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Mike RobinsonI keep hearing from older volunteers that it’s getting harder to find younger folks to volunteer for civil society board work.

When I tell people I’m on five boards, I often get asked, “Why do you do it?” Even my almost-95-year-old mother asks, “Do they pay you for all the volunteering you do?”

I have to explain that the essence of volunteering is giving back without the expectation of monetary reward. She gets it; she was a big-time volunteer.

But it’s a growing reality that many people have little time left after work, family and self. Convincing them to give of their time is getting more difficult.

I volunteer because I’ve left full-time institutional employment. I rebel instinctively against the notion of retirement. The idea of self, self, self seems too much like golf, golf, golf. Why not stay engaged with the issues you love but on terms more of your own choosing?

Our society is filled with charitable and cause-based organizations that need volunteer help to run programs, raise money and practise good governance. And here’s the big secret: quite often it’s fun.

I’m in my third year as National Board chair of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (or CPAWS). We have 15 board members, from all across and up and down Canada.

We meet five times a year and two of these meetings are face-to-face as opposed to conference calls. Our November meeting is “lobby day” in Ottawa, where we break up into board and staff teams and meet as many parliamentarians as possible to get our stories out. There’s no better way to really see, understand and impact the elected official process.

Every May, we invite senior national staff and board members to meet with CPAWS chapter staff and board members in a region of Canada in which we have special project interests and plans. Over the past four Mays, we’ve been to Riviére-du-Loup on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, Lutsel K’e on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, Gros Morne National Park on the west coast of Newfoundland and, last week, the Saskatchewan River delta and Cumberland Lake in east-central Saskatchewan.

Nestled beneath this spectacular board travel, in Russian matryoshka doll fashion, are layers of board meeting activity, including: making board decisions by consensus, via straw polls and via formal motions; engaging in creative round-tabling, where potential new models of operations are described, brainstormed, critiqued and evaluated; and throughout appreciating the federated dynamic of our country, as board members weigh in with regional, territorial and provincial perspectives.

As Robert from St. John’s, Alex from Edmonton and Pippa from Whitehorse listen to Kwiaahwah from Haida Gwaii explain the Haida concept of co-management, I feel my most Canadian self. It’s wonderful to be a member of a volunteer board that reflects the face of Canada back to Canada.

While the travel to beluga sanctuaries, Arctic Dene villages, mountain-ringed fjords and inland river deltas brings us together in Twin Otters, snowmobiles and aluminum boats, the meetings also bring us together in outport bed and breakfasts, old Prairie main street hotels, and BPOE Elks and Lions community halls.

After the formal agenda is concluded for the day, we head off to local restaurants to meet with officials and citizens who range from band council chiefs and elders, to provincial ministers of environment and park wardens, to local volunteers and media representatives.

Again, the net result is to feel Canadian in a way like no other. How remarkable, too, when all of this activity contributes to new protected areas, provincial and national parks.

At CPAWS, we always conclude our meetings with a round of reflections, where every board member is asked to summarize how they feel about the work just concluded. Invariably, the comments are considered, freely expressed and some are related with considerable emotion. Sitting in the round, working often by consensus, with trusted colleagues, and always for the common good, is ennobling.

Granted, CPAWS is a national volunteer organization, but it expresses the same rigour and camaraderie of all the volunteer groups I belong to.

If you’re seeking this spirit, why not volunteer?

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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