Paying Volunteers at the Olympics

The Vancouver Sun

What on Earth is the B.C. government doing paying employees to "volunteer" for the 2010 Olympics?

It might be one thing if we were only months away from the opening ceremonies and we were short a few thousand volunteers. But that's not what's happening. If anything, there's a good chance that thousands of wannabe volunteers will be disappointed because within a day of Vanoc launching its recruitment drive, 10,500 people had applied for at least 25,000 spots.

British Columbians are among the best volunteers in Canada. Close to half of us -- about 1.6 million people -- volunteer each year. These community-spirited people span all ages, every income, ethnic, political and religious group. They undoubtedly include a proportional number of government employees. And the average volunteer puts in 199 hours of unpaid work each year.

In 2001 alone, Volunteer B.C. reported 169 million hours of volunteer labour and valued it at $2.7 billion. What all of the research on volunteering indicates is that many people in their off-hours do for free exactly the same thing that they are specially trained and paid for at their day jobs, whether they are doctors, lawyers, public relations specialists, food service workers or bus drivers.

When you ask them why they do it, volunteers almost invariably say it's because they get back many times more than what they give.

And that's volunteering for some pretty mundane things, not a world-class event like the Olympics. For the Olympics, some of the volunteers will need special training. But some of the applicants will already have attended special training and volunteered at similar events, building their resumes in the hope of being picked by Vanoc.

Being an Olympic volunteer is so special that some people say one of the greatest legacies of the 1988 Calgary Games is that Calgary now has Canada's highest rate of volunteering -- 72 per cent. One group of Calgary Winter Games volunteers loved the experience so much that they not only volunteered for the next Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, they even offered to pay their own expenses.

So it's kind of insulting that the B.C. government figures its employees are so far outside the norm that they will only do for pay what others are willing and highly motivated to do for nothing.

But apparently that's what it believes because minutes after Vanoc launched its volunteer recruitment campaign, public servants received this oxymoronic memo from Jessica McDonald, the premier's deputy.

"Recognizing that many of you will want to put your names forward as volunteers," she wrote, "the B.C. Public Service is offering a corporate approach to support that enthusiasm by offering employer-paid leave for half the time you spend volunteering for the Games."

Paid volunteers? That isn't corporate. That is stupid.

Bell Canada, one of the Games' top-level sponsors, is encouraging its 40,000 employees to volunteer. But it's not paying any of them.

But if Premier Gordon Campbell wants to look closer to home for corporate examples, here are two. Billionaire Jimmy Pattison worked yeoman's hours promoting Expo 86 for a dollar a year. Jack Poole, chairman of Concert Properties, has been doing the same for the Olympics, first as chairman of the bid committee and now as chair of Vanoc. David Podmore, president of Concert Properties, volunteered his time free, as have hundreds of others doing everything from top jobs to menial ones, like making sure journalists have enough to eat and drink.

McDonald's memo also mentioned that the first of "several" employee spots on the torch relay team has been awarded. Please, somebody promise that at the very least, the government won't pay them for filling these highly coveted spots.

Campbell and Colin Hansen, the minister in charge of the Olympics, say there's nothing new about paid "volunteering." Apparently, taxpayers paid civil servants to "volunteer" at both the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria and the 1997 Aboriginal Games. (Curiously, the government doesn't pay for employees to volunteer at any major events that don't involve sports. But I digress.)

Hansen says these are highly skilled and valuable employees and perks like this help the government retain them. But corporate giant Bell has a different view. The perk it's offering top-performing employees is a chance to be part of the team that will likely work brutally long hours at the Olympics, making sure that it does the best job possible.

Hansen also says paying civil servants to volunteer won't cost a thing since none will be replaced. If that's true, doesn't that suggest that they either have nothing to do or so little to do that their absence won't be noticed?

Volunteering is a labour of love. Let's not allow politicians to demean that or allow paid civil servants to take away this once-in-a-lifetime Olympic opportunity from the tens of thousands of British Columbians who are more than willing to labour for love, not money.

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