Volunteer experience transforms executive’s life

“There is something about Africa that never leaves your heart.”

For Karen McBride, her words reflect her love for the continent and her commitment to volunteerism. Over the last decade, she has committed herself to improving the lives of others through volunteering with the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada (CDF Canada), and its predecessor, the Canadian Co-operative Association.

“It’s real and vital and most people are vibrant, cheerful while they live their life with almost nothing,” Karen said. “It’s a chance to make a difference to their lives and their children’s lives.”

Since 2011, Karen has volunteered multiples times in Malawi and in Ghana where she used her experience in the co-operative movement to enhance Savings and Credit Co-operative Organizations (SACCOs). As a retired Executive Vice President, Chief Risk Officer and Chief Compliance Officer, Karen used her experience to coach and provide recommendations to board members and employees about operations and governance.

Karen McBride stands beside a table and gives a presentation to the Malawi Police credit union. There are two men seated at the table beside her.

Karen McBride gives a presentation to the Malawi Police SACCO.

In 2013 and 2014, Karen spent 12 months in Malawi, working with MUSCCO, to implement new banking legislation as well as develop risk management and compliance programs and policies. At the request of the CEO, she also developed and delivered leadership development to prepare women for senior management roles. Women leaders took seven training modules, and she was happy to see how their confidence grew and how far they have advanced in the workplace in the intervening years. In particular, she is proud of the role she and her husband played in launching a much-needed SACCO (credit union) for the Malawi Police.

Historically, a lack of trust had blocked its formation; however, Karen’s husband, an Anglican priest and longtime police chaplain, worked with the Malawi police chaplaincy program, and was able to build trust to the point the Inspector General agreed it could go forward. Gradually, through financial literacy training, recruitment drives, staff development, donated equipment, and support in obtaining regulatory approvals, the SACCO was formed and opened its doors in 2014. Membership grew rapidly and today the SACCO is doing very well as the second largest in Malawi.

“Launching the SACCO was exciting because police salaries are very low to the point most people tended not to save anything at all,” Karen said. “When a police officer dies, there was a chance the surviving member would starve.”

Today, Karen and her husband continue to provide support to smaller projects in Malawi. They help with education and support for orphans and children, and are currently engaged with the Malawi police chaplains to provide funds and supplies for a new church at police headquarters and the associated children’s programs.

Karen McBride stands with children at the Zomba School.

Karen McBride and students from Zomba Secondary School.

The need is great and conditions in Malawi have continued to deteriorate year by year. It can seem overwhelming at times; however, Karen concentrates on how she can contribute as an individual, because even small contributions have the potential to transform lives. There simply isn’t an excuse to do nothing. Her goal is to make a difference where she can, and in ways that would positively affect future generations. SACCOs provide opportunities for financial stability for families and opportunities for members’ children.

Karen also has advice for those who want to volunteer. To be successful, it’s important to be humble and set aside your ego. Having a respectful attitude allows volunteers to understand the culture, how people think, what they do and why they do it, she said.

At the same time, Karen recommends volunteering with CDF Canada. She said credit unions and co-operatives are essential to people in the communities they serve.

“You will not come back the same as you went – it really transforms people,” Karen said. “It’s the most amazing thing I did.”

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