Voluntary Sector

Figure VS-1. Primary activity areas of nonprofit and voluntary organizations, Saskatchewan, 2003.
Canadian Plains Research Center
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The voluntary sector is as old as Saskatchewan itself: its roots can be traced back to the beginning of the 1900s. The voluntary sector is made up of what are commonly known in Saskatchewan as community-based organizations (CBOs). Today there are at least 8,000 such organizations in the province. They include a diversity of organizations such as historical and heritage associations, day care centres, sports and recreation clubs, art and culture organizations, social clubs, universities, hospitals, food banks and hot meal programs, environmental groups, trade associations, places of worship, advocates for social justice, and groups that raise funds to cure diseases (see Figure VS-1). Some would include co-operatives and community economic development organizations in their work on the voluntary sector, but these are not included here.

In provinces and territories across Canada and internationally, there are many different labels for the voluntary sector, such as: charitable or philanthropic organizations, nonprofit organizations, non-government organizations (NGOs), solidarity organizations, social economy, third sector, and civil society organizations. The voluntary sector is viewed as one of four sectors that provide services or programs to people; the others include the government sector, the private sector, and the informal sector, which includes family and friends. For example, a recreation program like a teen basketball program may be organized through a municipal government recreation department, a voluntary sector neighbourhood association, an exclusive private club for the elite, or it may take place when friends and family meet during certain nights of the week at a local school to play a game.

Through their voluntary sector initiatives, both the federal and Saskatchewan governments define this sector. It “consists of organizations that exist to serve a public benefit, are self governing, do not distribute profits to members, and depend to a meaningful degree on volunteers. Membership or involvement in these organizations is not compulsory, and they are independent of, and institutionally distinct from, the formal structures of government and the private sector. Although many voluntary sector organizations rely on paid staff to carry out their work, all depend on volunteers, at least on their boards of directors.” It is generally acknowledged that the voluntary sector is not a unified sector with clearly defined boundaries; there appear to be five generally accepted key characteristics which set it apart from the government, private, and informal sectors. First, the voluntary sector is characterized by independence and autonomy from governments; however, there may be a funding relationship and corresponding expectations. Second, there is a central role for volunteers to donate their time and talents; volunteers receive no remuneration for the work they do at CBOs. Third, these organizations are non-profit-distributing in that their financial resources and assets are not owned by anyone (e.g., there are no shareholders). Fourth, voluntary sector organizations are self-governing, with their own internal structures and degree of organizational permanence, in order that they may regulate their own activities through internal democratic processes involving one vote per person. Fifth, many of these organizations are formally incorporated or registered under specific legislation with provincial, territorial or federal governments.

Saskatchewan persists in having one of the highest per capita CBO rates when compared with other provinces and territories across Canada. In 2004, a national study revealed that it had an estimated 8,000 voluntary organizations; this is about 800 organizations per 100,000 people. This places Saskatchewan in second place when compared to other provinces: it is surpassed only by the territories, with 825 organizations per 100,000 people. The national average is about 500 organizations per 100,000 people. Some of these organizations are formally registered as charities with the federal government, and governed by the Income Tax Act as well as the regulations of the Canada Revenue Agency. Others are registered as nonprofits with the province of Saskatchewan, Corporations Branch, and are governed by the Nonprofit Corporations Act. Some may register as nonprofits with the federal government. It is worth noting that some organizations register as charities as well as nonprofits. The number of community-based organizations formally registered with the provincial government as nonprofits and/or with the federal government as charities has increased steadily over the past forty years in both Saskatchewan and across Canada.

There is another group of organizations in Saskatchewan which are not registered as either a charity or a nonprofit. Some of these are new organizations which are just organizing themselves, while others have been around for many years and have made a conscious decision to not register their organizations. It appears that no one knows for sure how many of these types of organizations exist in Saskatchewan—or across Canada. Voluntary sector organizations exist in rural and urban communities as well as southern and northern areas of Saskatchewan. Recent studies show that volunteer participation rates are higher in rural areas of the province; one study showed that Saskatchewan’s rural volunteer rate was 42%, yet the national volunteer rate for the same year was only 33%. This tendency for Saskatchewan’s rural and small communities to have more volunteers and CBOs than their urban counterparts has been noted by a number of rural researchers.

