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Volunteer Services Assistant

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The non-profit community is tight-knit as it is, but this event offers a unique opportunity for organizations to come together and offer advice for the next generation.

On March 30, 2011, Volunteer Services and Career Services hosted the Working in the Non-Profit Sector event – five panellists came to speak to students about how they ended up with their current profession, life lessons they learned along the way, and addressed the many questions students had about the nature of the non-profit sector. If you couldn’t attend, here are the stories the panellists shared with us.

Trina Isakson, founder of Change Through _____

After obtaining two Bachelor’s degrees in biology and education, Trina taught high school science before she decided to switch over into event planning. Because of her volunteer experience in high school and university, she had the skills for the position and managed galas, special events and writing competitions. She knew her passion was in community building, so she returned to school and completed a master’s degree in community economic development. She became the first program coordinator of the current SFU Volunteer Services department and worked with various faculties to create community projects and improve inter-connectivity at SFU.

She founded "Change Through ____" in February 2011, a monthly meetup that brings together people interested in civic engagement. Each month has a different theme. The next event will be Change Through Food Systems on May 3.


On the whole, all decisions Trina made were right for her at that time, and helped her grow in different ways. However, she regrets not being more assertive when an employer asked her what they could do for her. Looking back, she realizes she should have asked for professional mentorship, skill development courses or a pay raise.

Words of Advice

Your future career is not defined by your education.

When applying for a job, be it volunteer or paid, it’s critical to communicate your passion first and foremost.

Treat your volunteer commitments seriously – don’t flake out on your shifts, come late, or slack off. It’s stressful to manage non-committed volunteers, and not being paid doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it your all. This may be your first position in a sector you’re passionate about, and the networking opportunities are invaluable. Word spreads fast, so make sure you leave a good impression.

Andrea Banner, Burnaby Branch Manager for St. John Ambulance

Prior to St. John, Andrea worked at a bank and Alberta Transportation. By chance, she saw a job posting for St. John, an organization that offers first aid courses, and decided to apply just to try something different. She believed in what St. John does and went on to work there for over ten years. She’s managed different branches and assists with fundraising, administration and volunteer coordination. She loves that St. John brings her into contact with so many different people and appreciates being able to offer them tools they will use their entire lives to help others. “If you’re considering trying out a new career, jump in with both feet – you have nothing to lose and all to gain.”

Strongly Recommends

Investing time and money into leadership training courses, such as the ones she completed at the Banff Centre. Though it meant saving up money and leaving her job to participate, she considers it one of the best decision she’s ever made.


Andrea wishes she finished her Master’s degree – “Don’t leave loose ends. If you start something, make sure to finish it – you may regret it when it’s too late.”

Liz Charyna, Manager, Partnerships & Supported Employment at Bridging Opportunities with Business

After completing a diploma in recreational leadership, Liz worked at BC Parks and Recreation. She then took a role providing recreational programs for the disabled and coordinated galas and special events. After an opportunity came up to work at their employment center, she provided informational interviews to clients. Her next position was with CNIB, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. She worked with both employer and client to design or scout a suitable position, as well as offering clients tools needed to transition into their new roles. She currently works for Building Opportunities with Business, a program that helps corporations provide employment opportunities for marginalized members in the community – their work revitalizes communities. Liz is deeply passionate about her role, as her work makes a real difference in peoples’ lives. She loves to see corporations exercising corporate and social responsibility, as well.


“I worked briefly as an extra. It’s amazing how hard people have to work to produce a bad film.”

Words of Advice

If you feel unappreciated in an organization, get out. Don’t squander your talents and energies – there are places that need and appreciate the skills you have.

Effie Garcia, S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Program Coordinator

Effie works at a non-profit called S.U.C.C.E.S.S., which provides a variety of services for immigrants and non-immigrants. Effie now works in the employment and settlement division, but she entered into this position with experience that helped her understand employers’ needs from many perspectives. She began her career in an employment division of a recruitment firm, where she gained a strong understanding of what employers sought from job applicants and employees. After running her own event management company, she made contacts in a variety of sector – her also spent time public relations, thus gaining a solid understanding of the nature of branding and public image. She also had exposure to different cultures by growing up in the Phillipines and working in Philadelphia – this improves the quality of her communication with immigrants, community members and employers. Effie came into contact with S.U.C.C.E.S.S. when she needed career advice herself – she left a good impression and a position had opened up. Happenstance is an amazing thing!

Words of Advice

When you work for an organization, come with an attitude of “what can I do for you”, rather than vice versa. You will be amazed at how strong of an impression this will leave on your employer.

Though not always true, in many cases people in the corporate world are looking to make money for their company and themselves. In the non-profit sector, the work is driven more by passion than it is self-interest.


