Today is International Volunteer Day, so I thought it fitting to pay tribute to the dedicated, talented and dynamic volunteer advisors at MaRS, a group of entrepreneurship “ambassadors” who support and mentor early-stage ventures.

Community engagement and volunteerism are integral to the social and economic well-being of our country, not to mention its vibrancy. Volunteers often exude a strong sense of civic pride, knowing their contribution, be it small or large, is ultimately making a positive and potentially lasting impact, often helping the recipients move closer toward achieving their goals and objectives.

MaRS Volunteer Advisor Program enables community business and entrepreneurial leaders to “give back” to their community

To recognize the value and opportunities associated with volunteerism, we created the MaRS Volunteer Advisor Program in 2008. It enables community business and entrepreneurial leaders to “give back” to their community by supporting and mentoring early-stage entrepreneurial ventures.

Now entering its fourth year, the program stemmed from the explosive growth in the numbers of entrepreneurs seeking support and access to mentorship, demands that were beyond the capacity of the small (albeit strong and capable!) team of MaRS advisors. Capacity challenges aside, the needs of these entrepreneurial clients were also becoming so diverse and unique that even adding full-time sector generalists wasn’t enough, so we called upon the broader business community.

Engaging and integrating community business leaders into the MaRS fabric was not only good for our entrepreneurial clients, but also an effective means of creating and grooming a dynamic group of MaRS volunteer ambassadors to promote innovation, engage new and expanded networks, and educate others about the inherent potential and excitement of being an entrepreneur.

While these MaRS volunteers have primarily focused on educating, mentoring, advising and sometimes even parenting early-stage entrepreneurial ventures, it’s actually their supplementary activities that have proven to be of exceptional value to MaRS and, more importantly, our entrepreneurial clients:

  • They often contribute to and lecture in the MaRS entrepreneurship education programs.
  • They leverage their networks to introduce clients to prospective customers, talent, investors or strategic partners.
  • Volunteers represent MaRS at speaking engagements, conferences and events.
  • Recently, they have even helped identify prospective tenants for the MaRS Phase 2 expansion.

But why do they want to volunteer and contribute to MaRS? According to them, it boils down to three things:

  • They’re keen to leverage their experience, credentials and “know-how” to educate, mentor and inspire early-stage entrepreneurial ventures, especially when the insight and support they provide helps entrepreneurs succeed.
  • Given the skills and credentials required of MaRS volunteer advisors, they form a unique group that, unto itself, presents exciting networking opportunities and a forum for exchanging ideas with other like-minded, accomplished individuals.
  • And lastly, since all MaRS volunteers are excited, intrigued and inspired by innovation, science and technology, what better place than an innovation centre to have their fingers on the pulse of “what’s next?”

MaRS is only one example of an organization that has developed a platform to engage the growing volunteer community in Canada.

  • The Framework Foundation’s Timeraiser program connects prospective volunteers with organizations seeking support, all the while supporting and promoting local artisans.
  • The Queen’s Players Toronto theatre group, a non-profit, volunteer-based troupe, has served as a springboard for many aspiring actors, comedians and musicians in return for their help in raising money and awareness for an array of charities.

Volunteers are an integral part of our communities in so many ways, producing many direct, indirect and unintended benefits. There are numerous volunteer opportunities in this country right now for dedicated, motivated and inspiring people.

If you’re already doing your part – thank you. If you’re interested in contributing to your community, take the initiative to find the right opportunity that aligns with your interests and values. As the MaRS volunteer advisors will attest, it’s an amazing and unique experience.

Don Duval

Don Duval is the CEO of the Northern Centre of Advanced Technology, a regional innovation centre focused on working with community partners to help start and accelerate the growth of innovative companies. He is a founding MaRS Ambassador – speaking around the world on topics related to innovation, commercialization and entrepreneurship. See more…