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Smart Volunteering: Play to Your Strengths

Joey Taylor

by Joey Taylor

You might have heard of the term “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR), also known as a corporate conscience, responsible business  or corporate citizenship. If not, the ethos of CSR is to deliver initiatives that benefit society and involves being responsible for the impact of the companies’ actions.

CSR is something I feel passionately about. I have worked in this industry for the last three years; managing corporate employees who, between them, gave thousands of hours to volunteer, and raisied over £1 million for charity. Of course, reasons that companies participate in CSR are not all selfless, and there are many sceptics of the concept.  However, companies do want to make a difference, and it is also a great way to engage staff and keep them happy, develop the professional and personal skills of their staff, make companies look better in the public eye, and ultimately CSR helps them do business. So it is a win win situation for both parties, if it is executed successfully.

If you think about it, this is not too different to international volunteering. Another area I have worked in for three years and feel passionately about, I have met and worked with many international volunteers. Of course all volunteers want to have a positive impact from their work, but volunteering is not solely altruistic. People volunteer to make themselves happy, to have new experiences, to develop their own skills and learn new ones, to make themselves look “good”, to help get ahead in the job market and improve their employability chances. Again, mutually beneficial.

Regardless of motivations, with both companies and international volunteers, there is always the potential to achieve a lot of good and make a real impact, if it is deliverd effectively.

There are many examples of corporate volunteers painting fences or building planters at charities but due their lack of painting or DIY skills, their achievements will then have to be completely re-done again by the organisation.  It cannot be expected that someone who sits behind a desk all day has “expert decorator or builder” on their CV. But companies have learnt from their mistakes of misdirected enthusiasm, and have moved away from somewhat tokenistic volunteering to something smarter.

Utilising the skills of volunteers is key. A strong understanding of volunteer’s skills is just as important as understanding community needs. For example, an IT expert can transform NGO’s computer and database systems, accountants can help charities understand their finances, marketing personell can help community groups be more effective with their communications. I organised countless numbers of charity strategic reviews with professionals, set up strong mentoring relationships between charity staff and corporate staff,  and helped organisations set up enterprise business programmes. This was hugely mutually beneficial for both organisations, the business and the staff.

Just as there are sceptics of Corporate Social Responsibility and corporate volunteering, there are sceptics of international volunteering. There are hundreds of examples of international volunteers that are more of a hindrance than a help, do a role or tasks they are not really qualified for, or that can feel useless. But just as corporate volunteering can be smart, this is where I think Sustainable Bolivia is a great example of doing international volunteering “right”.  Matching community need and volunteer skills is key to a successful volunteering placement, something that I think Sustainable Bolivia (SB) knows how to do and is in the heart of their organisation.

In my six weeks here, I have passed on my knowledge of volunteer management, fundraising and impact reporting, and and worked with the team at my placement (Bolivia Digna) to help improve their operations and staff’s skills.  Not to say my knowledge is perfect (far from it!) but this is what I know, what I do best and how  I can best contribute to an organisation who wants that support. My boyfriend, who used to coach football in the UK and US, ran a brilliant football programme with the children at Bolivia Digna, using his drills and football coaching skills and training the new volunteers on how to continue his successes. If you ask any SB volunteer, they all have great stories of their smart achievements.

You might think that this is common sense, and you are right, it is! But it is surprising how many companies, international volunteers and agencies can lack that. So before you volunteer, take a moment to stop and think about your motivations, and what skills and passions you can bring with you. A good match means the more rewarding your volunteer experience will be, and the greater the impact your placement will have on the community. Whether you are a corporate or an individual volunteer, we know that this is ultimately the most important outcome… there are just added benefits to both parties along the way.

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