09 February 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Not All Volunteer Projects are Created Equal

I have been blogging elsewhere recently, so I wanted to link some of them here. This blog post was written for The International Business Council (IBC) blog and can be found in it’s original form here.

The IBC and PEPY Tours in Cambodia

When running a start-up organization, you are always looking for volunteers, people who are willing to share their time and their knowledge with you to get your work off the ground. At first you are hanging on every word that people share with you as you learn about accounting, business plans, marketing, and all of the pieces that come with starting a new venture.  You are willing to take any volunteer who is willing to give their time and you charge full-speed ahead into your work using their ideas.  Then there comes a day when you start getting have to start saying no to volunteers.

This has been our same story as we developed our hybrid organization, PEPY: an education non-profit organization working in literacy and leadership, as well as an edu-venture tour company which helps to fund the programs. There came a point where we started to be more discerning about the help we were able to take.  Many people contacted us saying that they were willing to volunteer.  We have taken some of those who were not able to come to Cambodia but instead offered their services virtually, but usually there are problems with:

  • Finding the exact right match of skills and needs. When volunteers are far away from the problem, it takes a long time to get to understand how their skills can fit with your organization.
  • Time. It takes a lot of time to construct that match, to follow up with virtual volunteers, and to share the work that they do with the rest of the team.
  • Conflicting ideas. When people are outside of the company, it becomes difficult for them to keep up to date on the daily developments of the organization, so sometimes it can result in the repetition of work of a work product or work which misses the mark.

At PEPY, we have worked with groups of volunteers in the past who have taken more time than the value they have added.  I commend the IBC and the process used to support PEPY Tours this year, as it is a good example of what can be possible using virtual volunteers to assist an organization.

First, I want to comment on past IBC support initiatives. I was involved in the first IBC delegation to go abroad to “help”. There were three of us who went down to visit projects, McKinsey professional Maggie Durant, a current State Senator of New Mexico, and myself. We were probably a smart enough group to work on a feasibility study of the IBC’s impact, but there was one big flaw: we weren’t prepared to help in a way that would make sense for the program. We had not understood how to do the proper research before we left, which would have all pointed to the signs saying: you can’t help if you are only committed to the short term. The issues we were looking to “advise” on were extensive: business development in a multi-culture environment, agricultural cooperatives looking for market analysis. . . in GUATEMALA and HONDURAS, places we knew little about. During our week-long visit, we took a lot of people’s time and set expectations that we quickly realized we were not able to fill.  Tim, Maggie and I all agreed – this was a learning experience, and we needed to find a different way for the IBC to promote its social mission.

The next group I came in contact with through the IBC was a delegation that was sent to Cambodia, the country I have been working in since 2005. This group did extensive research before coming out to Cambodia to work with a microcredit organization. There are many costs associated with traveling abroad, as in both of these projects, and issues related to translation and cultural understanding can often add further set-backs.

So what can we do to move forward? Work hard to find the right match. I was grateful that the IBC reached out to us at PEPY last year and offered virtual support, and I was been even more delighted when we saw the match was a good one. A group of IBC volunteers including Ryan Jochum, Kate McDermott, Matthew O’Connor, and Steve Wierema,  helped PEPY virtually for nearly three months. Weekly conference calls kept everyone on track, and the team was led by Evan Lintz, who kept everyone on track and organized, and Tim Rann, a former PEPY intern. With the system they set up of managing the volunteer team, there was very little time taken away from full-time PEPY staff while also ensuring a strong understanding of the work PEPY does which made their final work product very valuable. 

The group analyzed PEPY’s tour offerings when compared with competitors, gave advice on the marketing and branding strategies of the organization, and analyzed industry trends. Their final project will continue to be very useful for our organization for many years to come, and we thank the team for giving us their time and their knowledge.

If any of you is looking to volunteer your time virtually for an organization, you can learn a lot by following in their footsteps:

  • Spend the time to find a good match between your skills and the organization’s needs.
  • Be willing to do the “boring” stuff.
  • Be organized and give your feedback in a well documented fashion so that the partner not only knows what you did, but how you did it. This builds up the organization’s capacity by helping the staff to continue the process in the future on their own.
  • Provide connections to new ideas and new people to gather other interest and support for the work you are now a part of.

The IBC team working with PEPY did all of these things, and for that we are very grateful. Hopefully the fruits of their labor will show as we continue to develop our product offerings at PEPY Tours and now have a well outlined path for further improvements.


Note: After this process, Tim Rann decided to come back on to the PEPY Team and will become CEO of PEPY Tours from April, 2010.  Congratulations, Tim!

PEPY is a hybrid organization with two parts: PEPY Cambodia, an educational development organization and PEPY Tours, a travel company focusing on educational adventures.

Daniela Papi studied economics at Notre Dame and graduated in the class of 2000. She was a member of the SIBC (then the NDCIBD) and worked in London through the SIBC internship program. She has lived in Asia for nearly 8 years, the first three in Japan and since 2005 in Cambodia. She welcomes any IBC members to visit her at the PEPY office in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  You can read more about her thoughts on development and tourism on her blog: www.lessonsilearned.org