Qing Han, Associate, Partnership Development

A key aspect of BSR’s work involves supporting collaborations between companies and NGOs to solve common development issues. As part of our work in 2013, we helped identify skilled company volunteers to participate in a needs assessment in rural China, bringing their information and communications technology (ICT) expertise to compliment an NGO partner’s educational expertise.

The trip was co-organized by the Rural Education Action Program (REAP), a collaboration led by Stanford and the Chinese Academy of Sciences that focuses on improving education and addressing rural poverty and the digital divide in China. REAP’s work showed that playing customized computer games tailored to a school’s curriculum can dramatically improve rural children’s academic scores, reducing the gap with urban students, who have better educational and technological opportunities.

REAP aims to use the internet and cloud-enabled technology to roll out and improve the games and to bring additional online content to the schools. REAP recognized it would need to understand the capability of rural schools to access the internet and overcome potential internet connectivity limitations. Staffed mainly with education experts, REAP lacked ICT expertise, and so BSR helped recruit skilled volunteers from Cisco, HP, and Intel. Along with representatives from the local education bureau, the group visited four rural schools in three days to assess their hardware, software, and internet-connectivity capacity and to propose solutions to launch the program successfully.

Well-designed volunteering programs can improve employee engagement and help companies understand new markets or the potential for new products, particularly when the programs are connected to employees’ skills. Poorly designed programs, however, can demotivate employees, waste resources, and have a negative impact on local communities.

Five key aspects were important to the success of our work with REAP:

1. Find volunteers with the right skills.

We had to identify what kind of ICT skills would be needed, and we approached companies that offered staff with the right skill sets. Combining employees from the different companies, and getting experienced staff—rather than whichever staff member had time—was crucial. 

Takeaway: Approach the right companies, develop clear job descriptions, and communicate clearly with the volunteering recruiter.

2. Set and manage the expectations of all groups.

It is important to ensure that volunteers know what is expected of them and also that NGO or government partners know what can realistically be achieved from the activity, and to manage expectations of any future contributions from the companies involved. 

Takeaway: Extensive communications, team calls, and preparation with agendas, roles, interview questions, and assessment frameworks are essential.

3. Combine expertise from different volunteers and companies.

Recruiting volunteers from different companies brings new perspectives and skills to the team, while also broadening the volunteers’ experience and networks. 

Takeaway: To manage team members with different backgrounds and work styles, facilitate the team members’ understanding of each other, cultivate their willingness to work together, and clearly define their different roles.

4. Work with local government and local partners.

It is important to identify local partners, including from government, who are familiar with the situation on the ground, have responsibility for the issues, and can open doors, smooth logistics, and follow up afterward. 

Takeaway: Talk to local stakeholders to hear their perspectives, plans, and priorities, and gain buy-in for follow-up work.

5. Meet the volunteers’ emotional and personal needs.

Each volunteer will be different, and organizers must provide support by carefully listening to their concerns to foster greater engagement. 

Takeaway: Acknowledge differences between volunteers and drive toward common goals; foster a spirit of volunteering and provide personal support.

Have we missed any keys to successful employee volunteer programs? Share your experiences in our comment box.