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. In my home country, we usually volunteer only during times of calamities or disasters. It is 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 benefits others as well as yourself.

What is volunteering?

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) volunteer more than 150 hours each year (General social survey on volunteering and charitable giving in Canada, 2013). This comes to 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 betterment of society in general.

Volunteering is:

  • providing 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 supporting and belonging to the community
  • is a form of Individual Social Responsibility

While volunteering is focused on what you can provide to an organization, volunteers do receive multiple benefits in return. It is a good way to gain both technical and soft skills, expand your network, practice your English, and even get a job offer. Volunteering can be a way for newcomers to get their foot in the door.

What it is not:

Volunteering is not internship – It is similar to an internship since both interns and volunteers receive training for certain jobs, 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 expands your network and helps you gain connections and Canadian experience, these are indirect benefits and 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. However, most career strategists advice including your volunteer experience in your resume to boost your chances of getting hired. When you do this, focus on the soft skills you developed during your volunteer work and relate them to the job responsibilities listed in the ad. This is especially helpful for recent graduates who lack professional experience, or for those who have gaps in their employment history. Include it under “professional experience” or in a separate section under “volunteer work”.
Article updated November 2, 2022.
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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