How one non-profit attracts and engages some of Canada’s most skilled volunteers to strengthen communities worldwide

When I first joined CESO (Canadian Executive Service Organization) as its Chief Financial Officer, I was new to the development world. At first, I was focused on “the books” – understanding the financials of this long-standing volunteer-sending agency. What quickly captured my attention, however, were CESO’s volunteers. It’s impossible not to be inspired by incredibly accomplished people; even more so when those people are donating their time and their considerable wisdom to help others.

For non-profits, a committed volunteer base can be key to pursuing organizational goals. For volunteer-sending agencies like ours, ensuring that volunteers are selected thoughtfully, utilized effectively and satisfied in their roles is essential.

About CESO and its unique volunteers
CESO is one of a number of volunteer-based development organizations currently operating in Canada. For more than 45 years, we have offered Canadians a unique opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. Our elite roster of volunteers (we call them Volunteer Advisors) has carried out more than 47,000 assignments in more than 120 countries around the world to improve the economic health of businesses and communities, and consequently, the lives of individuals.

I learned quickly that CESO’s volunteers are its greatest assets. They bring a diverse range of knowledge and an average of 25 years of professional experience to the table. They are retired leaders from the private sector and the government, scientists and manufacturing experts, livestock specialists and food safety professionals. What they have in common is an ability to mentor others, a desire to give back and a lifetime of wisdom to share.

At CESO, we recruit volunteers with the particular skills and industry expertise requested by our clients. These Volunteer Advisors provide the mentorship and technical expertise needed through workshops and individual coaching in a number of industry sectors, from natural resource management to hospitality and tourism; and service areas, from strategic planning to management training.

Our assignment process: Matching volunteer skills with client needs
Each of our assignments is a collaboration, with the objective of enabling organizations and communities to thrive. We follow a four-step process:

  1. First, discussions are held with the client to determine needs and priorities, and to identify the skills and expertise required.
  2. Next, CESO’s recruiters provide several volunteer profiles — from our roster or through targeted outside recruiting — for client consideration, after confirming the interest and availability of each volunteer.
  3. Once the client has chosen a Volunteer Advisor, the details of the assignment are worked out between volunteer and client, often via email, telephone or Skype prior to meeting in person.
  4. Implementation comes next, supported on site by a CESO representative, who is equipped to deal with any client or volunteer concerns that may arise during the course of the assignment.

Monitoring and measuring volunteer performance
Once the Volunteer Advisor returns from the client site, detailed reports are completed by the client, the CESO representative, and the Volunteer Advisor, capturing both quantitative and qualitative feedback. Follow-up reports are also completed by CESO staff approximately one year post-assignment to help assess longer-term results. In many cases, Volunteer Advisors forge strong bonds with clients, providing long-distance mentorship and support long after their in-person work is complete.

Fostering a culture of ongoing partnership
When I took on the CEO role at CESO a few years ago, three of our Volunteer Advisors – each having built an impressive career in a similar role in the private sector – contacted me to offer mentorship and support to me in my new role. I quickly discovered that this was the norm rather than the exception — CESO’s volunteers are only too willing to help in any way they can, if they are offered the opportunity. So while assignments are the primary focus of CESO’s volunteers, there are others who support various program functions in our Canadian offices, sharing their expertise in areas such as monitoring and evaluations, recruitment or public engagement.

Fostering an environment of mutual learning and mutual respect – with our clients, our funders and our volunteers – has been key to ensuring both a satisfied volunteer base and our effectiveness in the field. Maintaining open channels of communication with our Volunteer Advisors is an important part of that culture. We have an open-door policy to new ideas, and communicate through regular newsletters and email updates as well as well-attended quarterly “Conference Calls with the CEO,” which all volunteers are invited to attend, and which always include an open question-and-answer period.

A fine balance
CESO’s Volunteer Advisors consistently tell us that they get back more than they give. Our clients tell us our volunteers go above and beyond what is expected. What we have learned is that the right match between volunteer and client can make a world of difference.

Wendy Harris, CA, is president and CEO of CESO. For more information on CESO, its volunteers and its partnership approach, visit the CESO website

“When I got into it I discovered that there were people out there who could use the information I had. It was fun to go out there and talk to them and help them to develop their skills and knowledge. CESO has taken me from the Northwest Territories to Guyana to Russia. It’s been great.”
— Clare Paulson, CESO Volunteer Advisor since 1991, and retired corporate trainer/ HR specialist

“I had heard about the CESO model from a friend. I was intrigued about the partnership idea — about the partnership between the client, the funder, and the volunteer. And I thought it was a great model. I was used to working in government as partners on various projects and I know it works well when everybody has a little skin in the game.”
–Mike Garrett, Professional Engineer, former Chief Administrative Officer of the municipalities of Peel and York and the City of Toronto, former Assistant Deputy Minister with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Chair of the Ontario Clean Water Agency and CESO Volunteer Advisor

“When people return from assignments abroad or here in Canada, I call them up, understand what their assignment was like, if they felt that it was successful, what some of the lessons learned if they were going to do the assignment would be. And I document that so CESO can learn from that going forward.”
— Bryan Blenkin, retired IT specialist and project manager, and CESO Volunteer Advisor