Why Skills-based volunteering?
In our blog post a couple of months ago, our President, Samantha, has succinctly and excellently explained how to make skills-based volunteering work.
In this blog, I’d like to take a step back and explain why I think we must do so, and the great promise of skills-based volunteering. This is, essentially, why Conjunct was founded.
Let’s turn back the clock to 2011. I had just left the Boston Consulting Group after spending two years with great colleagues, helping companies build capabilities and tackle a fascinating variety of challenges. It occurred to me that useful corporate know-how could be applied to charities and other social good organisations. They (and ultimately their beneficiaries) would benefit from this, but they could not afford the steep fees usually charged by elite consulting firms. A different model was needed to provide this service to social good organisations, for an affordable cost.
Happenstance brought me into contact with other amazing individuals who were thinking along the same lines. Thus, we came together, and Conjunct Consulting was born. Eventually, we came up with a model and a value proposition for each type of stakeholder we needed to engage. We had to find a compelling “why” for each of them to join us in our journey.
So, what was our initial model, and how did we pitch it to our different stakeholders? Let me break it down:
In some other countries, there are professional non-profit consulting firms, such as New Sector Alliance and The Bridgespan Group. However, we obviously could not afford to pay a large team of staff to do consulting work.
To keep costs minimal, we worked with university student volunteers instead, deploying them to gather data, push for insights and prepare recommendations, similar to the role of Associates at consulting firms. To empower them to do this (and to attract students to join), we offer consultant skills training in exchange for a minimum commitment of two semesters’ of service. I developed an intensive, one-semester crash-course in problem-solving and consulting skills, and taught it to students. It turned out to be a hit, and we have trained over 1,000 students since our founding. For outstanding students, we promote them to Project Leader, to get a taste of leadership skills. They manage teams of their fellow student consultants and are provided with more advanced training and leadership, team and client management.
By now, it should be clear what our value proposition to students is, and why many join us each year: They are looking to pick up useful skills for the workplace. Indeed, the skills taught by Conjunct’s training syllabus are usable outside the consulting industry, in almost any knowledge-based job. These skills include conducting research, analysing data, generating insights and communicating solutions in a clear, structured and credible way. In an economic era where the Government is emphasising “learning by doing”, working with social good organisations to tackle strategic and meaningful issues complements students’ formal education nicely.
Our student consultants are great. However, they need guidance and mentorship that goes beyond what any training syllabus can provide. Students have little real-world experience, and occasionally a sticky client situation may arise that requires professional intervention.
Enter our professional volunteers. As time-starved, busy professionals, they don’t have the time to do all the legwork and research needed for each project. Instead, they play a role similar to Partners in consulting firms. They enjoy it, as it is a very “high-leverage” use of their limited time. Our student consultants have already spent the week doing field research and pushed towards some insights and recommendations. Their role, then, is to cast a critical eye over our student consultants’ work, provide constructive feedback and give them guidance on the next steps to pursue the project. Our professional volunteers report that they enjoy mentoring our students. For some, this is also a chance to hone their leadership and management skills. The mentorship is also a draw for the students, and as a side benefit, several students have joined their mentor’s company after graduating. Lastly, many of our volunteers tell us how unique an opportunity this is – to be using their professional skills in HR, operations, or other expertise to help a social good organisation.
Social Good Organisations
Of course, at the heart of Conjunct’s work are our social good organisation partners – charities, social enterprises and non-profits. We choose our partners carefully and discerningly, looking for those who have some level of clarity on the issue they wish addressed and are committed to journeying with our team so that together we can fix or resolve the issue.
They come to us because we can provide additional (if temporary) capacity to their manpower-tight organisations, looking at strategic issues they may not have had time to look at deeply yet. We also go beyond the theoretical and do more than just deliver an extended deck of slides. Our teams often follow-through to help with some initial aspects of implementation. For example, they might help write volunteer training manuals and design a simple onboarding programme for a charity whose volunteers have asked for better preparation and training.
Through our work with social good organisations, we know that individual mind-sets and frameworks rub off on them. Over time, we become confident that they can tackle future issues themselves by applying some of the tools and thinking we have demonstrated to them in the course of our journey together. In that way, Conjunct’s impact goes beyond the project-specific impact, to have a more considerable impact on the culture of the organisation itself.
Conjunct 2.0, Adding a fourth Stakeholder
I’ve described Conjunct’s initial offering to the social sector, which we have run with success these last five years, serving over 100 organisations. We have done well, but I think we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of what skills-based volunteering can do for the social sector. To unlock the value of skills-based volunteering, we have started working with the crucial fourth stakeholder:
In Singapore, we often boast about the quality of our workforce, and it is indeed a rich source of expertise and best practices, that could greatly benefit the social sector if tapped upon.
Today, there is still a huge gap between social good organisations and companies. This “gap” includes aspects of communication, expectation setting, context understanding and ecosystem understanding. To bridge this, Conjunct has worked with companies such as DBS, GE, GSK, Macquarie and more to help structure and organise “Scalathons” (a social hackathon) alongside other engagements for their staff, to maintain a chosen beneficiary charity.
Ideally, over some time, companies (or their CSR arms) will be able to build some of these capabilities internally and continue to help charities with their strategic issues. I would like to see this and still find a way for Conjunct to evolve in the ecosystem.
Why would companies want to do this? Aside from a genuine desire to give back to society, there are also a couple of pragmatic reasons:
- Doing skills-based volunteering improves the level of employee engagement, especially with millennials who seek meaning in their jobs. Given the skilled nature of these projects, this could also be a way for companies to test younger staff to identify, develop and retain talents.
- Skills-based volunteering is a chance to establish branding in a very organic and authentic way that “sticks”. As an example, take a look at this video, where Toyota’s expertise with process optimisation helped to improve the productivity of a New York food bank drastically. Toyota’s work illustrates very well the way a skills-based volunteering project could be structured to be highly brand-aligned, further burnishing their reputation as leaders in the manufacturing field. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine other companies offer their relevant expertise to aligns with their brand, for example, KPMG offering to help a local charity build a simple but effective accounts and bookkeeping system.
There are challenges to be surmounted, and Samantha has described some of them in her post, but I am optimistic that over time, more companies will come on board to the idea of skills-based volunteering. I hope our Conjunct alumni, now working in the various companies, speak fondly of their Conjunct projects to their colleagues and “incept” the idea that, maybe, it would be cool if their company did the same.
As a society, we know that our social needs will grow, due to an ageing population, increased social awareness of people in need, and other demographic trends. Yet, we are also in a time when the Government cannot solve problems by simply throwing more money at them. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat hinted as much when he emphasised the need for fiscal sustainability in his recent Budget Speech 2017.
Adding these together, it seems clear that individual citizens, as well as corporate citizens, will have to step up and fill that gap with their ingenuity, skills and passion.
The next lap of Singapore’s social sector journey will not be written by the Government alone, but also by people and companies who feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for their communities.
David Thian is part of Conjunct’s founding team and served as the first VP in charge of Development. He continues to volunteer with and advise Conjunct. If you would like to connect with David, his LinkedIn profile is: https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-thian-50a80113/
To find out more about volunteering with Conjunct, click here.