Next week, April 21 to 27, marks the 71st National Volunteer Week in Canada. If you had no idea that this week existed, you’re probably not alone. We likely all take for granted just how important volunteers are to our lives and the lives of the people around us.

A Statistics Canada survey found that 13.3 million people—almost half of our entire population—volunteered 2.1 billion hours of their time, energy and skills in 2010. This number is equivalent to 1.1 million full-time jobs over and above existing work, school or family commitments. Countless charities, non-profit organizations, academic institutions, places of worship, hospitals and other non-governmental organizations with limited financial resources would simply be unable to function or exist without the generosity and dedication of volunteers.

For many of us, our ideas of volunteer roles are limited to rural firefighters and people serving in soup kitchens. In fact, the range of volunteer roles is quite extraordinary. Every day, unsung heroes can be found high above vast wildernesses, assisting the Royal Canadian Air Force’s search and rescue specialists in bringing people in distress home safely to their families. Or they can be found on the open road, sharing the joy of riding a bicycle with blind or partially sighted friends, helping to create inclusive opportunities for healthy, active lifestyles.

Celebrating MaRS’ volunteer network

Closer to home, we here at MaRS are privileged and grateful to have a cadre of talented and inspiring volunteer advisors who mentor science, technology and social entrepreneurs. Generously sharing their wisdom, these advisors have contributed their time and insights, and have without a doubt made a positive impact on both MaRS as an organization and on the entrepreneurs and startups we serve.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” — Winston Churchill

Opportunities to volunteer are limitless. If you have even the slightest desire to improve the lives of your fellow human beings—whether they are friends or strangers, whether they live down the street or on the other side of the world—there is absolutely no shortage of ways to do so.

  • Volunteer travel has emerged as a hugely popular option for those who view experiencing the world and making it a better place as one and the same.
  • New ways to connect under-resourced organizations with sought-after skills and talents have also been met with huge success. Timeraiser is an innovative twist on a silent auction, where young professionals bid for artwork by local emerging artists with hours of volunteer time, and has spread to 12 cities across Canada.
  • In the United States, a young investment banker created Catchafire to connect organizations with the specialized skills, expertise and experience they need and likely cannot afford.

Volunteering: Good for others and for you!

It is also important to recognize that volunteerism need not entirely be a selfless act of sacrifice. Ask volunteers why they do what they do and it is quickly apparent that they also benefit greatly from the experience, on both a personal and professional level.

Fulfilling our basic human desire to help others, finding camaraderie among like-minded souls and seizing the opportunity to share your knowledge and learn from others may not be things that can be easily quantified in a Statistics Canada report, but the rewards are very real, incredibly powerful and—we shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit this—immensely enjoyable.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” — Mahatma Gandhi

National Volunteer Week is a reminder to all Canadians—individuals and organizations alike—that we need to recognize, support and celebrate all of the volunteers who give so selflessly to improve the lives of others, and to cultivate and inspire the spirit of volunteerism in our communities all year round. And although they certainly don’t seek the spotlight, volunteers everywhere deserve our recognition, appreciation and thanks for their extraordinary contributions.

This coming week, reflect on how you can do just that for the volunteers in your personal or professional life, and consider how you can join the 13.3 million others by volunteering your own time and energy to make Canada a better place. You’ll find that of all the lives that you’ll help change for the better, one of the very first will be your own.

Interested in volunteering?

To find a volunteer opportunity that’s right for you, visit Volunteer Toronto or search Google.

James Chan

James managed business development and community engagement for MaRS’ events and conference facilities, where MaRS and its partners and stakeholders convene and host gatherings to advance innovation and entrepreneurship in Canada. See more…