The discussion was very interesting to me personally as I got to the chance to refresh my understanding of the reality of volunteerism in Jordan today; the situation has certainly changed since I finished working with AIESEC in Jordan just two years ago. First, I was struck by the phenomenal number of volunteering initiatives, better yet the notable increase of initiatives in governorates outside of Amman. Also I was happy to see the level of motivation and pride these young people had towards what they are doing. Seems like the efforts that were invested in promoting volunteerism in the past five years are finally paying off!
What is the problem?
Naturally volunteers were keen on addressing the challenges they are facing while pursuing their endeavors. Frankly most of which were very predictable, seems like not much has changed on that end. Below is a summary of the issues volunteers addressed:
Volunteers struggle with securing sufficient funds to be able to conduct their work, and very few are able to make financial reserves to sustain their activities. According to volunteers this is due to the lack of corporate and governmental support. Also most volunteers believe that funds are not fairly distributed.
- Legal Umbrella:
Most initiatives are not legalized and run based on individual liabilities. Some have affiliated themselves with existing civil society organizations to benefit from their licenses and receive logistical support. However, unless an initiative has the proper legal status, it wouldn't be able to benefit from governmental and corporate support.
- Community License to Operate:
Many initiatives struggle to conduct activities within local communities as local communities can be skeptic about what these initiatives are there to do and/or are concerned about who is behind these initiatives. Also some communities don't appreciate the concept of male and female volunteers working together.
Although some of these problems are valid on the surface, however, a more thorough look into what the real problems are is needed...
What Really is the Problem?
In my point of view, these problems are more outcomes than they are actual problems, there are a number of issues that contribute to such outcomes that require some serious work to enable voluntary initiatives to survive in the increasingly challenging country realty:
- The non-for profit paradox:
Most initiatives still operate on sponsorship/charity business models, although this approach may have worked in past, however this is not the case today. Funds are being stretched thin, and companies are moving towards institutionalizing their own CSR endeavors; meaning that there isn't enough money to go around for everyone and social ventures need to realize that their business models should be revenue generating in order to be financially sustainable.
- Wasting resources on overlapping projects:
Although its admirable to see multiple initiatives tackling the same issues at the same time, however, social ventures need to realize that duplicating projects can at times bring more harm than benefit. Many resources are being wasted every year on overlapping activities. Furthermore, each time a project is duplicated it decreases the value of what each social venture is trying to do and reduces the chances for accessing funds and corporate support.
This can be easily avoided if social ventures would collaborate together to offer greater value for a larger audience. This however requires a deep understanding that although initiatives may be competitive they are working for a social cause and that should be their main driver.
- Poor community involvement:
Social ventures usually tend to indulge themselves with the impact they are trying to create, and forget to involve their local communities in the process, thus the local communities do not accept these initiatives, and at times resist them furiously. Involving the community from the early stages of project planning can be essential for a social venture to earn its license to operate within the local community, furthermore it helps the social venture to design stronger and more relevant projects and activities that respond to the community needs.
- Organization and internal risks:
Although there has been no reliable study about the success and failures of voluntary initiatives in Jordan, one can predict that like business start-ups, voluntary initiatives could fail and/or shut down at an early stage due to internal issues. Being mostly organized by students, voluntary initiatives would naturally lack proper internal structure and organization. The level of how much an initiative is organized has a great affect on its reputation in the market and its ability to survive through tough times.
Although financial stability remains to be the dominant topic when discussing sustainability in social ventures, I would say that for voluntary initiatives this may not be the most critical component of sustainability as such initiatives can still operate on a certain scope and survive while having minimal financial resources. I believe that there are other key factors that affect how sustainable an initiative is:
- Does the initiative consistently provide the right value and experience for its volunteers in order to retain them? (Considering the fact that volunteers are the most important assets for such initiatives)
- Is the initiative governed properly? Does it ensure accountability and transparency in a way that maintains trust among its executives and volunteers? (Internal law, auditing, reporting, and Board of Advisors are a few good practices that are valuable on this front)
- Does the initiative have a strategic direction? Does it measure and track its performance?
- Does the initiative manage its resources in a sustainable manner? Does it utilize more efficient alternatives in achieving its mission?
- Does the initiative create a sustainable impact in the local community that can live on after the initiative is gone/re-located?
- How does the initiative continue to involve its volunteers after their volunteering is complete? Does it utilize its alumni as a resource for business/community outreach? Does it continue to offer them valuable involvement?
- Does the initiative communicate its performance to its stakeholder effectively? Do companies and/or local communities know of its achievements and impact on the community?
- Does it create shared-value with the local community through the work it is doing? Does the community understand the value of their participation in the initiative? And are they satisfied with it?
- Does the initiative create partnerships that can provide greater value, more resources and better outreach?
- Is it communicating its brand in a consistent and proper manner?
Scalability in Social Ventures
Before an initiative can scale its work to new territories, it needs to bear in mind the following:
- Scaling for companies means the ability to expand sales to new audiences and/or territories while effectively minimizing the cost involved. However scalability is very different in social ventures, a social venture should be able to first assess which projects were successful and could be replicated elsewhere. This requires proper involvement of the local community in the assessment process and in identifying the impact created and the relevance of the project in the new location/territory.
- Scaling does not have to be limited within the initiative itself, an initiative can scale a project through partnership with another. This not only reduces the time and cost involved, but also creates an opportunity for exchanging expertise and serves the cause.
- An initiative should be realistic in the scope it covers, initiatives could easily lose track and spread too quickly to cover more components and activities than it can handle and eventually be at risk of shutting down. Most successful initiatives select niche audience that they can focus on and offer greater value than when addressing a generic one.
I will finish this article with a video of Mr. Mohammad Yunus, the world renowned social venture leader talking about how he turned social needs into social businesses, and his approach to scaling those businesses:
About the Author:
Zaid Al Bitar
Senior Advisor & Co Founder
CSR Watch Jordan
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