizations face when applying for or reporting on government funds. The Council supports the Government of Canada's pledge to ease the administrative burden on community partners so as to support their efforts to tackle local challenges.

Building Partnerships Among Key Social Players

To promote volunteering among seniors and near-seniors, participants called for the creation of innovative partnerships with key social players including communities, the not-for-profit sector and the private, for-profit sector.

Engaging Business or Corporate Sector

Throughout the roundtables, participants called for an increased role for the private, for-profit sector in the support of volunteering. In particular, they considered the types of incentives which could be put in place to encourage volunteering in the business sector.

The National Seniors Council members noted that they would be willing to meet with members of the business sector to facilitate corporate cooperation on volunteering among seniors.

Suggestion for Action

Work with key private sector partners to promote volunteering among Canadians.

As part of national campaign to promote volunteering, the Government of Canada could work private sector partners to highlight successful seniors and near-seniors to inspire Canadians to contribute their time to strengthen Canadian communities.

Research on Volunteering

The importance of research on the volunteer sector was identified as a key issue throughout the roundtables. In particular, participants noted the importance of researching the value of volunteering to the Canadian economy. Participants also called for increased research, data collection and analysis on volunteering in Aboriginal communities and in various ethnocultural minority populations. Finally, some recommended that existing data on volunteering be analyzed from a perspective that addresses gender, socio-economic status and ethnicity.

Suggestion for Action

Continue federal investments in research on volunteering.

Through the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating and the Satellite Account of Non-Profit Institutions and Volunteering, the Government supports and encourages ongoing work to develop relevant, timely and accurate data on volunteers and the not-for-profit sector's contribution to the lives of Canadians, their communities, and the economy.

Coordination of Volunteers in the Not-for-profit Sector

Participants noted that the not-for profit sector could function more efficiently and effectively if there was centralized coordination of volunteering at either the municipal or provincial level. As such, many participants called for the creation of a national strategic plan to support volunteering among seniors and to assist not-for-profit organizations to adapt to the aging population. Some participants called for the creation of standards and an accreditation process for not-for-profit organizations reliant on volunteers, while others cautioned against regulating the sector too heavily.

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