Building capacity and creating connections: why volunteering is vital to non-profits and community

Whether it’s mental health, basic needs support, community development, or animal shelters, non-profits play a vital role in all aspects of our community.

In Alberta, there are over 26,200 charities and non-profit organizations serving different sectors, and they all have one thing in common—a base of dedicated volunteers who help them bring their vision to life.

For organizations like Immigrant Services Calgary (ISC), volunteers play a critical role in helping the organization build capacity as they gift both their experience and their time to positively impact the lives of newcomers to Calgary.

Camilo Gil, volunteer services lead at ISC, says volunteering is a critical part of Canadian culture.

“Volunteers are important not only to the organization, but to the city and the fabric of Canadian society,” he said.

Photo of Camilo

A passionate community builder, Camilo has been volunteering from a young age. The native-born Colombian volunteered with his parents for years, visiting retirement homes and gathering gifts from the community for children whose parents were incarcerated.

“Even when I was younger, I understood how much it meant to give these children a chance for a somewhat normal Christmas season," he said.

Twenty years later, Camilo finds his inspiration and daily motivation in his job. ISC has over 1,600 volunteers in its database, and their reasons for volunteering vary.

But rather than looking at volunteers as human capital, he strives to learn each volunteer’s personal story and reason for giving back.

“Some choose to become board members to help organizations meet their goals; others want to expand their networks while giving back to the community,” he said.

“For newcomers, volunteering provides an opportunity to gain Canadian work experience, improve and develop language and professional skills, build their network, and gain a sense of belonging in their new communities.”

‘Volunteering opened a whole new world for me’

For immigrants like Ouhayla, volunteering changed her life.

After moving to Canada in 2014 with her husband and son, she found her self-confidence slipping.

“I lost all my confidence when I came to Canada because my degree isn’t recognized here. I couldn’t find a job, and I spent most of my time at home,” she said.

“Volunteering helped me escape a state of depression and hopelessness and opened a whole new world to me.”

Ouhayla split her time volunteering with ISC, the City of Calgary, and the Calgary Board of Education. Even after finding full-time employment, she continued to volunteer because she “had made a commitment, and it was important that I honour it.”

Today, she feels more like her old self—confident, valued, and with an important role to play in society.

Photo of Ouhayla

After her personal experience, Ouhayla encouraged her friends to volunteer, and she is on a mission to teach her two young sons the importance of giving back.

“Volunteering is so important for immigrants because it gives them Canadian experience, and it introduces them to different cultures and backgrounds they may not have encountered before in their home countries,” she said.

Every year, more than 1.6 million Albertans like Ouhayla provide over 262 million volunteer hours to support worthy causes—anything from helping their neighbours and communities to lending their time and skills to non-profit organizations.

Their generosity of spirit has a tremendous financial impact, too—the efforts of Alberta’s volunteers are estimated to contribute $5.6 billion in labour.

In fact, in Canada, the non-profit sector contributes an estimated $192 billion to Canada’s GDP.

And on a more human level, volunteering provides a connection between people and causes, breaking down language barriers and building bridges across cultures—permanently changing lives for the better.

“I tell my friends all the time: just volunteer and watch how your life will totally change,” Ouhayla said.

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