The limits of volunteerism

Until a few years ago, QCFC was an almost entirely volunteer-run operation. Weather and utilities permitting, we provided a meal 365 days a year, and even managed to eke out a few other programs here and there. Being volunteer-run was something we were very proud of since it showed that a lot of great things could be accomplished with very little money, and that we had an engaged and supportive community.  

At least, that was one side of the coin. Behind the scenes, lack of time and money meant the food we provided could only be 'good enough.' Despite the best intentions there was never enough capacity to start up more impactful programs, and a hard core of burned-out directors spending their free time scrounging for helpers and funding while silently wishing they had a dignified way to escape it all.

That's not to say volunteerism never works. Many activities are well-suited to a volunteer approach, like sports clubs, religious and cultural events, or rural fire departments*. On the other hand, there are countless instances where activities plateau at a certain level, end just as quickly as they started, or hobble on thanks largely to a handful of super-volunteers who may not appreciate bearing that level of responsibility. Often a certain professional skillset is required to provide the service (like safe food handling certification), the absence of which may be a safety or liability issue. It may be easy to find short-term volunteers of a particular socioeconomic background, but much harder to find long-term helpers who are reflective of the population being served.

Our own reckoning came when our core of all-star volunteers and directors all coincidentally left town within six months of each other. After a long spell trying to preserve an increasingly precarious volunteer model, we concluded that an expanded budget was desperately needed. The resulting staff additions led to dramatic improvements in the breadth and quality of our programs that seemed impossible only a few years before. While the pandemic and social distancing requirements have further limited our volunteer involvement, we still benefit from the unpaid services of many—including our directors.

The wider issue is when services are not provided at an institutional level because it is assumed that community efforts will fill the gap. For many communities in Nunavut, the capacity is simply not there, when many are so burdened with supporting their loved ones' symptoms of trauma and poverty that there is little energy to devote elsewhere. What's more, the continued reliance on volunteer labour devalues the work of non-profits, and reduces the incentive to create paid positions.

At QCFC we believe that charity is no solution to social problems, and we continue to advocate for systemic changes that will reduce the need for underfunded charitable initiatives. Having enough to eat shouldn't depend on whether you're lucky enough to live close to a food bank—everyone should have the means to meet their basic needs. We're still grateful for all those who work to address these issues on their own time and dime—we just shouldn't accept this as the way it has to be.

* while most volunteer fire departments operate on a paid-on-call basis, those in Nunavut are some of the few on the continent that do not pay their volunteers

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