Volunteering as an Internationally-Trained Professional in Canada

Volunteering can be defined as a commitment of one’s time and energy for the benefit of the community and society in general. It is undertaken freely and by choice, without expecting any financial gain or reward. In practice, volunteering encompasses a very broad range of activities, from visiting an elderly home, organizing a charitable event, helping a non-profit organization with office tasks, tutoring youth, mentoring a new graduate, cleaning a beach, helping at a sports event, etc.

Volunteering is an activity that can be done by anyone who is willing to give their time, skills and effort. Since it’s not so common in many other countries, many people who are newcomers or soon-to-land immigrants to Canada have asked me about the value of volunteering when they arrive. In my mentoring discussions I often get the question Why should I work for free?

I believe volunteering can help you transition more smoothly into a new community and country, and is a great way to keep your mind and schedule busy carrying out positive actions.

Volunteering in general is wonderful to:

  • broaden your network
  • develop new skills or enhance your existing skills
  • give back to your community
  • gain referrals and references for paid work
  • acquire new knowledge and useful information
  • gain professional development units in associations you’re affiliated with

If you are a newcomer to Canada, volunteering can further help you to:

  • understand the Canadian culture and work practices
  • build work experience for your resume
  • practice and improve your English and/or French language skills
  • get support and advice from people who went through similar experiences
  • overcome feelings of isolation
  • raise cultural awareness in the community
  • be a role model for other immigrants
  • learn about your new city, community, and available services

So, volunteering can be much more than just occupying your time, as your “free work” will impact others. You will also benefit at a personal level when gaining recognition for your contributions and discovering new skills.

Volunteering leads to win-win outcomes

When I started volunteering as a Mentor, Learning Manager and Leader, I honestly didn’t expect all the rewards that came along. Not only did I feel proud of helping others but I also built many meaningful connections with people from a wide array of industries and backgrounds. Throughout this journey, additional doors opened for my personal and professional growth, including speaking engagements, requests to facilitate workshops, and opportunities to lead a community of 150+ professionals. It is truly a two-way street!

Moreover, these are true success stories of volunteering from my connections:

  • A person from India contacted my non-profit organization while preparing to move to Canada. Since she had a background in e-learning design, we started talking about building an online tool for new members. She agreed to volunteer with us virtually, 3 months before coming to Toronto, and made a beautiful e-learning module that the organization will be using to bring new members and volunteers on board. Her work benefited herself too because she gained work experience with a Canadian organization that she can include on her resume. And guess what? Just one-and-half months after arrival, she got a job offer as Instructional Designer in a well-known company!
  • Another immigrant with marketing background volunteered with the organization as Marketing Coordinator. She designed newsletters and social media posts, organized events, and assisted new members. One of the leaders introduced her to a person with marketing background who became her mentor. The organization’s higher visibility and outreach were recognized and appreciated, and her mentor referred her to a company looking for a marketing professional. This role turned out to be one of the best jobs she ever had.

So… where can a newcomer find volunteering opportunities and maximize them?

I can give some practical tips based on my own experience (if you have any other suggestions, please add them in the Comments section at the bottom)

How to find a place to volunteer?

1. The easiest approach to start searching would be… online — you can start by checking databases like CharityVillage, Volunteer Canada or more local websites such as Volunteer Toronto, Toronto Professionals’ Volunteer Hub, Volunteer Halifax, Volunteer Alberta, GoVolunteer (BC), etc. These sites are updated regularly.

2. Printed materials — the old-fashioned way! Look at boards on churches, hospitals, community centres, etc. to find the information. Many places post opportunities on paper or distribute flyers or newsletters.

3. Talk to someone who is already volunteering — another old trick: talk to a real human!! ;-) A fellow newcomer, a neighbour, a person you meet at a networking event… they can tell you about their experience with volunteering and refer you to their organization. If you attend a religious organization, are a member of a professional association, or enjoy a certain sport, you can join an activity with them and ask about their current and future volunteering opportunities.

4. Inquire by email or phone — Don’t be afraid of inquiring! On the other hand, keep in mind that some places are entirely run by volunteers and may not respond promptly.

