A 2018, pre-Covid Statistics Canada survey concluded that some 24 million Canadians volunteered in some capacity that year. These 79 percent of Canadians aged 15 and older dedicated five billion hours, the equivalent of two-and-a-half million full-time jobs, to formal and informal volunteer activities.

These are startlingly large numbers which illustrate the enormous variety of options available when we consider becoming a volunteer.

Many choose formal volunteering, donating time that is coordinated through organizations such as charities and non-profits, including schools, religious groups, sports teams and community associations. Formal volunteering usually involves longer-term commitments which assist groups to deliver consistent services and programs such as hospital-related services, educational support and volunteer firefighting.

Others prefer informal volunteering, offering direct help to individuals or contributing to community improvements not involving organizations. Examples would be shovelling a neighbours walk, helping a friend or neighbour with language skills, picking up garbage in the neighbourhood, etc. More than 60 percent of informal volunteer hours claimed go to assisting relatives outside the household with tasks such as cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping and personal support. Informal volunteering can also fill temporary community needs such as during floods or other disasters.

In Canada, the iGen (born after 1995) age group is the most likely demographic to volunteer in both the formal and informal sectors, but will spend the least amount of hours per year doing so. Mature Canadians (for the survey, those born between 1918 and 1945) are the least likely to volunteer, but will give significantly more hours per year when they do.

Fifty-two percent of iGens volunteer formally versus 32 percent of Matures, but iGens deliver only 82 hours per year compared to 222 for the oldest volunteers. Millennials (born 1981-95), Gen-Xers (1980-1996), and Baby Boomers (1946-1965) fall in between for participation rates, but hours donated to formal volunteering increase with age.

Informally, 78 percent of iGens volunteer versus 58 percent of Matures, spending 99 hours compared to the 170 Matures give annually. When volunteering informally, the percentage of people who enlist decreases with age, yet Baby Boomers give the most hours overall at 186.

At all ages, women are more likely to volunteer than men, 44 percent to 38 percent.

As volunteers, we hope to influence our community and world in a positive manner, improve the lives of people and animals that need our help, and generally do things that benefit others in a selfless manner. Simply stated, we hope to make a positive difference and give something back.

Many of us understand that as volunteers significant benefits accrue to us too, including social, emotional, and physical experiences and opportunities that will enhance our lives.

The demographic data mentioned above indicates that why and how we choose to volunteer reflects diverse motivators.

For younger people, teenagers to 20-somethings, performing volunteer service may be mandatory, either as a requirement for graduating school or as an employee in certain jobs and professions. Improving one’s resume, learning responsibility, help in discovering what you might want to do with your life, advancing a political or environmental cause, perhaps even converting your volunteer job into a permanent one are all offered as potential benefits iGens may expect from volunteering.

Many of us understand that as volunteers significant benefits accrue to us too

Better social skills, increased confidence, discovering empathy for others, and learning how to contribute to a group can increase your personal performance in the eyes of an employer. When volunteer opportunities expand to placements abroad, the exploration of new cultures and expansion of one’s world view can be added to the benefits of volunteering.

Millennials and Gen-Xers volunteer at a rate slightly less than iGens. Studies indicate the benefits this demographic group might gain from volunteer work differ from those of other age groups.

Networking, either through joining a strong charitable or community organization and meeting new people, or organizing a group yourself around a cause or specific need, is a frequent benefit cited by this age group. We build stronger friendships and better connections with those whom we share common, altruistic goals and interests.

A volunteer “job” may be more fulfilling and satisfying than one’s day-to-day employment, and being genuinely appreciated by those you assist can calm workday stress levels. You may be able to advance a cause or work with a group important to you that wouldn’t be a match for your work environment, and become more highly self-motivated as a result.

Volunteer positions in coaching and school or youth organizations can increase involvement with your own kids, and significantly improve your understanding of their world and the things that are important or problematic to them.

In a world of desk jobs and computers, well-chosen volunteer opportunities can improve your fitness and cardiovascular health. Back pain, obesity, stress and disease can result from our sedentary lifestyle. Stacking shelves at a food bank, collecting trash from a road, working at an animal shelter, or leading Pilates routines with elderly nursing home patients may not be intense exercise, but it’s better than sitting on a couch. Helping with kids’ sports or volunteering at a provincial park would be even more active.

Corporate culture is evolving. Businesses of all sizes are being driven to demonstrate—or appear to demonstrate for cynical onlookers—social responsibility in diverse areas to satisfy shareholders, regulators, and retain employees. Experience at many types of volunteer work reflects the civic-mindedness and service ethic that is becoming increasingly in demand by employers.

Boomers and Matures enjoy a wide range of age-related rewards from volunteering.

Physical and mental health benefits loom large for this group. A study in “The Journal of Gerontology,” published in the U.S. by the Society of Gerontologists, noted that older women who volunteered in elementary classrooms, “Boosted their metabolism to where they were burning twice as many calories,” as non-volunteers, reducing blood pressure and improving brain elasticity.

In many ways, volunteering leads to successful aging. Increased socializing, engaging with others for a common purpose, and general intellectual stimulation are important to aging with a positive outlook. These meaningful connections are known to stabilize emotions, make us feel younger and reduce stress and disease.

Boomers and Matures claim renewed personal growth as an important reason to volunteer, reflecting an extremely positive approach to aging. Developing unexpected new interests and skills while helping others, using talents you already have to improve another’s life, or ultimately realizing long-held community goals can be intensely satisfying and lots of fun.

There are a few potential risks to volunteering, and knowing them in advance can help ensure a proper fit.

If you choose to join or volunteer for an organization, be sure to understand their expectations, especially the time commitment they anticipate you to make. Many volunteer positions include a significant workload, which for some is desirable, and for others is beyond their schedule or capacity. Know that any capable volunteer will always be asked to add to their responsibilities.

Volunteering can be expensive. You may begin to cover the costs of local travel, donating supplies, special clothing, and small fees here and there yourself. It will soon add up.

It is possible that emotional attachments made while doing certain volunteer work can be stressful and create anxiety. Working with animals, disadvantaged kids and adults, hospital patients and other similar groups regularly can take a toll on volunteers and their families. Be sure you can cope.

Don’t get scammed. There are dishonest folks out there that profit significantly from their charities or volunteer organizations. Check their reviews, know where your time and their money is going, and speak with others that have volunteered with them previously before joining.

“Human Resources Impact of Covid-19 on Canadian Charities and Nonprofits,” a report published in February 2021 by Charity Village and The Portage Group, indicated that 64 percent of Canadian charitable organizations had lost volunteers during the first year of the pandemic. Most experienced a decrease in volunteer numbers of more than 30 percent, with a quarter of organizations losing more than 75 percent of their volunteers.

Although most of these organizations are recovering slowly, and volunteers are cautiously returning, if you are not now a volunteer, there will never be a better time than today to discover if it is for you.