Volunteerism: A tribute to US business and professional goodwill ambassadors

A volunteer for USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer Program, which promotes sustainable economic growth, food security and agricultural development worldwide. Volunteers are U.S. farmers, people from agribusinesses, cooperatives and universities. Photo by: Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance

Two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and author of “Democracy in America,” recognized and applauded U.S. voluntary action on behalf of the common good. His observations are just as relevant today, and not just with respect to volunteering within the United States. U.S. volunteers are having a big impact globally.

As we celebrate International Volunteer Day, it’s important to acknowledge and underscore the role that business and professional volunteers play in addressing global issues ranging from hunger and poverty to youth unemployment.

Skilled professional volunteers bring a seasoned and market-focused business perspective to donor-funded programs and can play an important role in global stability and economic growth.

Potential for growth

However, according to a Center for Social Development research brief, while over 1 million U.S. citizens volunteered internationally in 2008, less than 12 percent provided professional or management expertise as part of their volunteer experience. The ability to grow this segment is tremendous if one considers the 78 million baby boomers in their 50s, 60s and beyond. These are individuals with marketable skills who could, for example, serve as valuable mentors to emerging market entrepreneurs. And the pool is not limited to individual volunteers.  

Another survey by PYXERA Global found that almost one-third of U.S. corporations embrace some form of employee volunteering, and since 2008, more than 26 corporations have sent over 8,000 employees on global pro bono assignments in 80 countries on five continents. As more corporations realize the value of volunteerism, the impact will grow.

These U.S. business and professional pro bono experts constitute a cadre of U.S. ambassadors of goodwill, mentoring local businesses, producer associations, central banks and ministries and governments — establishing peer-to-peer relationships which last well beyond the volunteer assignment timeframe. They include bankers, lawyers, food processors, cooperative managers, university professors, diaspora and women entrepreneurs, local government administrators, retirees and many other midcareer professionals with the passion, credibility and practical management experience to give back.

Sharing business skills

Senior executives from the most successful U.S. companies can provide world-class interventions and a level of talent that is hard to find elsewhere.

Firm-level business acumen is one of the most valuable volunteer contributions internationally, and there are many areas where business and professionals can have an impact, most notably in the area of emerging market small and medium-sized enterprise startups.

The International Finance Corp.’s 2013 Jobs Study indicates that population growth will drive the need for 600 million new jobs by 2020, and in the developing world, nine out of 10 employment opportunities are created by private enterprise. SMEs will likely constitute a major employment generator. Unlike international development consultants, volunteer businessmen and women can relate to local entrepreneurs on a different wavelength altogether. U.S. entrepreneurs who have tried and failed, and tried again until they achieved success make invaluable instructors to SME startups.

The World Economic Forum published a report in 2010, stating that beyond access to capital, access to talent is the second biggest barrier to economic progress.

“The scope of the challenge is so broad that no single stakeholder can solve it alone,” the report states. “Educational institutions, business, governments and NGOs must come together to propose new frameworks and solutions that will create a new talent environment ... balancing the needs of both developed and developing economies.”

Volunteers’ practical business, legal and professional experience can enrich donor-funded entrepreneurial training programs and workforce development tied to local businesses. And specific examples of business and professional volunteers providing effective assistance to SME startups abound.

Providing access to energy

One of the factors limiting SME growth and expansion is access to reasonably priced energy.  

A Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance volunteer in Morocco, for example, helped a struggling enterprise that dries plums cut its energy consumption by 30 percent, reducing the impact of one of the limiting factors to SME growth. The operation turned around, saving many jobs and livelihoods in the process.

Volunteers from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association International Foundation are not only helping businesses access energy, but they are also helping address the needs of those who don’t have access to electricity. USAID-support Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers, meanwhile, are working hard to increase the value of farming in rural areas. Each year, nearly 1,000 volunteers participate in needs-based assignments, working with host organizations to improve crop yields, reduce post-harvest losses and adopt mobile technology and other innovations to help raise rural incomes, reduce the drudgery of traditional cropping methods and build community resilience in the face of multiple shocks.

And pro bono legal assistance through organizations such as International Senior Lawyers Project is helping the governments and local communities of the least developed countries with their efforts to improve the management and governance of their countries’ extractive sector wealth. These volunteers include some of the most experienced mining, environmental, tax and other international transactions lawyers in the world.

Volunteers, especially business and professional volunteers, played a vital role in these success stories and many others, and point to the value of mobilizing U.S. ambassadors of goodwill in vastly greater numbers to help meet the challenges ahead.

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Michael Deal

    Michael Deal is the executive director and CEO of Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance, the world's largest consortium of 26 international development NGOs focused on economic growth projects that incorporate highly skilled expert volunteers. Prior to VEGA, he was USAID mission director in Colombia, culminating a 28-year foreign service career that included assignments as acting assistant administrator and senior deputy assistant administrator of the Latin American Bureau.