Time ain’t necessarily money

By Christine Boyd

Tax credits for volunteering would erode the spirit of charity work, argues Christine Boyd.

If Brian Jones had a dollar for every hour he’s volunteered during his lifetime, he’d have enough to buy a boat, put a down payment on a house or travel the world several times over.

Jones is director of administration at the Good Companions Seniors’ Centre on Albert Street – a salaried position – but during the past 30 years, he’s also volunteered thousands of unpaid hours for the United Way-Centraide Ottawa, local churches and a veteran’s centre.

Last year, the United Way gave Jones a Community Builder award.

But some say Jones – and all the other 6.5 million Canadians who volunteer each year – deserves more.

When volunteers fill out their tax forms this spring, should they be able to claim a tax credit for the time they donate to charities just as they would if they donated cash?

“Why would you value a financial contribution when you don’t value a contribution of time?” asks Paula Speevak-Sladowski, a spokeswoman for Volunteer Canada, a social policy and research group that represents hundreds of organizations.

The question, at first, appears reasonable.

After all, the workload for the voluntary sector has leaped during the past decade – largely due to governments downsizing and offloading services. Meanwhile, the number of volunteers declined dramatically, dropping by about one million people between 1997 and 2000.

But charitable donations are actually up, partially fuelled by generous increases in tax credits.

Might a tax incentive for volunteer hours help Canada’s 180,000 charitable and non-profit organizations recruit new hands, as Volunteer Canada suggested at a forum last August?

Volunteer Canada doesn’t necessarily advocate giving volunteers tax incentives, but it asked the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada to provoke discussion with the proposal.

“A tax break would be symbolic. It would say, ‘Your volunteer work is valued,’ ” Elizabeth May argued.

Truth is, Revenue Canada already offers a tax credit to volunteers – but only to some.

A lawyer who volunteers to draft a legal document for a registered charity, for example, receives a tax receipt for “services-in-kind,” which can be reported as a charitable donation to get a tax benefit. To count as services-in-kind, the receipt must be for something the person does for a living. If the same lawyer ladled soup at a food bank, it wouldn’t count. Nor would she get it if she volunteered for an organization that isn’t one of the 80,000 registered charities in Canada.

But extending a tax benefit to all volunteers raises all kinds of difficulties.

First, it would be prohibitively expensive. The number of volunteer hours donated in 2000 totalled one billion, according to Statistics Canada.

If a tax break translated to even a dollar an hour for all of this time, it would defeat a key reason for downsizing government.

“It would be very costly, extremely difficult to control and place a significant administrative burden on charities, volunteers and the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency,” says Jean-Michel Catta, spokesman for the Department of Finance.

Second, it would require major changes in both attitude and organization.

How does an organization measure the value and quantity of volunteer time? Is time donated to coach youth in sports worth the same as time spent delivering food to the elderly, building housing for needy families or advocating policy change on federal boards?

“If we were to try to put a price on things, it would be an administrative nightmare,” says Lynda Watt, national director for volunteer services at the Salvation Army, which has about 75,000 volunteers in its Canada/Bermuda ministry.

Even if a simple hours-based or points-based system were put in place, organizations would need much more rigorous administrative mechanisms – job descriptions, methods of tracking hours, ways of measuring outcomes – that could drive volunteers away.

“We don’t hold volunteers accountable in the same way we do the paid workforce,” says Virginia Greene, a Vancouver entrepreneur who debated at the volunteerism forum.

“We don’t want to get into policing. People might do less volunteering rather than more.”

But the biggest argument against the proposal – one cited from coast to coast, from policy groups to governments to the organizations and volunteers themselves – is not administrative but ethical.

Tax credits would erode the spirit of volunteerism.

“Volunteers are primarily motivated because they want to give back to their communities,” says John Campbell, of the National Capital Region YM-YWCA.

Brian Jones agrees.

If he had a dollar for every hour he’s volunteered, he says he knows exactly what he’d do with it – give every cent to the Good Companions Seniors’ Centre.

“I don’t think volunteers should be financially compensated,” he says. “The reward is the satisfaction of what you’re doing. People volunteer solely from their hearts.”

So for the millions of Canadian volunteers, time is not yet money.

And that’s a good thing.