The Conference Board of Canada is in the business of forecasting the economy. We produce detailed forecasts of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), employment, income, consumption and more of Canada and its regions. These forecasts are used by businesses and governments for planning or comparison to their own forecasts. So as an economist, my work tends to be all about measurable economic activity—all in dollars and cents, or rather, in millions and billions of dollars.

This focus on output, income and other measures sometimes gives economists a bad rap—we get criticized for excluding from our analysis what is not measured in dollars. Critiques about our failure to capture broader social impacts are not uncommon, so, when Volunteer Canada approached the Conference Board of Canada about estimating the value of volunteering, we were delighted. This meant measuring the very real value of the services provided in our economy that are not captured in our GDP and National Accounts. An opportunity to redeem ourselves; we aren’t just about the money!

Simply put, when measuring GDP, Statistics Canada does not consider the value of non-monetary transactions. However, volunteering provides tangible benefits and services to many Canadians and so, it is our opinion that it is quite appropriate to measure and compare the value of these services.

We estimate that in 2017, 13.3 million Canadians volunteered (44% of the population ages 15 and over), each contributing an average of nearly 156 hours. These assumptions are based on earlier survey results produced by Statistics Canada. This is equivalent to 1.1 million people working full time, or if using a mix of full and part time jobs, 1.2 million people employed. That is roughly 6.5 per cent of employment—for comparison, about the equivalent of everyone employed in education.

Considering this, volunteering effectively provides a huge lift to the value of services provided in Canada. If we add the volunteer work effort with employment in the non-profit sector driven by donations we end up with 1.8 million jobs—larger than Canada’s manufacturing employment.

Let’s go back to our dollars and cents; I am an economist after all. We calculated the value of those volunteer hours in dollars at the average wage in the volunteer sector which is $27 (much lower than the $35.5 per hour economy wide). By doing so, we came up with a conservative estimate that volunteering adds essentially $56 billion to economic activity in Canada.  

Let’s again consider the part of the non-profit sector driven by voluntary contributions (donations), which is measured in GDP because it involves monetary transactions. On their own, donation-driven non-profits contribute another $30.6 billion to the Canadian GDP. When combined with volunteering, that’s a total value of $86.6 billion!

But volunteering has many other benefits.

Canadians volunteer (and donate) because they want to make a positive contribution to the community. And there are, as I mentioned, huge measurable benefits (in terms of value of services) that we can estimate from those contributions. But there are also benefits to the individuals that volunteer and to organizations that encourage their employees to contribute time.

Research has shown that volunteering often pushes people outside of their “comfort zone”, helps them develop new business relevant skills and lifts their earning capacity. Corporations are increasingly promoting volunteering as a professional development tool for employees.

We can’t limit our thinking. It’s not just that corporations push employees to volunteer only to improve their skills, this is also about employers looking for ways to contribute to their communities and to foster engagement in their employees. More and more employers are encouraging volunteering outside the workplace because it’s an effective way to contribute to a stronger society that we all benefit from.

Studies also show that volunteering can contribute to better health and well-being. It is a great way for seniors to stay active, and to encourage life-long community engagement in youth. The programs that volunteers facilitate strengthen community cohesion, improve education and health outcome in their communities and provide valuable life experiences for participants and volunteers alike.

In summary, about 44% of Canadians volunteer and in doing so, they contribute a massive unmeasured work effort to our economy and provide essential programs and services in our communities. But if measured, the value of those services would be worth roughly $56 billion today. And in my opinion, that value is worth celebrating.

Read the full Conference Board of Canada report on The Value of Volunteering in Canada.