Effie plans to continue her education by taking more psychology courses so as to better understand her clients and employers.

Stuart Sutton-Jones, Country Manager for Lattitude Volunteering

After studying for an English degree in England, Stuart travelled to Ghana to study folk tales for his master’s degree. While there, the university he studied at participated in a massive demonstration against the military. Communication channels went down and Stuart began a correspondence with the BBC through letters to update them on developments. After the event was over, the BBC offered him the position of producer and African correspondent, though he had no related experience. After living in Zimbabwe for a few years, he left because it was a dangerous place for him and his wife to raise their children. After moving to Vancouver, he was offered to work for Lattitude through its founder, an old friend of his. He has effectively raised its public profile and increased participation. Currently the country manager for Canada, he will soon manage all programs for North America.

Words of Advice

Don’t underestimate the power of friendships when it comes to networking – since you will share interests and may work in similar sectors, they just may help you find your dream job.

If you plan to work for international organizations such as the BBC or UNICEF, it’s unlikely you’ll get hired if you have no international experience or haven’t worked outside of your city. Moving away from homes gives professionals a more informed perspective on people and the world. Living in one place prevents people from reaching a higher level of maturity and cultural intelligence. Get out of your comfort zone! Now’s the time.

After sharing their educational and career experiences, the panellists addressed a variety of myths about the sector.

1. Professionals in the Sector Will Not Make Enough Money to Live Comfortably.

Trina explains that due to being a frugal spender, she was able to purchase her own condo at thirty. She mentions that though she is paid half of what her lawyer friend makes, she is much happier. Stuart explains that though the non-profit sector may not pay as much as for-profit, a network like the BBC still pays someone with his position very well, and the values of the network and the people he works make him passionate and satisfied with his work. For him, a higher salary is not a strong enough incentive to abandon that. There’s only so much one needs, anyhow – however, he acknowledges that different organizations may pay significantly less than what he earns, and they may consider the lower pay a bigger hindrance on their comfort and lifestyle.

2. There is Little Job Security.

Trina explains that as it is, even for-profit companies don’t offer true job security, as they often only secure funding for a position for one to two years. Working in the non-profit sector means working in a field that is more receptive to what employees of Trina’s generation truly want – fewer hours, free time for volunteering, exercise and personal development. The for-profit sector is not addressing these needs as well as non-profit, and they do not understand why their younger employees are not as passionate about their work as they could be. Can still get fired or laid off in the corporate world – funding often only available for one or two years.

3. There’s No Upwards Mobility.

Andrea responded that her coordination role began as a basic position – it was due to her hard work as well as the opportunity for growth and flexibility that St John offered that she could move on to higher positions. She comments that if students expect this, they have to exhibit an excellent work ethic.

4. Working in Certain Organizations Make it Difficult to Start a Family.

This depends on the type of non-profit you work for. Stuart explains that in his experience, this is true, but he worked in countries that were in states of emergency, and while it was a perfect fit for him given his personality and interests, it put his wife and children in danger. His wife also had to have a subordinate career – she worked as a teacher and was willing to move if Stuart was assigned to work in a new country. Many of his friends working for international non-profits agree this to be an important consideration.

Stuart also explains that positions you work on depend on what life stage you are at. When one is a single graduate, their adaptability is very different from when they start a family. You’ve got the least baggage you’ll ever have right now – if you want to take a chance and explore the world, this is the perfect time.

Other panelists such as Liz and Effie explain that since the nature of their work is different, positions in non-profit give them greater flexibility in balancing family and work, since they can clock their hours and make them up later.

5. I’m Worried About Job Security and a Competitive Salary with Non-Profits Highly Influenced by Government Grants and Donations?

Andrea explains that in some cases, some non-profits do shut down if their money runs out and they don’t have alternate ways of creating income. If you’re worried an organization you’re interested in may run into this issue, try to work somewhere that is more self-sufficient. St John, for instance, makes money from students that take their coursers, so they are not influenced by government grant cuts.

Thank You to Our Participants

If you’d like to learn more from the panelists, they welcome your questions! You can get in contact with them through their website links. Don’t be shy – you may just gain a valuable mentor or a fulfilling volunteer position.

Thank you to our panelists for taking the time to volunteer and share their stories with the SFU community, and thank you to the students for your interest and intelligent questions. We look forward to hosting a new panel in 2012, so spread the word to your friends!

Interested in Being on the Panel?

If you’re considering speaking next year, this event is a great opportunity to hear the experiences of other leaders in the sector as passionate about their work as you. The non-profit community is tight-knit as it is, but this event offers a unique opportunity for organizations to come together and offer advice for the next generation.

Volunteer Services Assistant
visibility  105
Jan 29, 2012

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