Volunteers do it for free?

Choosing a near-and-dear cause to support - and why it's hard to give back more than you get.

A voice from the past often dictates what we do and how we behave. My voice from the past is my Auntie Tib's - she had a big influence on me. Good table manners, eating green veggies, educational pursuits, assuming responsibility, and respect for all living things were high on her list of teachings. And perhaps most importantly, "give more than you get" was one of her core values.

Giving or volunteering means different things to different people. Some give money to causes they support; others give time. In fact, volunteering appears to be a priority with Canadians. In a 2007 report, Statistics Canada deemed that slightly less than half the population over the age of 15 give their time to sports and recreation, social services, education, research, and religious matters. Asked why they volunteered, people frequently cited contributing to a community, using their skills and experiences, and having a personal connection to a cause.

Many factors influence volunteerism. Those identified by researchers include education, household income, civic involvement, experiences as a youth, parental attitudes, presence of dependent children, religion, and residence in small communities. Curiously, people of British-French ancestry are more likely to volunteer than any other ethnic group - our Atlantic Provinces abound with people of that mix!

Long ago I chose protecting wildlife and the environment as my way of returning gifts given to me. It was not only giving - it was giving back. My mother always told me that somewhere in the great beyond is a Good Book where stars are balanced with black marks. Perhaps my volunteer work has offset my lifetime sins of omission and commission!

A significant number of people in our region focus on the Atlantic salmon, and there are parallels between that noble fish and us. Spawned locally, both Easterner and fish navigate to western or northern climes for a while - and then return to home pools. After the return and subsequent spawning, the next generation repeats the cycle.

Sometimes there are barriers that prevent the return. It isn't always easy to overcome the lure of money or a potential partner out West, just as it isn't easy for a salmon to escape the lure of a human or animal predator enroute home. Threats abound!

We have two major non-profit Atlantic salmon organizations: The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) and the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation (ASCF). With a staff of more than 30, ASF focuses on research into the causes of salmon disappearing, and what can be done to mitigate the disappearance, as well as keeping everyone informed about various salmon-related issues. The ASF consists of regional organizations with local volunteers; fundraising is critical to the survival of the research, the federation and the fish.

The major purpose of ASCF, on the other hand, is to help community groups with Atlantic salmon conservation efforts in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.The federal government has provided $30 million to establish an endowment fund; local organizations in each of the five provinces apply for financial support, they expand the vision beyond their own boundaries, they get the money and then do the work.

The beauty of the foundation is that, apart from one salaried staff member (soon to be two), the entire operation is supported by volunteers. In 2009, there were 51 non-profit proponents and approximately 140 partners interested in protecting salmon habitat. And each proponent and partner has a long list of volunteers ready to help. This way the two-friends-tell-two-friends principle takes effect. The more the merrier in this effort!

I became involved in ASCF, which began operation in 2007, largely because it embraced my values and those criteria instilled by my auntie: protecting wildlife and the environment, and giving more than getting. I was also attracted by the fact that aboriginals partner with non-profit organizations. We have so much to learn from each other.

Some volunteers are the worker bees; they roll up their sleeves and get dirty in the rivers and streams; they heave boulders and propagate plants. Others are behind the scenes, supporting and encouraging the workers. People like Jim Lawley and Ben McCrea in Nova Scotia give of their largesse in many ways to keep the activity alive. They not only give money, they give their own time, as well as time at their salmon lodges to raise funds for fish project purposes. I wonder if they recognize how much they are appreciated.

Some argue that people working in salmon conservation are involved only to sustain populations in order to be able to fish recreationally. Not so! Yes, we do flyfish, but very few of us keep the fish we catch. Reporting the numbers of fish that we hook and release helps researchers with their work.

Do you volunteer your time and skills for any purpose? If so, do you know why? Were you encouraged as a youngster to give to an organization or a cause? Did your parents get involved in community or church activities? Did you want to meet new people? Do some of your friends volunteer for the same organization? Do you hope to get a job through your volunteer work? Is it to fulfill a religious obligation?

These are some of the reasons people volunteer according to Stats Canada's 2007 study. The report also states that those aged 15 to 24 years are the most likely to help others; seniors were least likely to do so - the likelihood of helping others decreases with age. This statement seems to conflict with my own experience. I sit around boardroom tables with fellow graying and balding heads. But there is hope - the projects funded by ASCF involve young volunteers in stream rehabilitation. If the predictors are accurate, this effort will prepare them to give of their time and expertise later on, and we can retire. The human life cycle continues, just like the life cycle of the Atlantic salmon.

When it comes to volunteering, it's increasingly difficult for me to heed my auntie's advice to give back more than I get. After all, I get pleasure, companionship, friendship, respect for the noble fish, greater understanding of the environment, and oh, so much more. I get so much!