In a lengthy interview, David Johnston set forth some key ways for Canadian leaders to ensure volunteers can be more effective.
On his list are tax incentives for the financing of social projects; government support for successful local volunteer groups; a new focus on governance; better training for organizers; and a national network of permanent community co-ordinators.
"Don't operate in silos, but bring together contributions from different parties to address the social problem and make some incremental gains," he said.
Johnston has made volunteering a priority as Governor General. He is the poster boy for this year's United Way campaign now kicking off, speaks frequently on the topic and encourages citizen participation.
But volunteering is no longer the warm and fuzzy issue that governors general have embraced in the past. Rather, some governments have embraced volunteerism as a way to deliver social policy, not just an adjunct to the traditional government role.
And the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper frequently touts volunteer efforts as the best way to deal with local needs — recently introducing a new set of awards, and setting aside Sept. 11 as a National Day of Service.
Johnston stops short, however, at promoting the controversial "Big Society" approach to social policy that has seen volunteers thrust into the limelight in the United Kingdom.
There, the David Cameron government is trying to strengthen local service providers and volunteer groups as part of a huge overhaul that would devolve power to local organizations, while cutting costs at the national level.
Cameron often speaks to fellow conservative Harper. While no one in Harper's circle is talking overtly about the Big Society, the approach is being discussed widely in conservative circles, including a workshop at the last Conservative convention led by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
Johnston says Canada could learn a few things from the British approach, but did not advocate for a wholesale adoption of the policy, which has proved highly contentious.
"I don't see volunteerism as substituting for what government has done, or might have done, or should have done. I see volunteerism as something that is central unto itself," Johnston said.
Canada, he says, has a different sense of volunteering than other countries — a deeply entrenched history of volunteering that stems from pioneer days, when settlers couldn't survive unless they received help from their neighbours.
"I think that instinct is a very strong Canadian instinct that is now manifesting itself in droves," Johnston said. "I think we're special to that effect."
But Canada can't depend simply on instinct alone, because demand for volunteers is growing steadily, he added.
In the short term, as governments face fiscal restraint, they will be tempted to turn to volunteers more and more, he recognized. But the demand is a long-term phenomenon that requires some well-planned help.
"I think we are exploring how the third sector can become more robust and how it identifies need and response in a way that governments are not particularly adept at doing," he said.
He uses affordable housing as an example.
Affordable housing is in great demand across Canada. Traditionally, governments at all levels subsidize or completely pay for social housing. But in recent years, the federal government has questioned its responsibility in that area, even as provinces and municipalities reel under a budget crunch.
Habitat for Humanity is a volunteer-based organization that builds houses for low-income families. Johnston is an advocate, and the federal government has frequently worked with the organization. The group is celebrating its 2,000th house in Canada in 25 years, Johnston says.
But Habitat for Humanity is a far cry from a national housing strategy, and 2,000 houses in 25 years does not come close to meeting the need, he acknowledges.
So the federal housing organization, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., and other levels of governments should be increasing their co-operation with such groups to provide them land and perhaps even financing, Johnston said.
"It may well be that we'll see more arrangements where Habitat for Humanity will be receiving land from CMHC or from the local municipality or from the provincial government because they've shown themselves so able and effective in taking that resource of land, and building a house on it that accommodates a family that would not otherwise have a house," Johnston said.
"I'd love to see much more of that."
He also sees the need for each community to have a permanent volunteering headquarters, so that volunteers can make sure their efforts are distributed efficiently and on a continuing basis.
Community foundations exist in many big cities, but Johnston says there are at least 50 towns with populations over 40,000 that have no such organization.
A stable network would be a boon to many volunteer groups, agrees Rachel Laforest, an associate professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who specializes in the so-called third sector.
Most organizations leap from project to project, and don't have the wherewithal to do long-term planning that would benefit needy communities, she said.
Reliable government help is also desperately needed, she added.
"In Canada since the late 90s, we've been systematically cutting back on volunteer infrastructure and moving towards project financing."
But in Britain, recent research suggests government involvement in the volunteer sector may actually drive people away.
In Ottawa, focus-group testing about the new Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards suggests a similar sentiment. A study last year found that the majority of participants balked at the reference to the prime minister in the award name.