Without the proper planning, preparation, and long-term thinking, skills-based volunteers and the organizations that sponsor them can easily do more harm than good.
A lack of access to skills stifles the growth of social impact initiatives around the world—especially new or locally led organizations looking to achieve scale. These organizations can benefit immensely from the targeted infusion of skills, knowledge, industry insights, and in-person support that traveling skill-based volunteers can deliver.
Analysis of skills-based volunteer case studies we’ve done at MovingWorlds—a skills-based, volunteer-matching platform for professionals—has revealed insights into the importance of these volunteers, and their potential to either crash and burn, or catalyze the next stage of social impact.
We have supported more than 550 volunteer matches across more than 50 countries. Through a review of impact reports, debrief calls, and personal stories published by our volunteers and their host organizations, we see a consistent theme: Professionals’ skills, connections, know-how, and insights can be catalytic during the pioneering stage of social enterprises, where most organizations and social good initiatives perish. But for these types of engagements to succeed, everyone involved needs to commit to proper planning, preparation, and long-term thinking.
Given that a growing number of professionals are seeking skills-based volunteering projects and a growing number of corporate programs are looking to sponsor them, these findings are especially important. We believe our industry stands at a moment of potential peril. Without a set of standards to guide the placement of skill-based volunteers, it could easily go the way of the “voluntourism” industry, where well-intentioned people pay thousands of dollars to make little-to-no impact and often propagate systemic issues—eroding dignity or even creating markets for kidnapping.
Yet skills-based volunteers can provide catalytic support. Our work with Ubongo Kids, an African social enterprise that creates interactive edutainment for kids in Africa using the technologies they already have, is a good example. Ubongo has engaged skills-based volunteers at two pivotal points in its growth.
Filling the gaps in expertise
In 2013, unable to access the capital it needed to improve its content and start building international partnerships, Ubongo looked for a less-traditional resource to help it grow. With our organization’s help, Ubongo’s leadership team found the expertise they were looking for in Sarah Horrigan. A retired professional with more than 30 years of consulting experience in operations, partnership building, and advocacy, Horrigan was also certified to teach English overseas.
In Spring of 2014, the Ubongo staff helped Horrigan find a free place to live for her six-week assignment and scoped out her would-be areas of focus during an extensive pre-trip planning process. This involved a training, a personal preparation checklist, and several collaborative planning calls during which Ubongo and Horrigan mapped out a project and sustainability planning guide. While in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Horrigan was tasked with helping Ubongo’s founders gain international exposure for their ideas, helping the content creation team translate Swahili to English, and consulting on improving operations. Her work in these areas helped Ubongo expand, which in turn helped it earn ongoing grant capital from numerous groups, including USAID.