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Paul Varian is a sport-management consultant and thought-leader with experience at all levels of the sport sector, from community and amateur sport to large national governing bodies. 

Throughout his long career in sport, Varian has served as the Chief Executive of the Irish Hockey Association, President and CEO of Sport BC, and Manager of the Oakville Soccer Club (North America’s largest participation soccer club). He is the author of Don’t Blame the Soccer Parents, a book geared towards helping amateur soccer clubs manage themselves more effectively.  

Varian met with SIRC to discuss the state of volunteerism in the Canadian sport sector and offer concrete tips for organizations seeking to improve their recruitment, retention and support of volunteers. 

As Varian says, “Volunteers are the gasoline in the engine of sport. We need them to keep going.” 

SIRC:  Historically, volunteerism has been the backbone of Canadian sport. Can you tell me a bit about your experience in recruiting, retaining and supporting volunteers? 

PV: We have this kind of cultural notion that amateur sports should always be broke. That if you have extra money, you must spend it quick as you can. Having money sit on your balance sheet is really considered almost a faux pas. And so very few organizations build wealth to protect themselves in bad times, like COVID. Money is always spent directly on programming, and oftentimes running programs at unsustainable fees that are essentially building structural deficits, and then hoping for the best.  

Because of that mindset, organizations don’t invest in sustainable resources, particularly volunteers. Their value proposition is “oh please come help us, we need you and we need your money.” That’s a philanthropic ask, it’s not a value-adding proposition.  

This is the first time we’re going to face a recession where it’s based on a lack of human resource capacity, rather than economic activity. That’s what’s holding growth back in organizations, it’s talent availability.   

I worked for one of the biggest clubs in the country and we were as reliant on volunteers as every other club. Volunteers are absolutely vital, so I’m always astounded at how little innovation the sport system has when it comes to volunteers. 

When I looked into this issue last year, it seemed like a lot of clubs are just giving up on volunteerism, saying that people won’t do it anymore. And it’s commonplace now for clubs to offer discounts on registration fees for the kids if parents come forward to volunteer. I don’t want somebody coming forward to coach my kid who’s doing it to save a couple hundred bucks, I want someone who likes coaching kids. 

Clubs very rarely have a staff person dedicated to volunteers. Usually clubs will just send out an email saying: “We need your help!” For example, my kid is a competitive diver and I was told right off the top that the parents have to help out with the annual meet, which is fine, but it’s not strategic.  

I think what sport organizations have missed is how volunteerism has changed over the last 30 years. 

The baby boomers were a different generation. They were wartime kids. They had a sense of civic duty and responsibility that was taught to them by their parents. Millennials, and I’m not criticizing anyone in this analysis, millennials have a different outlook. They’re a little less trusting, they lived through a recession and are less giving in unconditional ways because life has taught them to be that way. 

Millennials will volunteer. But you have to ask them differently. You can’t just say “Yeah we’re going to sign you up for this because it’s the right thing to do.” Millennials are going to say, “Wait a sec. For how long? What’s in it for me? How do I get to apply the specific skills I bring to the table?” 

And then Gen Z is different again. For them, volunteerism is all about opportunity, particularly employment opportunity.  

My view is that all of these people will volunteer. You just need to be strategic about how you ask them and what you ask of them. And we, as a sport sector, haven’t done that. We’re still running volunteering the same way as we did 30 years ago thinking that these generations all respond to the same thing. 

People don’t have the free time that they used to. Most households now have two working parents. There’s far more in people’s lives. And there’s also a commoditization to sport now where the general consumer wants to pay a fee and not think about it again. A lot of parents are actually willing to pay more to not volunteer. They don’t see it as a civic engagement vocation anymore. So that has changed, but clubs have not reacted.  

The final thing I’ll say, and this is very, very important. We’re bad, as a sector, at showing volunteers how they’re making a difference. Not only do we not invest enough in saying “Thank you, that was great,” but we also don’t take the time to show volunteers how if it weren’t for them, these kids would not have this amazing experience.  

I think there was a Deloitte paper that came out a while ago that said with millennials, one of the key things they want out of a job is to know that they’re making a difference. If you don’t tell them that they are, and the only thing they hear from you is when to hand in the equipment at the end of the season, it doesn’t feel as rewarding.  

Sport organizations don’t prioritize directing staff time towards volunteers. The focus is always on adding another coach or adding more programming. But we need to nurture our volunteers, that’s really the word for it, nurturing. 

SIRC: How can sport organizations do a better job recruiting, retaining and supporting volunteers? 

PV: One of the biggest reasons why people don’t volunteer is because they’re never asked. Clubs have to start considering investment in volunteer recruitment and development as a core cost, just as much as equipment or facilities.  

It really annoys me that people think the only way to get people to volunteer is to get down on our knees and say “Please do me a solid. Do it for the kids!” Firstly, that makes it seem like it’s a really bad thing. If we’re desperately begging people to do it, then it’s not sounding particularly desirable. Secondly, if you’ve guilt tripped people into volunteering, they’re more Iikely to put in the minimum effort because you’ve kind of forced them into it.  

It can be a privilege and an opportunity to volunteer, including serving on boards. If you make your organization an attractive workplace, show people that you’re making a difference, and show them that they can further develop their community and skills, then people will come forward.  

Your current volunteers are also an incredible resource for recruiting future volunteers. Think about how people choose a restaurant. They read the reviews, right? That’s how people assess things. It’s not based on the chef saying, “Oh yeah the food here is great!” Get your star volunteers to sell the program for you.  

How do you do that? For example, you can gather testimonials from your current volunteers about why they like being a part of your organization and post them on your website and social media. All you have to do is send an intern out with a cell phone to gather some recordings. 

Appreciation is important as well. You don’t want to be recruiting new volunteers every year, ideally you have lots of volunteers return. Appreciation parties and that sort of thing are great, but appreciation can be even simpler than that. For example, when I was at Oakville Soccer, I put a policy in place that any time a coach came back to return equipment, someone from the office had to go out and physically greet them, ask them about their experience, and thank them for work. I wanted the last interaction that every coach had with our organization at the end of the season to be an acknowledgement of their efforts. 

Your appreciation strategy doesn’t need to be the exact same, but you need to have one. 

SIRC: Is there anything else you think is important to note when supporting volunteers? 

PV: When thinking about developing and supporting volunteers, you want to think about what they want to get out of the experience. As I mentioned before, that’s likely different generationally. For example, Gen Z is looking for career development opportunities. Can you frame a volunteer position as an internship? Is there any potential to work with your sponsors to provide career networking to younger volunteers? The older volunteers who are seniors, they might be looking for community. So how can you make sure that you’re fulfilling that desire? 

Top tips on volunteerism: 

  • Consider volunteer recruitment and development as a core cost 
  • Make volunteer management a key responsibility of a staff member 
  • Consider generational differences in attitudes towards volunteering 
  • What are your target volunteer cohorts looking for out of the experience? How can you as an organization offer that type of experience? 
  • Be strategic about recruitment 
  • Leverage current star volunteers as recruitment ambassadors 
  • Show appreciation 
  • Have a thoughtful appreciation strategy in place that shows volunteers the difference that they’re making 

About the Author(s)

Caela Fenton, Ph.D., is a content specialist at SIRC. In this role she calls on her experience as a researcher within cultural studies of sport, and as a sports journalist, to help make sport and physical culture research accessible to a broad audience.

Paul Varian MBA, is a Sports Consultant, Author of Amazon #1 Best Seller ‘Don’t Blame The Soccer Parents’ and Host of podcast The Regista Room.


The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.