Three Tips for Being An Effective Volunteer



More than 12 million Canadians are volunteering with organizations. This number doesn’t even reflect the thousands and potentially millions who volunteer informally in their communities or with cultural groups.

As volunteering across Canada grows and expands, the non-profit sector struggles to keep up with new trends in recognition, training, and retention.

We love our volunteers, don’t get us wrong, they are the backbone of many of the social change initiatives across Waterloo Region, but volunteering has ironically become a big business.

With commercialization, comes value and attitude shifts. What was once a goodwill sacrifice of one’s time and energy for a greater cause, has quickly swelled into opportunity for self-aggrandizement or an extra bullet point on the ol’ resume.

As you embark on your next volunteering gig, here are a couple of points to consider.

1. Check your motivations

Serving vulnerable populations can instill a sense of power. In the worst case scenarios, a sense of superiority. Don’t confuse the “feel goods” of doing good, with the “feel goods” of moral smugness and control. Although rare, we have interacted with volunteers who treat the newcomer folks they work with as though they were their children. Paternalism, especially when volunteering with newcomers, is a form of microaggression. Behaviours that express that you know best, stem from the same elitist bullshit that has prolonged euro-centrism, white privilege, and racist anthropology around “primitivism.”

In the refugee context in which we work, it is important to remember that refugees didn’t come here because they did something wrong and language barriers don’t represent a cognitive deficit. These are folks that have lived long and well in other places in the world, and they are entitled to make their own decisions, take risks, learn from them, grow, thrive, and be treated like adults (unless of course they are children).

Before starting your volunteer gig, ask yourself – am I doing this with them or for them? Am I showing empathy when I reflect on their intent, behaviors, and choices? Am I spending as much time focusing on their gifts and strengths as I am noticing the gaps in their abilities or knowledge?

2. Fill the gap, not your CV

As the job market opens to more global competition, millennials begin to seek volunteer opportunities to gain experience where paid employment is not available. It’s inevitable. But if you are one of these folks, ask yourself whether you are serving the broader goals of the organization or serving your own professional development. If the answer is both – great! You’ve got a win-win and that type of relationship is easy to sustain for both volunteer and non-profit.

But if your particular volunteer interest creates more follow up and oversight than the non-profit is able to give, you’re essentially treating the volunteer opportunity like an internship. There should be a clear distinction. Make sure you know the difference, or you risk ignoring the needs of the organization in favour of padding your own resume.

That said, if you are using your volunteer experience toward finding paid employment, treat it like paid employment. Show up to shifts on time, give notice if you need to cancel a shift. Even if you aren’t employed after your volunteer service, the skills you gain might make you a great candidate for another workplace.

3. Bend, don’t break

If you have the ability to be flexible, be flexible. Especially around tasks and responsibilities in your volunteer role. “Answer the phones” doesn’t mean that you should literally watch the phone until it rings – nor does it mean you can furtively re-read your favourite Harry Potter book during slow times and call it volunteering.

There are always ways to help that show that you are not just there to spend the time, but that you’re there to contribute to the mission and work culture. Even helping to maintain a tidy lobby area, or offering to organize stationery supplies is a gesture that shows your commitment to not only the mandate, but the environment in which it is being carried out.  On the flip side – if it aint broke, don’t fix it! Volunteers can also be “too eager” and end up offering advice or support that isn’t within the organizations mandate. If you aren’t sure, leave it to a staff member to decide whether going that extra mile is helpful or even necessary.

Volunteers are essential to any thriving non-profit. We believe that if you are flexible, willing to contribute beyond your own personal gain, and thoughtful about your motivations, you may just change the world.

Cassandra and Marika both work in volunteer management in the non-profit sector in Kitchener.