Challenge Nine: Give Back

Volunteering is one of the most effective ways to make a difference in your community. Whether helping to organize a clothing drive for the homeless or mentoring a youth at risk, the positive impacts of your efforts are plain to see.

When it comes to volunteering, Canadians are a giving bunch. According to Statistics Canada, about one-half of Canadians aged 15 and over did volunteer work in 2010. In total, Canadians devoted almost 2.07 billion hours to non-profit and charitable organizations, equivalent to just under 1.1 million full-time jobs.

However, most of the heavy lifting is done by a small subset of the population. In 2010, approximately 10% of those who volunteered accounted for over half (53%) of all volunteer hours. Each of these “top volunteers” gave more than 390 hours during the year to non-profits and charitable organizations. On average, these people devoted 7.5 hours – or a full workday – each and every week to volunteer activities. They might not get much public recognition, but in my view these folks are everyday heroes.

Of course, devoting 7.5 hours a week to volunteer activities is impractical for many people. With all our responsibilities, it can be difficult to carve out extra time in an already packed schedule. Still, I’d argue that most people could spare at least a couple extra hours in the week to volunteer. Personally, I could easily give up some of the time I spend in front of the television or surfing the web. Shifting this “wasted” time to more meaningful activities wouldn’t really be that hard. It just takes some discipline.

As added incentive, volunteering carries many benefits for the giver. Doing volunteer work can help you to develop new professional skills and learn new knowledge. It also gives you the chance to network with others and meet new people – and develop better communication and social skills in the process. This is especially beneficial to new immigrants looking to improve their language skills and new residents wanting to establish a support network in the community. For emerging professionals, or people considering a new career path, volunteering is a good way to improve your career options and explore new fields. It lets you gain experience, while demonstrating your work ethic and values to potential employers.

But what about people who already have established careers and strong networks? Are there other benefits that come from developing a more consistent habit of volunteerism?

To explore this question, this month I challenged myself to join the big leagues of our country’s top volunteers. While I’ve always been a big believer in the importance of volunteering, admittedly my past efforts have been more patchwork than routine. So for one month, I decided to up the ante and volunteer a minimum of three hours each workday. The charitable organizations I chose – Harvest Project, Union Gospel Mission, Habitat for Humanity, and imagine1day – are all doing vital work to help people in need.

  • Week 1 – Harvest Project is a grass-roots relief organization serving Metro Vancouver’s North Shore since 1993. Harvest Project helps individuals and families overcome difficult life circumstances so they can take positive steps to reconnect to their communities. Harvest Project provides: client care programs, including coaching, guidance and referral services; groceries at no charge through an on-site ‘store’ for clients; thrift clothing at no charge to enable clients’ re-entry into the workforce; and emergency food and personal care necessities.
  • Week 2 – Union Gospel Mission is an urban relief organization based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Founded in 1940, Union Gospel Mission is determined to transform communities by overcoming poverty, homelessness and addiction. UGM provides: meals, shelter, outreach and chaplaincy services; life recovery programs that offer freedom from addictive lifestyles; education and job preparation that equip for successful living; affordable housing; and preventative programs that build healthy families.
  • Week 3 – Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver is among more than 3,000 Habitat for Humanity affiliates around the world. Habitat for Humanity builds safe, decent affordable housing and promotes homeownership as a means to breaking the cycle of poverty. Houses are sold to partner families with no down-payment, and are financed with affordable, no-interest mortgages. Families invest 500 hours of their own labour, called “sweat equity,” into building their own houses and those of other families.
  • Week 4 – imagine1day is a Vancouver-based, grass-roots charity that works with communities in Ethiopia to build schools and train teachers to ensure every child in Ethiopia receives a quality education. Their vision is all Ethiopians will have access to quality education funded free of foreign aid by 2030.

Get Physical for a Good Cause

Much of my volunteer work involved physical activity, ranging from picking up donated food and other products from stores, organizing and moving inventory, to working in kitchens to prep and serve meals. A key take-away this month: volunteering can be a workout.

In my day job, much of my time is spent on a computer. Sitting in front of a screen all day is not the best recipe for optimal physical health, and so I welcomed the physical nature of the volunteer work. One immediate benefit from all this physical activity was how I felt at the end of the day. Rather than feeling drained and foggy-headed after hours on a computer, I finished my volunteer shifts feeling energized. Not surprising since physical activity helps to improve the functioning of your brain and gives you more energy.

