How Skills-Based Volunteers Help Social Enterprises Build Capacity — A Host Organization’s Perspective

Alexandra Nemeth

Content Marketing Manager at MovingWorlds.org

Coomacovalle is a social enterprise delivering nutritious food and quality early childhood development programs for some of Colombia’s most vulnerable populations. Coomacovalle connects smallholder farmers, micro business owners, and low income families to invest in development at the individual and community levels, and for all those it touches along its value chain of getting quality food onto tables. 

In 2018, its innovative approach was recognized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with a grant to scale its innovative hybrid value chain across Colombia. Coomacovalle Project Manager Gideon Blaauw knew the team needed support to build the internal capacity required for expansion, and first turned to consultants. He explained, “I worked in the financial services sector for 10 years before joining Coomacovalle, and I was convinced that people were motivated solely by their paycheck. We first dabbled around with local paid consultants, but it never really worked out. We were not happy with the results – it felt like they did not really understand the big picture of what we were trying to achieve.”

Gideon’s search for more mission-aligned support led him to MovingWorlds, where social enterprises like Coomacovalle can access a global network of capacity-building volunteers (“experteers”) to help scale their innovations. “I wasn’t sure at first because skills-based volunteering was relatively new to me,” Gideon shared, “but now, after working with 3 different MovingWorlds experteers on our nutrition project with Coomacovalle, I can really say ‘I love working with volunteers!’”

Continue reading to see how Gideon’s experience working with MovingWorlds experteers changed his perspective, and his advice for organizations considering doing the same!

The value of an outside perspective

Before working with experteers, Gideon admitted that, “There exists this stereotype of a volunteer. The do-gooder who doesn’t understand the local context and may end up just getting in the way. I bought into that as well for a long time. Man, how wrong was I. Experteers are professionals that are using their skills and experience for social good. Our experteers are some of the most professional people I have worked with – never late for a meeting, available on weekends, impeccable deliverables.” 

Bringing in professionals with an outside perspective ended up being a tremendous asset, rather than a liability. When you’re entrenched in the work every day, it can be difficult to step back and view things from the perspective of outside stakeholders. For Gideon, one of the most valuable parts of the experience was “the unique perspective you get when working with a volunteer.” He explained that “because you have to explain your project to someone without prior knowledge of it, it forces you to really think through the best way to tell the impact story. The experteers asked questions we might never have thought of, and brought perspectives based on their own experiences that were really valuable and powerful to the project.”

Children in the Coomacovalle early childhood development program
Children in the Coomacovalle early childhood development program

Gideon’s advice for other social enterprises is to embrace the discomfort that this process can bring – the end result is worth it. He reflected, “More than once I was left scratching my head when faced with new questions. It forced me to examine areas where perhaps I had not been clear in my communication, or not articulated the value proposition of our own project that well.” But working through that to reach a shared understanding ultimately helped Gideon and his team become better able to serve its stakeholders. His advice: “Make sure you are open to these experiences, because it will help you understand your stakeholders better, and your project as well.”

Building a mission-aligned network

Unlike his prior experience with paid consultants, Gideon found that experteers truly understood the big picture of what Coomacovalle was trying to achieve. “One thing that stood out to us was the fact that our experteers really shared the same passion for the project as we have. The driving motivation for the work was all about how we can better serve the beneficiaries (ie. the children) of our nutrition project. When you are aligned on the mission, working together becomes so much easier,” Gideon reflected. That mission-alignment is something that transcends physical distance, as well — although only one of the experteers traveled to Cali, Colombia to work with the team in-person, working with the other two experteers on a virtual basis “has not held us back in delivering the great results we achieved as a team.”

How Coomacovalle engages actors across society to create value for its beneficiaries
How Coomacovalle engages actors across society to create value for its beneficiaries

Even once the project is complete, these new relationships continue to add value to both host organizations and the professionals who experteer with them. Gideon reflected that, “It is awesome to see that we now have friends in other parts of the world that really support the work Coomacovalle is doing in Colombia. Friends we know we can reach out to when the time comes. People that will support our mission going forward. This social capital is a very undervalued piece in the overall project that we are trying to build together.”

An established process that sets you up for success

While hosts like Gideon ultimately work directly with experteers to complete their projects, MovingWorlds facilitates the process every step of the way. Gideon reflected that from the time he created a profile for Coomacovalle on the MovingWorlds platform, “we’ve had great support from the MovingWorlds team themselves. It took me a while to formulate the project descriptions, and the MovingWorlds team went back and forth with me on edits to improve them. Later on it became clear why I had to re-write them a couple of times before they were approved — It is all about finding the right match for your project to have the biggest impact.” (Editor’s note: We’ve published our best-practices guide for scoping projects in Stanford’s Social Innovation review here.)

Even as someone new to hosting volunteers, Gideon found the guided matching and planning process easy to use and effective. “The greatest thing about the support from MovingWorlds is the Planning Guide. It is such a powerful document to really define together with your experteer what it is that you are going to build/design/plan together. Depending on the project, this will take weeks (not days). I would tell any potential host organization out there to dedicate the time needed during those weeks because they will definitely pay off when you are in the middle of the project. Look at it as ‘sharpening the saw’ before you dig into the weeds of the project.”

Of course, as many experteers and host organizations find when translating their plans to reality, in a fast-paced startup environment things can easily change. For Gideon, and many other hosts in our network, balancing sticking to the plan and remaining flexible is key. “Your project always has a fixed time period, a pre-defined scope as well as deliverables, expectations to manage on the Donor/Investor side as well as the client/beneficiaries of the project. Still, within those boundaries it is important to have the flexibility to find the perfect space for the volunteer to operate. They are all experts in their own field. Try to leverage that by accommodating them.”

As Gideon found, experteers are truly a valuable low to no-cost solution to finding the skills your team needs to overcome any challenge. The outside perspective, expertise, and commitment that experteers bring, combined with the matching and planning support from MovingWorlds, make it possible for social enterprises like Coomacovalle to catalyze their impact. Once a skeptic, Gideon now feels, “If you’re on the fence on “hiring” volunteers for your project, I hope sharing our experience might help you make that decision!”