“So much hinges on the ability to read – self-respect, access to information or simply the enjoyment of the beauty of our written language. To help someone to achieve any of these is rewarding indeed.” (A literacy volunteer)
Volunteers have been a critical part of the Ontario literacy field since the beginning of the literacy movement in this province. Starting with Frontier College in 1899, literacy organizations have been tutoring adults in communities large and small throughout Ontario for over 100 years. Literacy volunteers were important all those many years ago, and they are still an integral part of many literacy organizations in Ontario today.
According to statistics gathered from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) via its Information Management System (IMS), in 2003/04, there was an annual average of 4,854 literacy volunteers in Ontario (all sectors and streams). In total, these volunteers contributed 314,476 hours of their time.
In January 2005, Community Literacy of Ontario conducted a “Volunteers Value Added” survey. Fifty-three literacy agencies and 204 literacy volunteers throughout Ontario responded to this important survey. The “Volunteers Value Added” research report and the accompanying volunteer management tool kit will be circulated to community literacy agencies and literacy networks in early fall 2005. We are weaving some of the important trends from this survey throughout this training module. CLO’s survey found that, on average, each community literacy agency in Ontario has 3.4 paid staff and 57 volunteers.
The majority of literacy volunteers tutor adult learners. One-to-one or in small groups, they help students with reading, writing and numeracy. However, volunteers are involved in a wide variety of other tasks as well:
- Board governance
- Committee work
- Office work
- Special events
- Computer support
So what benefits do volunteers bring to literacy agencies? Firstly, volunteers provide an incredible economic benefit. Research conducted by Community Literacy of Ontario in 1998 found that volunteers in Ontario’s community literacy agencies contribute an estimated annual total of $8.9 million in volunteer time to the province’s training system. This statistic is currently being updated by CLO but is not yet available. Volunteers further contribute a variety of “out-of-pocket” expenses such as travel costs, childcare, purchase of materials and books, etc.
However, in addition to their direct economic value, volunteers also bring the following incalculable benefits to literacy agencies:
- Increased profile in the community
- Credibility and trust
- Community ownership and involvement
- Community linkages and support
- Diversity of skills and knowledge
- Diversity of opinions and views
- A personalized approach to literacy instruction
- Wider access to community resources
- Wider access to human resources
- Dedication and commitment to literacy and literacy students
In its 2005 volunteer survey Community Literacy of Ontario asked volunteers themselves what value they brought to literacy. The response from volunteers included:
- A strong commitment to learners
- Empathy, patience and understanding
- Education, experience and enthusiasm
- Teaching skills
- An eagerness to help
- Community knowledge and contacts
- A willingness to contribute positively to the community
- Business and marketing experience
- Management and leadership skills
- Fundraising and special events experience
- Finance and accounting skills
- A love of reading
The majority of Ontario’s literacy volunteers report a high level of satisfaction with their work. It is good news indeed that 54% of literacy volunteers were “very satisfied” and 33% were “mostly satisfied” with their experience. As well, 89% of literacy volunteers believe that their literacy agency is making the most of their time and skills. They are however busy people; in fact, 56% of literacy volunteers also volunteer with other organizations.
The single most important reason for volunteering expressed by literacy volunteers was to make a difference in another person’s life. (Source: CLO’s Volunteer Survey, 2005).
We will end this section by telling you a bit about the wide world of volunteering. In Canada, volunteers are an important and dynamic force. The National Survey of Giving and Participating found that in the year 2000, 27% of Canadians volunteered (or 6.5 million volunteers). Collectively, these volunteers contributed one billion hours, or the equivalent of 549,000 jobs.
The National Survey of Giving and Participating also revealed that the number of volunteers in Canada is in decline. There was a decline of one million volunteers between 1997 and 2000. The reason most often cited is a lack of time. This suggests that many people are not unwilling to volunteer; their busy lives just preclude it. Most volunteer hours came from a small group of highly committed volunteers. In fact, 34% of all volunteer hours came from 5% of volunteers. Most volunteers donated their time because they wanted to help a cause they believe in. (Source: The National Survey of Giving and Participating –www.nsgvp.org).
Many of the changes being experienced nationally are reflected back here in the Ontario literacy community. Changes experienced by many community literacy agencies in this province include:
- Increased volunteer burn-out and time pressure
- More difficulty in attracting volunteers
- Different reasons for volunteering than previously (i.e. work experience, skill development, placements for school or program, etc.)
- Increased liability and risk management issues
- More volunteers who are only able to commit to specific, short-term tasks in the organization
- Increased competition for volunteers among various community agencies
- Increased use of technology
For more information on Ontario’s literacy volunteers, please visit CLO’s Literacy Volunteers Value Added website at:www.nald.ca/literacyvolunteers/. For provincial information on volunteers in general, please visit the website of the Ontario Network of the Canada Volunteerism Initiative at: www.pavro.on.ca/ocvi/.
Questions and Activities for Reflection
- In your opinion, what special value do volunteers bring to your literacy agency?
- Ask five volunteers what special value they think they bring to literacy. Are the volunteers’ and your responses similar?
- In what way do the national volunteer trends reflect what is happening at your agency?