How to maximize the benefits of skills-based volunteering

By Catherine Cheney 20 July 2016

A Peace Corps Volunteer teaches self-esteem and leadership skills through outdoor activities in Lesotho. Photo by: Peace Corps

Mark Horoszowski, founder of the Seattle-based organization MovingWorlds, would be the first to say there is a right and wrong way to volunteer. That’s part of why he and his team coined the term “experteering” — to capture their alternative to the growing voluntourism industry.

MovingWorlds connects global social impact organizations with professionals who want to volunteer only once these local groups identify gaps that specialized skills can fill.

“This old mindset of volunteering has the same, outdated logic of global development,” Horoszowski said. “But this new movement around experteering represents the same evolution the global development industry is embracing: empowering local change, and recognizing opportunities for shared value in the process.”

This organization is one of several exploring the answer to the question: What is needed to maximize the benefits of skills-based volunteering?

1. Prioritize the interest of host organizations.

Eight employees from Dow Chemical Company, consulting group PricewaterhouseCoopers and financial services firm PIMCO have just returned from a month in Accra, Ghana. They participated in a program called Global Health Champions, organized by PYXERA Global and an activity of the United States Agency for International Development’s Global Health Fellows Program II. The first step in their effort to provide pro bono consulting in areas such as operations and finance was to identify the needs of the three social sector health organizations.

“Being demand-driven is really important,” said Amanda MacArthur, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based PYXERA Global, which organizes global pro bono programs. “Don’t try to fit square pegs in round holes.”

While programs such as these are funded by companies looking to provide experiences that benefit their employees and ultimately their own strategic goals, they will only succeed if the local host clients, in this case the Ghanaian NGOs, engage in the same interactive and iterative process. Ahead of the Ghana trip, PYXERA Global held in-person meetings with organizations like HealthKeepers to develop realistic scopes of work to meet specific operational and programmatic needs.

2. Make sure these are real projects that meet real needs.

While many skills-based programs frame their metrics of success around what volunteers accomplish and learn during the placement, the make or break moment actually occurs the moment the project is posted. The key question to ask is whether this is a real project that is meaningful for the host organization, Horoszowski said.

Host organizations should take the time upfront to make sure the role the volunteer will fill is necessary versus nice to have. Placement organizations should make sure the needs is one the volunteer can really address. And the volunteers should make sure the tasks suits their qualifications. In other words, If it is not a real project, demanding real skills, then it has no real chance of success, and may even be a waste of time.

“Take any resource strapped organization, and often they don’t actually know the skills they need most,” Horoszowski told Devex. “There isn’t enough of a conversation helping these organizations discover what their talent challenges are making sure they are the ones who say this is what I need.”

He said he wants to improve the MovingWorlds model by replicating the success of other peer based assessment models and bringing these host organizations together to better identify their shared talent needs.

3. Be mindful of the difference between expertise and enthusiasm.

No matter how good their intentions or how valuable their skills, skills-based volunteers should acknowledge their limits. And when there is a miscommunication about their intentions or skills before they even arrive on the scene, both they and the organizations they aim to serve are at a disadvantage.

“Be very clear on the buying or selling side whether this is expertise or good problem solving ability, enthusiasm, and a willingness to work hard,” said Katie Bach of Open Capital Advisors, a strategy and financial consulting firm based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Organizations that bring volunteers on “a cultural experience” as compared to a skills-based volunteering project should be open and honest about that, Cathy Leslie, executive director of Engineers Without Borders USA, told Devex. Her organization is one of many built around the belief that volunteers should add value through specific professional skills.

4. Consider the community beyond the office walls.

Not all skills-based volunteer assignments require knowledge of local context. But whether the task is to build a financial projection model or to improve customer segmentation, offering your skills without learning about your environment can result in the all too typical profile of the well-intentioned but poorly prepared volunteer.

“You really need to be humble and go in with a learning mindset,” said Rajiv Khanna, director of learning and evaluation at the San Francisco-based International Development Exchange, which provides a weeklong training program that teaches those preparing to work in social change key lessons, like the importance of working with local partners. “If you go in with inquiry and humility, your results will be very different.”

MovingWorlds provides the same parting words to every volunteer: “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have,” read the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say 'We have done this ourselves.’”

These words are a caution against a common pitfall in skills-based volunteering, a lack of trust between the volunteer and the host organization, which can result from a lack of planning and a lack of humility.

5. Address a short-term need and have a long-term impact.

Sometimes a company that needs a job done once can benefit from a volunteer who will do that job for free rather than hiring a consultant. Still, with volunteering as with consulting, it’s important to manage expectations.

“It’s at best unsustainable and at worst destabilizing to rely on talent that is sort of cycling through,” Ryan Steinbach, who connects millennials with meaningful careers at Impact Business Leaders in Washington, D.C., told Devex.

He said volunteers should have total clarity on whether they are meeting a one time need, in which case they better build something that can be used long term, or whether they need to ensure knowledge transfer, in which case they must build models they can hand over.

“Leave as much behind as you can,” MacArthur said. “Document your process from start to finish. We often hear from clients it’s not as much the work that these volunteers did. It’s what they learn from it.”

She said she finds that process, the how and the why from point A to point B, is an area where international NGOs often have much to learn from the private sector companies she engages in in corporate volunteering programs.

6. Address the gaps in human capital.

One of the leading barriers to growth for small and medium enterprises in emerging markets is not just financial capital, but human capital, like access to accountants and attorneys. MovingWorlds sends volunteers individually or through sponsored programs to these smaller organizations that are creating local solutions and providing local jobs.

This is because, when organized effectively, skills-based volunteering programs can help fill the talent gap faced by these organizations in the missing middle.

The best skills-based volunteering projects transfer skills and experience to the local organization, engage the organization in conversations about operational strategy, help organizations solve blocking issues in order to achieve their mission, and connect them to global networks that can result in new partnerships, funding and information.

And even when a skills-based volunteering assignment comes to a close, long term impact can come in the form of mentorship. But again, like volunteering, there is a right and wrong way to mentor. A report from the Silicon Valley-based RippleWorks, which pairs senior talent with emerging market ventures, found that these engagements work best when advisers are engaged in specific challenges faced by the business.

“There is all this goodwill on one side, and all this need on the other side, and it’s the matchmaking it between that is needed to make that mentorship exponentially valuable,” said Prashant K. Gulati, the founder of SmartStart, which works to fill gaps including personal mentoring in emerging markets.

7. Consider whether you want to make a volunteer project a full-time focus.

Many corporate volunteering programs start out as employee engagement strategies, and the data shows that this time outside of the office results not only in retention, but also a more skilled and globally perceptive workforce.

Melissa Sassi, a marketing communications professional for Microsoft, went on to launch the nonprofit MentorNations, which organizes coding camps and digital literacy workshops, after her experience supporting Mercy Corps in Tunisia as a MovingWorlds experteer.

Sometimes, skills-based volunteering inspires professionals to change course, and that is a reality organizations like MovingWorlds have to address in conversations with potential partners.

Take Jay Patel, whose work facilitating volunteer projects for Googlers ultimately turned him into an ex-Googler. He used his time as a skills-based volunteer to transition from his role in advertising at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, to becoming vice president of business development for Village Energy in Kampala, Uganda.

“The way I look at it is as more of a path,” Steinbach said, talking about a range of options, from Experteering to yearlong fellowships, that can bridge the gap from “tours of duty” to high impact careers.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.

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