To better understand the impact these 8,000 CBOs have on our society, it is useful to group them by the nature of their work. The following categories were adopted for a nationwide Canadian study in 2004: arts and culture, sports and recreation, education and research, universities and colleges, health, hospitals, social services, environment, development and housing, law and advocacy, grant-making and fund raising including voluntarism promotion, international, religion, and finally, business and professional associations, and unions. In Saskatchewan in 2003, 26% of all CBOs fell into the religion category; 24% fell into the sports and recreation category; and 10% were in the arts and culture category. In each of these instances, Saskatchewan was above the national average. Within each of these categories, CBOs may adopt a variety of functions. They may provide services or programs (e.g., offer a sports program for children who live in poverty, or provide counseling for people with a mental health problem); they may engage in research or fund-raising activities; they may have a focus on regulating practitioners active in the field (e.g., social workers); they may engage in advocacy work to change government policies and gain better access to services for people they serve; and finally, they may be involved in community-building activities including citizen engagement and social networking, so that no one is excluded from activities in their communities. Some voluntary sector organizations do a number of these functions simultaneously.

Volunteers form the backbone of voluntary organizations. Since 1997, Saskatchewan has placed first among all provinces and territories for its high voluntarism rate. In a national study in the year 2000, 42% of Saskatchewan residents over the age of 15 volunteered their time; this was the highest percentage across Canada. The national average volunteerism rate for that same year was 27%. Voluntary organizations receive funding from a number of sources in order to provide programs and services to their members or the general public. Each organization has a different blend of funding from governments, fund raising, fee for service, and donations from corporations and individuals. Financial donations to charities constitute a critical element of survival for some organizations. Since 1995, Saskatchewan has placed in the top three provinces/territories for the rate of tax-filers who donated money to charities; in 2001 the tax-filer donor rate was 27%, with an average donation of $270.

A historical glimpse of Saskatchewan CBOs affords one an interesting picture. A century ago, volunteers played a significant role in many organizations because many CBOs did not have any paid staff; in particular, there was a heavy reliance on women as volunteers. Organizations formed to respond to the needs and issues of the day. Some of the earliest community-based organizations to emerge were inspired by the active involvement of people who were members of churches or ethnic groups; men’s and women’s church auxiliaries were especially prolific. Other early CBOs in Saskatchewan included: the YWCA Travellers’ Aid Department, which helped immigrants; the Victorian Order of Nurses, which delivered home-based nursing services; the Midwives at Little Pine Reserve, who regularly helped deliver babies; the Saskatchewan Anti-Tuberculosis League; the Women’s Grain Growers’ Association; the Homemakers’ Clubs of Saskatchewan, which worked to increase awareness of the need for social reforms; the Canadian Red Cross; the Bureau of Public Welfare; the older First Nations women, who volunteered to teach young girls to bead; and the North Gate Junior Red Cross Society, with eleven children as members.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the face of the voluntary sector changed because of the devastating economic climate and the drought on the prairies. A number of voluntary sector organizations began working with governments to serve the needs of people who found themselves without any source of income—for example the United Hebrew Relief, Salvation Army, Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association, War Veterans Associations, and Children’s Aid Society. Other groups were not restricted to income assistance, for example the Girl Guides and Canadian Girls in Training, Boy Scouts, YMCA, Community Chest (now known as the United Way), Kiwanis Clubs, Society for Crippled Children, and 4H Clubs for children and teens.

In the 1950s and 1960s, nursing homes for seniors as well as homes for the developmentally disabled adult population emerged. The National Committee on Mental Hygiene became the Canadian Mental Health Association in Saskatchewan. The Lac la Ronge Workshop was administered by a volunteer board of directors, and focused on training and employment for First Nations and Métis peoples. Fraternal groups such as Freemasons and Shriners existed in many communities.