There is a laundry list of benefits from including regular physical activity in your life. It helps to control weight, promote better sleep, relieve stress, improve your mood, and reduce the risk of serious health problems, such as heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. To get these benefits, health experts say you should aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Knowing that you’re meeting your daily quota for physical activity, all in the name of a good cause, is added incentive to volunteer more often.

As an ultimate form of good karma, volunteering can make you happier too. Studies have found that regular volunteering may serve to boost your happiness and overall well-being by promoting physical activity, social interactions, and a deep sense of fulfillment that comes from making a contribution. There’s an added benefit from being in a better frame of mind – it puts you in a more giving mindset since happier people are more inclined to do kind acts for others.

Connect with Your Community

Volunteering also lets you connect directly with people in your community who have different backgrounds than you. I experienced this first-hand during my week volunteering with Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. One of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods, the Downtown Eastside is known for its high rates of homelessness, drug addiction, sex trade, crime and violence. Before this month, I hadn’t spent much time in the neighbourhood and my perception of the area was not good.

I won’t sugar-coat it. My week volunteering with UGM was intense, especially when participating in their Street Light and Mobile Mission programs, which took us out into the community to provide food, water and other basics to people on the streets. This put me face to face with the realities of homelessness and addiction, an emotional experience to say the least.

Heading out with UGM's Mobile Mission to reach out to homeless people who would not otherwise access UGM's services (Photo by Mark van Manen)
Heading out with UGM’s Mobile Mission to reach out to homeless people who would not otherwise access UGM’s services (Photo by Mark van Manen)


Though challenging at times, the week was deeply rewarding. Spending time with staff and volunteers, who are doing remarkable work to help the most vulnerable members of our community, was a gift. And some of my conversations with UGM’s clients helped to improve my own understanding of the issues facing people in the area.

At the drop-in centre one morning, a gentleman candidly discussed the challenges of living on social assistance in Vancouver (now the most expensive city in North America to live in, ahead of New York and Los Angeles). As an “employable single adult under 65 years of age,” he receives $610 per month in income assistance from the government, of which $375 is earmarked for shelter. That leaves him with $235 per month, or just over $7.50 per day, for food, transportation and all other expenses. It was eight in the morning and I had almost spent the equivalent of his daily stipend on transit and a coffee.

My week volunteering at UGM allowed me to reflect on my preconceptions of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Experiencing the neighbourhood first-hand and connecting with some of its residents directly helped me to see a subtler, more human, side of the community. While it’s hard to escape the problems so visible on the surface, there is also a wonderful sense of belonging and amity in the neighbourhood. Getting the chance to see this part of my city in a new light was one of the biggest rewards from volunteering this month.

Pair Your Passion with a Cause You Care About

My final week of volunteering with imagine1day was quite different from my time with the other organizations. Rather than asking its volunteers to do specific jobs, imagine1day invites you to come up with your own idea for contributing to the charity. Volunteers design and carry out their own “creatribution” project (a made-up word that combines “create” and “contribution”) in support of imagine1day’s work to provide a quality education to children in Ethiopia.

I’m an avid walker, so I created a five-day event called Walk a Mile in Their Shoes to help raise funds and build awareness for imagine1day’s education projects. Each day’s walk covered a different distance to highlight some of the challenges facing school children in Ethiopia. I found the process fun and creative, and it was rewarding to complete my project as I had envisioned. The lesson I gleaned from my week with imagine1day is the importance of aligning your interests with a cause you care about. It’s a sure-fire way to develop a more consistent habit of volunteerism in your life.

Launching Walk a Mile in Their Shoes fundraiser for imagine1day (Photo by Michelle Lazar)
Launching Walk a Mile in Their Shoes fundraiser for imagine1day (Photo by Michelle Lazar)


Imagine the collective impact we could have in creating a better society if each of us volunteered a little more often – one that’s more compassionate, better connected, more engaged and healthier. Not only can your efforts help to make your community a better place for all, but volunteering can lead to a healthier, happier and more fulfilled life for you too. That’s the power of volunteering; it doesn’t just help those in need.