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Volunteering provides "network of connection"

But tokenism on boards can be counter-productive says Immigrant Services executive director

Everyone is looking to be more inclusive and diverse – at least on paper. But when it comes to encouraging diversity in the volunteer sector, it’s worth it to define what diversity means to your organization.

Roya Robbani is the executive director of Immigrant Services Guelph Wellington and was the guest speaker at the annual general meeting of the Volunteer Centre of Guelph/Wellington Thursday afternoon.

She said some organizations invite Canadian newcomers to sit on their board of directors as a mere gesture of inclusiveness.

“You have to identify the purpose of diversity in your organization,” she said, adding there are many ways to be diverse. Age, gender, ethnic origin, religion, culture are a few of those ways. “Don’t pick people for boards just because they are not born Canadian.”

She said cultural training is key, so present board members can better understand their new colleague, and so the new Canadian can understand how boards work and how he or she can contribute.

Robbani said tokenism is okay as long as everyone is honest about it.

“I’m okay with being a token. Just let me know,” she said.

Christine Oldfield, executive director of the local volunteer centre, said the Ontario government is funding a pilot project called Newcomers on Board, with a goal of bringing more diversity to boardrooms in the public, private and volunteer sectors.

“It’s a program that needs more work,” Robbani said in an interview after the presentation. “There needs to be lots of training for the new Canadian and for board members.”

But there are many benefits to volunteering in general, on top of altruism, she said. Volunteering can provide practical work experience for those seeking jobs. It’s an opportunity to practice English in a conversational setting for those who need practice. It’s a way to meet people and begin to feel connected to the community where they now live.

“Volunteering provides a network of connection,” Robbani said, “and new immigrants need to rebuild their eroded social capital.”

In an interview, Robbani said Immigrant Services provides a program called Mobilized, Engaged, Involved to introduce the idea of volunteering, help immigrants understand the culture of community benefit organizations, and help with volunteer placement.

“We call volunteering pre-employment,” Robbani said.

Oldfield said the umbrella organization Volunteer Canada is targeting youth, seniors, new Canadians and employee volunteers in its strategic direction.

“They are different cohorts and are motivated by different things,” she said. “We use that information to help target volunteer opportunities to a specific audience.”

The volunteer centre has numerous member agencies and affiliates and helps to match individual skills and interests with organizations. For more information about the centre and ways to volunteer, visit



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