Why bother with strategic volunteering? Reflections from the AVPN Road Show


Fiona Halton


Fiona Halton

Fiona Halton

I can still visualize the flight path described in one of the first slides the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network showed at the different roundtables and workshops that I was speaking at. It snaked down from Mumbai to Singapore along to Hong Kong and then upward to Seoul and Tokyo.

I remember it because the map made me feel daunted at the sheer ambition of travelling to all these places in 15 days and wonder how my talk, on getting corporate skills into non-profits and the benefits, would go down with very different audiences.  

I need not have worried. The thing about the AVPN Road Show is that there is a common thread of wanting to learn, breaking down boundaries and building a community.

Across all the countries we visited, there were three types of volunteering identified by our facilitator Patsian Low from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), Singapore: mass volunteering where people might fundraise together on a particular day; task volunteering where a book keeper might give their services to a non profit and strategic volunteering, where business leaders work with the director of a non profit and coach them on their business strategy.

I quickly realized that the latter, strategic volunteering, is the most unusual.

So why is this and what are the barriers to this type of volunteering?

·       For business, time was the biggest. Business leaders were skills rich, time poor. Taking time out from work in the day to coach charities was seen as time taken from the company.

·       There were concerns over whether a business person, say leading a retail team or working in a bank, could have transferable skills.

·       Some non-profits were concerned about a different culture being imposed upon them. What would happen if they did not agree with what was being said, but could not be honest with a senior volunteer?

Additional barriers, based on my own experience at Pilotlight, are that some non-profits do not always know what they really need at the start of a strategic giving relationship. So some we have worked with thought they needed fundraising or marketing help when governance was at the heart of their problems.

And, if that was not enough, the pace for both worlds is often wildly different. Business wants to achieve tomorrow and, although non-profits do too, they cannot turn things round as fast as the entrepreneurs want, especially as many have quarterly board meetings.

Yet each country we talked to added to the growing consensus that strategic skills giving is immensely valuable. In Mumbai we talked about senior level buy-in being crucial for volunteering, and involvement of leaders vital, if volunteering is to happen at all. But Hong Kong worried about time wasted on both sides and reputational risk if the relationship went wrong. In every country the same solutions kept coming up: infrastructure, intermediaries and evaluation.

Infrastructure minimizes the amount of time business has to give and makes it as efficient as possible. At Pilotlight we only ask the business leader to give three hours a month around their diaries because we have an infrastructure in place to support that.

Intermediaries are the glue between two very different cultures. They act as an interpreter between the two worlds of non-profits and business. They drive the process on, achieve results, and identify risks before they happen.

Every country I went to saw that evaluation demonstrated value to both the corporate and the non-profit. Singapore pointed out how vital it is that this was in place before the volunteering started. Seoul was looking to social impact.

And the surprise on my journey? That everyone understood the value of coaching, not telling. Coaching sees the non-profit go on to be able to create a business plan itself rather than relying on the business volunteer again. The pleasant surprise was Tokyo pointing out that the value of this to business leaders is immense. Taking time out of the office is worthwhile for the company if it teaches its business leaders the art of coaching: a little-known art that is vital if they are to pass on skills to a future generation of leaders.

As I flew back to London I was inspired all over again. My work is all about the value that can be created between business and non-profits and this AVPN journey reinforced that ‘people matter’.

Fiona Halton is chair of the Pilotlight Foundation

Tagged in: Asian Venture Philanthropy Network Pilotlight Foundation volunteering

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