If you want to volunteer to gain Canadian work experience, you need to know how to volunteer strategically.
“You should volunteer” someone advised. I landed in Canada in the summer of 2014 and was finding my way in the city, familiarizing myself with the transportation system, enjoying the weather, and getting used to the language. I discovered my English was not as great as I thought, I had a hard time understanding people around me, with the subtlety of different accents in noisy environments like crowded restaurants or bus stops. I became hyper-aware of ‘being ESL’ and was very cautious and afraid of making mistakes. People that didn’t know me may have thought I was shy but I’m not.
Volunteering looked like a safe option to practice my English, meet people, and get involved. I looked through different websites and soon realized that even finding a volunteering role would not be a matter of raising my hand and saying “I’m here”.
What I learned about volunteering in Canada
To start with, the expectations seemed unrealistic. A one-year commitment with a minimum of two hours per week. In another, they asked for the skills I was hoping to learn! Somewhere else, the intake dates had already passed. In many others it was as comprehensive as applying for a job, resume and interview included.
It was shocking. There I was, trying my best to put my time and skills to good use but crashing into an invisible barrier. It was an eye-opener too. Through my research, I realized how many institutions, museums, organizations, and associations operate almost entirely thanks to volunteers. But they were selective. The challenge was first to find the right place and then get my foot into the door.
I eventually found the perfect role for me in a professional association where I built not only critical connections but also friendships with like-minded individuals. I leveraged this network to find the job I have today. And, most importantly I regained the confidence and developed the soft skills that employers are looking for. So, my advice to you is, yes, volunteer! But, know how to volunteer strategically.
5 tips on how to volunteer strategically:
1. Define your goal
Are you looking to enhance your skillset? Volunteering can help to improve or showcase your communication, interpersonal, and/or organizational skills. Are you hoping to broaden your network? Perhaps you are trying to get into a niche sector or industry, an organization with an affiliated cause or serving a particular demographic.
Do you want to gain an insight into the workplace culture or a snapshot of your community? Professional organizations are ideal for learning the ropes of workplace culture while volunteering with nonprofits and neighbourhood houses will give you a better sense of your community and current needs.
2. State what you bring to the table
For example, do you already have an exceptional and sought-after skill set? Or, are you a master of budgeting or a first-class event planner? To volunteer strategically, make sure you let them know in your application. Because this is an opportunity to communicate your transferable skills. Identify those skills and put them on paper.
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3. It is about values
Like people, every organization will have their own values. Stick with an organization where your core values resonate the most. The same advice applies for your job search, you won’t perform at your best if your ideology conflicts with theirs.
4. Professionalism above all
Canada has a big volunteer culture, and it gives employers a glimpse of your abilities, dedication, and capacity. They are reading between the lines that you are suitable to work because you are engaged and committed. They may even ask you to provide the contact of your volunteer supervisor as a reference. As such, you should always handle your volunteer role with the same ethics, consideration, and professionalism as you would do with a regular job. Deliver what you promised, keep the communication timely, be punctual, etc.
5. Be proactive!
Sometimes in spite of all your best efforts, you cannot find a volunteering opportunity that fits you well, then maybe it is time to create your own. Identify an organization you strongly believe in and are committed to their cause, imagine what are they missing that you could provide, and what you will gain in exchange.
Then, reach out with a proposal stating who are you and why do you want to help, a description of the project with the deliverables, a tentative timeline, and the resources you may need if any. They may say no, but you are one step further to reaching your goal. And, there will always be organizations interested in what you bring.
Olga Zamudio is an enthusiastic lifelong learner, mom, wife, friend, communicator and facilitator. She arrived in Canada 5 years ago and now is a proud Mexican-Canadian. Olga discovered that her path does not have to be linear and left academia to join the non-profit sector. She is still in an exploration journey with attempts to marry her three strong passions: science, communication, and advocacy. In particular, on the intersectional experience of women in STEM. She helps newcomer professionals in their job search, providing mentorships with volunteer mentors, case management and meaningful experiences through workshops. Find her on Twitter: @OlgaGZamudio