CUSO was founded as a university-based organization recruiting recently graduated students for volunteer service around the world. Soon, however, non-students were also being recruited and the original name altered to Canadian University Service Overseas. Ultimately, with an increasing focus on trades as well as professions and indeed a longstanding policy of attempting to move from volunteerism to project aid, the word "university" was dropped altogether in 1981 and "CUSO" ceased to be an acronym. Its Quebec operations (using the French name SUCO – Service Universitaire Canadienne Outremer) separated from CUSO in 1979.
It was in its first decades roughly analogous to the Peace Corps of the United States and VSO of the UK and Ireland, and was established at roughly the same time. However, unlike the Peace Corps, it was never a government agency although it began receiving federal government funding in 1965. Since 1968 the Canadian International Development Agency has provided most of CUSO's core funding.
Today, CUSO, despite its serious decline in recent decades, remains one of Canada's largest volunteer sending organization, committed to promoting social justice in 17 countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Southeast Asia, though it has abandoned its formerly substantial presence in the South Pacific. CUSO volunteers, called cooperants, are professionals recruited from both Canada and developing countries. Cooperants build capacity of local partner organizations (usually NGO's, networks and governments), by sharing information, human and material resources, and promoting policies for developing global sustainability. Areas of CUSO programming are AIDS, environmental protection, community economic development and inclusive governance.
Over the years, CUSO has had to respond to both positive and negative pressures.
Proactively, CUSO has explored new approaches to programming and volunteer-sending, including the placement of cooperants from the Global South to the North, and in-country and South-South volunteer placements. CUSO has also had to react to significant funding cuts and an increasingly difficult fundraising environment. There have been staff number reductions, and offices in both Canada and overseas regions have been closed. Country programs in some areas have been scaled back or shut down. In the fall of 2007, CUSO closed its offices and programs in Chile, and in the Pacific nations of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
In November 1, 2008, CUSO and VSO-Canada will merge. By joining forces, the new entity will become Canada’s largest international cooperation agency that works through volunteers.
The new organization – to be known as CUSO-VSO – will be the North American member of the international VSO Federation. The Federation includes VSO organizations in the U.K., the Netherlands, Kenya, and the Philippines, in addition to Canada. India and Ireland are expected to join the Federation in the near future. (VSO stands for Voluntary Service Overseas.)
Together, these VSO entities make up the world’s largest non-governmental volunteer-sending international development organization. CUSO-VSO will maintain an independent Board of Directors, and, as the second-largest member, will have a significant voice on the VSO International Board.
CUSO-VSO will take a leadership role in two of the Federation’s key programming areas – governance & access to justice, and the environment & natural resource management. Canadians will be able to apply for placements in any of VSO’s worldwide programs. With the addition of CUSO’s programs, the VSO Federation will have programs and volunteering opportunities in 44 countries in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean.