International volunteering: Canadians are making the choice

April 23-29 is National Volunteer Week, a time to celebrate the generosity of volunteers and the many contributions they are making to improve the quality of life in communities across Canada. Canada is a country of volunteers. 60% of Canadians have volunteered at some point in their lives - no small feat in our fast-paced lives.

Although there are multiple reasons why people volunteer, many do so because they are passionate about a cause or an issue and want to be part of creating positive change. Volunteering on boards, in community centres, at local food banks, in neighbourhood schools, and in music and sporting groups are just some of the ways Canadians give of their time and talent.

What is perhaps less known is that thousands of Canadians every year also choose to dedicate months - sometimes years - of their time to volunteer in developing countries around the world. In 2014, Canadians collectively contributed the equivalent of 40 million dollars in time to community organizations, businesses and local governments in developing countries.

Why do so many Canadians choose to volunteer their time and talent outside Canada?

International volunteering provides opportunities for Canadians to directly engage in work that protects the environment, increases access to economic opportunities for the poor, and promotes broader global social justice. At its core, international volunteering empowers individuals to help build strong, resilient communities overseas.

International volunteering has dramatically evolved over the past five decades to keep pace with the ever changing realities facing communities across the world. Whereas fifty years ago, volunteers went overseas primarily to teach in schools and establish health services, today, there is growing recognition that volunteers are best suited to play a different role than delivering services themselves.

Many volunteers instead choose to go overseas within well-structured development programs where their role is to accompany and support locally engaged leaders and service providers through coaching, planning, guiding, and convening. Most importantly, the volunteers are building relationships that ensure solutions are anchored locally.

An international volunteer could be a business person who has taken a few months off to assist local businesses in Sri Lanka. Or they could be a recently retired marketing consultant who is ready to take on new challenges so they volunteer on a 2 year project to support coffee producers in Guatemala. An international volunteer might be a social worker who chooses to take time off between contracts to support a women’s rice producing cooperative in Burkina Faso. An international volunteer may be a recent immigrant to Canada, a business consultant now living in Montreal, who is eager to return to Africa to share the experiences, skills and networks they built in Canada.

When international volunteers return to Canada, they often continue their commitment to the cause by maintaining strong ties with the individuals and organisations they volunteered with overseas. They find innovative ways to continue dedicating their time and talent to those communities from a distance. And often, international volunteers, upon return, develop a renewed commitment to volunteering in their home communities as well.

So as we celebrate volunteers across Canada this week, a special thank you goes out to all of our Canadian volunteers who have committed not just hours but months and years of their time, working diligently to contribute to a positive change in the lives of individuals and communities around the world.

Odette McCarthy
Director of the Uniterra program
uniterra.ca