I’ve heard the excuses many times.

“I don’t have the time.”
“I just can’t make that kind of commitment.”
“I don’t know what I can contribute”

However, volunteering can have tremendous payoffs at the personal and career level.

My exposure to volunteering came several years ago in the High Park area, where we had a crime problem. There was a public meeting with the police and our city councilors to get input from residents in the area and the councillor in my ward, Derwyn Shea, asked if anyone in the audience was interested in helping organize a Neighbourhood Watch program. Along with a half-dozen other, I introduced myself and said I didn’t know what I could do, but I had experience in marketing and advertising.

Next thing I knew, I was appointed chair of the Neighbourhood Watch program for West-end Toronto.

Over the next two years, our committee developed an active program to educate block captains in the area about crime prevention. We learned a lot about crime statistics and crime prevention from our police community liaison officer, who was a delight to work with.

We put on seminars each month and reviewed crime statistics and had speakers come in to inform the block captains about locks, vacation planning, burglar alarms etc. I also wrote a column every two weeks in the Villager, the local newspaper, so we could share what we learned with everyone in the community.

We got results. Break-ins declined – the biggest concern to people in the neighbourhood. Offsetting this was an increase in crack houses, but the Neighbourhood Watch program helped the police set up surveillance by getting individuals to share intelligence with the police and give them places to set up their surveillance teams.

During the period I was involved with Neighbourhood Watch, our children were 4 and 6. But they learned the value of volunteering.

Our daughter studied forensic technology at Sanford Fleming College. Before she began her program, she volunteered to work in the genetics lab my wife worked in as a way of getting experience.

That summer, she did not receive any cash compensation, but she demonstrated she was the highest performing among all the interns and was invited back the following summer with a fully paid internship.

She excelled in the DNA and lab portions of her program in both years and, on completion of her diploma, she was hired to work in the DNA lab at Hospital for Sick Children.

While the first summer as an unpaid intern was financially difficult for her, it paid dividends in getting paid jobs the following two summers in a prestigious research facility. The experience also paid off in her studies because she picked up knowledge that went far beyond the college curriculum.

Our son wanted to be a math teacher. He did a degree in computer science at Queens and a year at OISE to get his teaching degree.

The last two years of his undergrad program, Ross volunteered to work as a teaching assistant after his exams ended in April. He spent tow months working at his old high school and the next year went to another high school in the area.

While at OISE, he was sent out for his practicum to “difficult schools” such as Western Tech, but his experience from volunteering helped him a lot.

While many of his classmates had difficulty finding teaching jobs, Ross interviewed with Peel Board of Education and landed a job.

I remember he came back from the interview saying he didn’t think he’d done well. However, he got a call back from the Peel Board indicating they liked how he had volunteered and he was hired to teach Grade 10 and 12 math at Lorne Park Secondary, a very prestigious school in Mississauga.

Along the way in his job hunt, he had a couple of coaches to help. One of our neighbours was a retired superintendent from the Peel Board and the keyboard player in my band was a principal at another high school in southern Mississauga. The networking also contributed to his success.

This year, Ross was placed on the hire list for Toronto District School Board.

The message from these experiences is that:

Volunteering gives you an opportunity to gain experience in a field in which you have interest. For new Canadians, that can help overcome the “Canadian experience” issue. For others, it can be a helpful strategy if you are changing careers or industries. Volunteering gives employers a low-risk opportunity to assess your abilities before making an offer. These first two worked for our son and daughter.

Volunteering gives you some positive experiences that help motivate you and help you maintain your enthusiasm while you are in transition. My volunteer work with HAPPEN helps keep my presentation skills sharp and it keeps me involved with people – both of which have helped me maintain a positive attitude in my job search.
Volunteering can also be an excellent way to develop a network. For example, serving on the board of a NFP organization brings you in contact with other like-minded business executives. Demonstrating your skills and developing such contacts with them can help you uncover job opportunities.

The first time I was laid off, I joined HAPPEN’s sister organization, EARN, in Toronto. At my first meeting, one of the members gave me advice I will never forget. He told me, “The best way to find work is to volunteer to work on one of the committees”. I joined the marketing committee and all eight of us got jobs within three months of each other.

Volunteering with HAPPEN is a great way to meet fellow HAPPENites and expand your network. The visibility you gain from volunteering will help bring people to you. It also frees up time for the HAPPEN executive to give more attention to improving the organization and its programs. You’ll feel more involved in the organization and the volunteer work you do looks good to a recruiter or potential employer because it speaks to teamwork and initiative.

Whether it happens to be HAPPEN or some other organization, get out and volunteer your way to your next job.

Ron Jamieson
Lean Marketing and Sales Leader