The Role of Skills-based Volunteering in Global Development
I have worked in global development for over 15 years, mostly through the BiD Network Foundation, which I co-founded in 2005. At the foundation, we helped start nearly 500 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have gone on to create 3,500 new jobs. As we were partly reliant on grant money for many years, I’ve also been part of a variety of development programs implemented by NGO offices all over the world. However, I’ve come to learn that the real impact is not created in offices and by foundations, but rather takes place in the private sector. It’s being shaped by the micro-entrepreneurs on the streets selling to the millions at the end of supply chains, by SMEs distributing innovations that solve local and global challenges, and by social enterprises that are now using business as a tool to solve local challenges and create jobs.
In analyzing where most value is added through production of new goods and services – especially in emerging markets – the SMEs stand out as major contributors. It’s in that segment that most jobs are created (up to 80 percent in some economies), allowing people to shift from relative poverty, beyond what has been defined as the empowerment line, into the middle class.
However, any entrepreneur or SME manager who lacks the specific skills to overcome a timely business or technical challenge, or does not know how to communicate his or her solution to a broad customer-base, will not be able to scale the operation in a meaningful way.
For example, Ebanx is an innovative payment processing startup in Brazil, supported by Endeavor. They help businesses expand to and from Brazil. In order to expand regionally and respond to different local regulations and standards, it needed additional insight, connections, and most importantly, a sales strategy. MovingWorlds (which the author co-founded) matches global professionals volunteering their expertise with a variety of businesses and social enterprises. MovingWorlds connected Ebanx with Nicole, an experienced sales professional looking to volunteer her skills abroad for a few months (what we call “Experteering”). With her support, the startup was able to grow its operations and team from 8 to 65 employees, to become one of Brazil’s leaders in e-commerce payment solutions. Not surprisingly, Nicole was offered a long-term job and today is their Director of International Sales & Marketing.
The story of Ebanx is common for many small and growing companies in emerging markets. We consistently see that one of the biggest obstacles they encounter is the difficulty of accessing enough educated staff to propel their growth – something often referred to as the “talent gap.” My experience shows that the talent gap inhibits growth even more than a lack of access to capital.
There are many ways by which knowledge exchange through skills-based volunteering can make a positive impact. We’ve seen user experience and design experts support a local cooperative of Guatemalan women artisans to implement a new e-commerce website. On the other hand we’ve also seen examples of people working outside their professional comfort zone very successfully: one of our first experteers, Sarah, was a retired public policy expert who supported a Tanzanian animation company to produce a television series for Africans (made by Africans). She assisted with the real-time editing and synchronization of the series into other local languages. Although Sarah had the skills and even a certification to do this, she had never before done anything like it, nor had she worked for a small private company. She was nevertheless thrilled with the experience.
The good news is that there are many highly educated professionals looking to travel and donate their skills in places and organizations that could really benefit from it. Some reports indicate that over 250,000 professionals every year are volunteering internationally.
Most of them already have impressive experience, but are now seeking more fulfilling careers and are looking for international exposure to build their skills. At the same time, Experteers can share the successes and failures from their own professional experiences to help grow other SMEs more quickly and efficiently. I visualize Experteers as seeds of knowledge, being sown around the world. Those seeds may cross-breed with existing initiatives, or can germinate on their own, sometimes contributing to the creation of new entrepreneurial ecosystems in emerging markets, or sometimes coming back to where they originated, allowing new, exotic “fruits” to blossom.
In 2014, we placed 79 Experteers in 32 countries, donating nearly 7,200 hours (or 899 work days) of their professional time. In our experience, these are the types of organizations that can benefit the most from Experteering:
- Startups and SMEs seeking growth capital. Organizations looking to fundraising have very consistent needs that can help them become more attractive to investors: improved accounting systems, better financial reporting, business strategy and design, improved operational processes, and connections for fundraising.
- Scaling SMEs and social enterprises that have recently received capital. Growth-minded organizations are great candidates for Experteers to help improve efficiency, particularly in areas such as: marketing and sales, supply chain management, human resource challenges, and storytelling, design and messaging.
- Social impact organizations, like nonprofits and social enterprises at any stage, can benefit by receiving business strategy support to become more sustainable by applying more business principles in their operations.
Another benefit of involving skilled volunteers in global development is harder to measure, but equally important. In Experteering, people will gain new skills and insights, making them more experienced and flexible professionals in the long-run, contributing to their long-term success in any marketplace. Importantly, we find that once they return home, Experteers are likely to find jobs related to global development and/or continue to engage in skills-based volunteering locally.
By fostering more connections and knowledge exchange between social impact organizations and professionals looking to donate their skills abroad, together it’s possible to truly accelerate global development – and help build a better, more equal world.
Derk Norde is co-founder of the BiD Network and MovingWorlds.