I’ve heard that cold calling gives better chances to get considered. Call the organization and ask to speak to the Volunteer Manager and offer your services. The worst they can say is “no”, and at least you tried something that is outside of your comfort zone.

If you’re abroad: some time before your arrival in Canada, write to several organizations expressing your interest in volunteering. Give them an approximate time frame for when you’ll be available.

5. Online Volunteering — thanks to technology, there are many online volunteering opportunities such as digital marketer, content writer, graphic designer, translator, etc…. nowadays a lot of jobs can be done virtually, so even if you’re still outside of the country, you could start volunteering for a Canadian organization.

On a side note… be patient if you don’t get an opportunity right away.

  • Once you’re considered as a candidate for a volunteer role, some non-profit organizations require a police background check which has a small cost. Most are willing to reimburse you for it. Other places require an interview plus two to three references. Sometimes you’ll have to wait until all these checks are done before starting to volunteer.
  • If an organization doesn’t reply or you get a decline note, the timing may not be the best. Either they don’t have the need anymore or they’ve got other priorities. Although it will be disappointing, just move on to the next “lead”.

Volunteer strategically

1. Look for an organization you identify with — The mission, vision and main cause of the organization should “move” you. If you’re not motivated by their purpose, you will likely lose interest, which would not benefit anyone. Research different organizations’ activities and decide whether they have volunteer positions that are close to your interests, personal values and career goals.

2. Understand the value you bring to the organization — Too often I see people saying “oh, I can do anything” or “just give me something to do”…. If you ask for just anything, you’ll probably get anything that will not motivate you. I would encourage you to think more strategically and look at the future.

  • What can I do really well to add value to this organization or activity?
  • How can I help them achieve their vision and mission?
  • What’s my plan once I get into this role?

3. Understand what’s in it for you — If a volunteer role is posted, typically you will see a description of the main responsibilities and required qualifications. Think in advance how you could use that description to build your resume.

  • What do you want to gain from your volunteering experience? (besides just “Canadian experience”)
  • How long are you willing to volunteer as a start?
  • How will you know that you’ve succeeded?

In Canada, the common thinking is that you are the driver of your own career and success. That’s why the research mentioned in point #1 is as important as your self-awareness and personal goals.

4. Commit to your volunteer position as if it were a paid position — When you work as a volunteer in the same way you would work in a paid role, you will bring value to the organization and gain recognition for your contributions. Also, use the opportunity to see if you really like working in the sector or type of organization.

If you enjoy your volunteer work, you could ask for more responsibility, or be proactive to offer your help in other areas. Discuss with the Volunteer Manager or Leader and let them know what skills you’d like to develop. Ask for permission to use them as references when you begin applying to jobs. Share your positive experience with new people in the organization and everyone who you meet along the way.

If you find that you do not enjoy it, just move on! Do not keep volunteering in an organization or role that you does not bring you joy. However, one thing you absolutely must do is to communicate your decision in a clear and respectful manner to the appropriate person. Ghosting is not acceptable! More than once I’ve seen volunteers who just drop the ball and disappear. What does that say about your work ethic? What if you come across someone from that organization in a work-related setting in the future?

5. List your achievements and be proud of them! — Update your resume and LinkedIn profile with your volunteer role, describing your achievements. Post on LinkedIn about how you helped others in your role.

Volunteer work will be part of your personal brand, as it conveys that you’re well-rounded and compassionate, and you’re willing to go the extra mile to help your community.

So… what did you think? What’s your experience volunteering in Canada? Let me know in the comments section and feel free to share this article!

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Liliana Nakamura is an HR professional and Project Manager with experience living and working in Argentina, Japan and Canada. She is passionate about “all things learning”: proactively looking for opportunities to learn, developing or recommending training events, and helping people become the best versions of themselves. When she’s not managing a project, reading, writing, coaching, or networking, she enjoys traveling, ice skating, and spending quality time with family and friends.

HR Project Manager with experience living and working in Argentina, Japan and Canada. Life-long learner, world traveler, writer, coach and avid networker.

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