Projects for Good Now Open to All
Online platform connects students who have the will – and skills – to make an impact with organizations who need them
Akhil Khurana and Lauren McHugh are corporate consultants for a global HR firm in India. But like many Millennials, they don’t check their values at the door. Instead, they’ve teamed up with Net Impact’s brand-new Projects for Good, an online platform connecting students who have the will – and skills – to make a difference with organizations who need them.
So far, Akhil and Lauren have helped a number of nonprofits in India connect with our incredible pool of dedicated student talent. Projects for Good’s Laura Diez asked them about their efforts…
Laura Diez: What inspired you to take on the role of intermediary between NGOs and students?
Akhil Khurana: Through the internet and gadgets we are connected to almost anything we could possibly want. Yet if we want to connect with ways to use our personal expertise – whatever that may be – it’s never easy. To test this you just have to search Google for “volunteer + your city name.” You’ll see options to serve food, build houses, tutor, fundraise and so on, yet few of us do any of these activities as our profession.
Across the world, there has been a major focus on helping social enterprises access financial assets – as evidenced by the growing number of micro-investment and social investment funds. Yet almost any business would agree its most important asset is its people, and few have set out to bridge this access gap. Admittedly this is probably because human capital is far more complex than financial capital.
Our conclusion was that there was a surplus supply of projects for management and strategic support for their organizations that required access to talented human capital. And from our own experience, we were convinced there was also surplus demand from students and professionals passionate about social causes who wanted to be a part of such projects. We felt the workings were in place for a sustainable solution that could have a great pay off for the social enterprises we were volunteering with in India.
What made you decide Projects for Good was the right venue for this?
"We were grateful to be involved in the pilot of the platform early last year which allowed us to connect five volunteers to projects in India."
With our full-time jobs we had only 5-10 hours a week for volunteering, which perhaps is enough time for small pro bono projects like developing a budget or designing a pilot study. But we soon realized if we spent that time networking to link with other volunteers in India and abroad, it produced a multiplier effect. Last year, after we met several local social enterprises in Mumbai and New Delhi and assessed their needs, we set out to start making those connections.
We began with outreach to university student groups dedicated to pro bono social enterprise consulting, as well as individual Net Impact chapters, which finally led us to contact Net Impact headquarters. It happened to be around the time Net Impact was developing the Projects for Good platform, and we were grateful to be involved in the pilot of the platform early last year which allowed us to connect five volunteers to projects in India.
Is there a personal connection?
Akhil: Being born and bred in India, like every other Indian kid I would visit my grandmother during the summer break. My mother’s hometown acquainted me the real India, the India of villages. I’ve been exposed to the adversities a common Indian has to deal with, on an everyday basis. With such an upbringing, I always wanted to focus my efforts toward understanding the resolve, resilience and faith of the poorest people.
"The bigger challenge – and opportunity – lay in helping social enterprises connect with more volunteers who could provide specialized skills and knowledge to help them achieve their mission."
Lauren: Living and working in Africa and Asia for the past few years has allowed me to meet people in both the NGO and business worlds who have done innovative things – or are figuring out how to – in this space. I currently work in Mumbai as a healthcare consultant. I began volunteering with local social enterprises on the premise that innovative healthcare practices from the private sector, created to improve the health of those who can afford it, could also be spread to organizations who are trying to help disadvantaged communities stay healthy. It didn’t take long to realize that the bigger challenge – and opportunity – lay in helping social enterprises connect with more volunteers who could provide specialized skills and knowledge to help them achieve their mission.
How does the work you’re doing with Projects for Good impact your career choices?
As Gen Y-ers, we panic at the thought of career plans. So rather than planning whether or not it fits into our career, we hope it will become an important part of whatever career we make. Our volunteer work so far has offered many opportunities to test skills we otherwise might have had to wait until our next promotion (or two) to develop, such as: pitching an idea to an organization or volunteer we’ve just met; identifying the top management needs of organizations and translating it into a project plan for a volunteer, and managing expectations of either party – especially when challenges inevitably arise.
"Our volunteer work so far has offered many opportunities to test skills we otherwise might have had to wait until our next promotion (or two) to develop."
As long as the work remains challenging, exciting, and fulfilling – whether or not it lends itself to a particular dream job – we still believe it will help us in continuing to do work we love. Also, there's nothing luckier than having the privilege to pursue a career you love rather than simply the career you need, and we’re extremely grateful to even have the opportunity and time to pursue this passion.
What has it been like to pave your own way in such a complicated NGO and governmental system?
An unforeseen challenge we came across involved making sure not to duplicate work that has already been done in this space. Whether it’s finding social enterprises, scoping projects, recruiting volunteers, managing projects from start to finish, keeping volunteers engaged or measuring impact, there have been plenty of lessons already learned by other individuals and organizations around the globe. But many of those efforts are not well publicized. We had to keep an eye and ear out for similar efforts and take charge to contact and talk to them.
For example, the most important first step for us was scouting worthy social enterprises. Rather than start from scratch, we built off the work of local social enterprise incubators and investment funds. These organizations have built much more robust systems for identifying high-potential social entrepreneurs locally than we ever could, but they simply did not also offer the service of coordinating skilled volunteering projects. They provided us with references for social enterprises in their programs which could benefit from international volunteers, saving us invaluable time and energy in validating the credibility and the potential of social enterprises.
The most notable way in which the government has the potential to impact our cause is in the Companies Bill, which earlier this month passed through Parliament. This proposed piece of legislation would make CSR spending (2% of profits) mandatory for large companies. India may become the first country in the world to provide official legislative support for CSR spending. How pro bono work could fall under that provision is a chapter that we hope will start soon.
What sort of changes need to occur for NGOs in India to become sustainable operations?
"Social entrepreneurs who have been open-minded and creative in finding a way to leverage an untapped resource – volunteers abroad – have been our greatest partners."
The single factor that has been the greatest predictor of success for our projects has been the quality of leadership we’ve worked with. Social entrepreneurs who have been open-minded and creative in finding a way to leverage an untapped resource – volunteers abroad – have been our greatest partners. People may shy away from pointing to this as a critical factor to the operational sustainability challenge, because it is not as straightforward to fix as a bad business model or budget.
One change that could potentially transform the game would be if NGOs had the freedom to hire the best and brightest leaders, even if those leaders weren’t willing to take a pay cut from their current job typically in the private sector. We’ve heard from NGOs who were worried about donor/investor backlash due to a highly skilled researcher/marketer/financial analyst who demands the same lifestyle whether they are working for an NGO or a Fortune 500 company. But if the flipside is that the NGO will never benefit from their talent at all, it may do more damage to impose particular beliefs which may go against the social enterprises’ interest of maximizing impact. NGOs typically have to pay the market price for office space, equipment and transportation expenses, and it may sometimes (but certainly not always) make sense to do the same for human resources.
A second change that may go a long way in solving this complex challenge would be systems to make it easier to better recognize great social leaders early on, and far and wide. The good news is the importance of this seems to be recognized and there are more and more organizations dedicated to this.
Join Projects for Good today
Projects for Good moves out of its pilot phase today and launches to all graduate and undergraduate students with the will – and skills – to make an impact. Sign up today to browse nearly 100 projects, and tap into your potential while a making difference.
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