During the 1970s and 1980s many of these voluntary sector organizations continued to exist; some shifted their foci; and a few others closed their doors. In the early 1970s the Saskatchewan Native Women’s Association was formally established. Emergency shelters for women and children fleeing abusive homes increased in numbers. There was an increase in the number of food banks and meal programs provided by “soup kitchens”; many of these began in places of worship or in community centres. There were also multicultural centres, child care programs, community reintegration programs offered by the Elizabeth Fry Society and John Howard Society, community mental health clinics, employment supports programs, legal aid, sports groups including those for disabled athletes and Special Olympics, leisure clubs, craft clubs (e.g., quilting), animal protection agencies, and parent-teacher associations.

With the major restructuring of government social and health programs in the 1980s and 1990s, including shifts in funding, the voluntary sector struggled. In 2000, the federal government’s Voluntary Sector Initiative, a multi-year/multi-million dollar/multi-partner initiative, began to explore a number of critical issues facing the voluntary sector. These included accountability, funding, advocacy and liability issues for volunteers. In 2002, the office of the Premier of Saskatchewan released a document which spoke specifically to the value of community-based organizations and the need to create healthy relationships between the provincial government and CBOs.

The United Nations proclaimed 2001 as International Year of the Volunteer (IYV). This proclamation pointed to the growing awareness of the importance of volunteers in society. First, their primary role has always been as volunteer members of boards of directors: the boards of directors of CBOs are responsible for developing and overseeing the fiscal, human resource, administrative, management, and policy directions of their organizations. Second, volunteers are involved in service and program delivery: for example volunteers run sports programs, deliver meals on wheels to isolated elderly people, and engage in historical research on cultural phenomena. In Saskatchewan, during IYV, the province developed the Saskatchewan Volunteer Pin program and enhanced the Saskatchewan Volunteer Medal program. In general, over the past twenty years we have seen the evolution of a number of new groups that once again reflect the issues of our current times. Some examples are: First Nations arts groups; the Saskatchewan AIDS Network; the Saskatchewan Intercultural Association, which focuses on equity and anti-racism; Immigrant Women of Saskatchewan; Gay and Lesbian Health Services; Good Food Box Programs; and the Saskatchewan Eco-Network. Once again, voluntary sector organizations arise to deal with current social, economic, and political issues of the day.

The voluntary sector in Saskatchewan has been influenced by a myriad of conditions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Saskatchewan was first being settled, organizations grew and became more formalized to deal with the lack of health and educational services. By the 1940s, the voluntary sector and governments had to shift into crisis response mode because of the high unemployment rate and the subsequent stress this placed on families and individuals. Over the past fifty years, Canadians have witnessed government restructuring and downloading of responsibilities to other governments and the voluntary sector; a shift in government philosophy regarding who deserves services and who does not; a shift in public policies toward deinstitutionalization; privatization of many public services; the medicalization and then de-medicalization of certain illnesses; cuts to funding of certain programs in the name of debt reduction; and rural depopulation, with a corresponding increase in urbanization. Finally, longer-term trend analysis done in other countries points to possible decreases in volunteer participation in Saskatchewan CBOs because of people’s changing lifestyles, involving an increase in two-earner families, in farm families seeking off-farm employment to survive, in single-parent families, and in commuting time to jobs.

The voluntary sector has had and continues to have a major presence in Saskatchewan communities: it works to meet people’s unmet needs, engage people in community events, inspire healthy living, and advocate for changes in government policies. The voluntary sector has a significant economic presence too: in 2004 it received approximately $3.5 billion in revenues and employed approximately 71,000 staff—a disproportionately large share of these staff were women when compared to other sectors.

Gloria DeSantis


Further Reading

Brock, K. and K. Banting (eds.). 2001. The Nonprofit Sector and Government in a New Century. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press; Hall, M. et al. 2004. Cornerstones of Community: Highlights of the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations. Ottawa: Ministry of Industry, Statistics Canada, catalogue no. 61-533-XIE.