Volunteering 101: What it is and what it’s not

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When I hear the word “volunteering” I immediately think of stormy weather and gathering donations of water, canned goods and clothing. You see in my home country, we usually volunteer only during times of calamities or disasters. It is somewhat seasonal and on an “as needed” basis. When I came to Manitoba, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that volunteer work is a regular and on-going commitment many people have. It is a culturally-accepted practice that is sometimes even expected.

What is volunteering?

Basically, volunteering is providing unpaid help or service through groups, clubs or nonprofit organizations to benefit other people or the environment. It can be formal, non-formal, informal, project based, online and others (read 5 types of volunteer work to know more). Close to 13 million Canadians (44% of the population) each volunteer more than 150 hours each year (General social survey on volunteering and charitable giving in Canada, 2013). This is a total of 1.96 billion hours of volunteer activities, equivalent to about 1 million full-time jobs! From raising funds to raising awareness, volunteers make a big difference in improving lives and the society.

Volunteering is:

  • voluntarily giving your service for free
  • contributing to a cause or to the safety and well-being of the community
  • sharing your skills and talents
  • a way of belonging to the community
  • is a form of Individual Social Responsibility

While volunteering is focused more on what you can provide to an organization, volunteers can receive several benefits in return. Aside from immersing yourself in a culturally-accepted practice, volunteering is considered a good way to gain both technical and soft skills, expand your network, practice your English, and even get a job offer. Volunteering is a way to get your foot in the door.

What it is not:

Volunteering is not internship – Volunteering is similar to an internship since both interns and volunteers receive training for a certain job and both can be unpaid. The difference between the two is motivation – volunteer work is done mainly to help out a cause; internship is done to learn more about a given profession. Also, a volunteer’s work benefits others while internship work benefits the intern. Although you may say that volunteer work provides benefits like expanding your network, improving your language skills or gaining friends and Canadian experience, these are indirect benefits and they are not guaranteed (Read Why work for free? The benefits of volunteering).

Volunteering is not work experience – Strictly speaking, when employers ask about work experience, they mean employment for which you were paid for. However, most career strategists advice including your volunteer experience in your resume to boost your chances of getting hired. Include it especially if you are a recent graduate and lack professional experience or if you have gaps in your employment history. You can choose to include it under “professional experience” or in a separate section mentioning all your volunteer work. Describe your achievements and the soft skills you learned. These can be considered Canadian experience and show that you are proactive about your career and self-improvement.

Sources: Volunteering in Canada, Imagine Canada; Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement (2017), Volunteer Canada; and 8 reasons to volunteer in Canada, ILAC. Accessed January 8, 2019.

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