Be a pro. Volunteer in Your Field. Make an Impact.
How many roads must a man walk down before making a social impact? Does theology play a role in it? What the heck is skilled volunteering? And what does Wikipedia have to do with anything?
It’s a couple of weeks into my new role, and I’m walking to the mail room to collect a package. I open it with excitement – my new business cards have arrived! I take one and examine it closely. Underneath the emblem of the state of Israel, it proudly says, “Yinon Reiss, Director of Strategy and Economic Development, Embassy of Israel, Washington DC.”
This anecdote represents what I perceived at that time to be a dream come true. Ever since I started planning my professional career, I have seen myself as a civil servant. I wanted to make an impact on the public arena, and working my tail off to make someone else rich was something I never cared about. And then I found this awesome job as an official representative of a senior Israeli government office at the most exciting place in the universes (including those of Marvel and DC). You can imagine why it felt like I had finally found my destination.
It could have been a very short story had this feeling prevailed and fulfilled my desire to make an impact. But as I’d soon realize – my journey toward making the world a better place was about to take a few more turns.
It’s a couple of years (and hundreds of business cards) later, and I step between the booths of yet another innovation conference where I represent the Israeli Ministry of Finance. The pride I felt two years ago is still there, but another nudging feeling now accompanies it. My department put much effort into exploring new technological frontiers as grounds for cooperation between Israel and the US. In this capacity, I often found myself meeting with startups and entrepreneurs. These encounters gradually invoked the feeling that I might not be in the right place after all. Rather than talk about initiatives and regulate them – wouldn’t I make more impact by participating in them?
So I quit.
It’s a year later, and I’m now the COO of the Egoz Foundation – the Egoz unit alum NGO. We’re doing incredible things – including raising 1.5M NIS to support wounded veterans, enhancing the bonds with bereaved families, and holding workshops for newly dismissed soldiers that provide them tools to start their civic lives on the right foot. My job as COO is to enable and facilitate these operations. One of my guidelines is to keep up with technology and utilize tools (such as monday.com and Salesforce plans for non-profits) that assist us in doing our work most efficiently.
But once again – this nudging feeling arises. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to create these tools and technologies while ensuring they’re harnessed for good purposes than just using them?
And so, my journey continues.
It’s another year later, and I have successfully transitioned to the private sector. I’m now a product manager at a high-tech company, and once again – I feel like I have found my calling. Anyone who was part of a team that created from scratch a new product meant to improve the lives of millions using cutting-edge technologies knows what I’m talking about.
But something is still missing. When you work in the public sector, you sense you’re serving the public by merely showing up every morning. However, when you work for a for-profit company, you must constantly ask yourself whether and how you’re doing something for the greater good.
Ever since I started my new position, I’ve strived to grow professionally and tried to learn everything there is to know about product management. But I’ve also kept searching for an opportunity to volunteer, specifically by leveraging my relative advantage as someone who knows something about building digital products.
It might be a good place to take a break from my personal story and talk about the concept of creating a social impact from within the private sector.
Let’s start with establishing the fact that volunteering is, in fact, desirable. From Judaism, through Christianity and Islam, to Greek philosophy – we’re guided to think about others and give to the unfortunate without looking for reward. Even in terms of ideological worldviews – thinking about others in our society is one of the rare examples of consensus between conservatives and liberals. While reducing inequality is a pure progressive value, demanding the community to take responsibility for disadvantages is one of the pillars of Western conservativism.
But not all volunteerism is created equal. Let’s take Wikipedia, for example.
In 2009, Microsoft announced that its revolutionary initiative to create a digital encyclopedia – AKA Encarta – was discontinued. The victory of its informal opponent – Wikipedia – was just undeniable. In order to get to the bottom of this phenomenon, I joined forces with my good friend chatGPT.
As it turns out, in the late 1990s, Microsoft Encarta was the leading digital encyclopedia. However, its popularity began to decline in the early 2000s. One of the main reasons was that Microsoft Encarta was a closed system, meaning that only a limited number of people could contribute to it. This made it difficult for the encyclopedia to keep up with the constantly changing and expanding body of knowledge.
Unlike Microsoft Encarta, Wikipedia was an open-source platform that allowed anyone to contribute and edit articles. As more and more people began to use and contribute to Wikipedia, it quickly became a go-to source for information, outpacing Microsoft Encarta in terms of the breadth and depth of its coverage. Wikipedia’s open-source approach also meant that it could adapt and evolve quickly to changes in the world, providing up-to-date information on the latest developments and discoveries. With a diverse community of contributors, including subject matter experts and enthusiasts, Wikipedia’s content was constantly being scrutinized and improved, ensuring its accuracy and reliability. This mix of expertise and enthusiasm has contributed to Wikipedia’s success, as it has allowed for a broad range of perspectives and expertise to be represented in its content.
The lesson I take from this story is the importance of skilled volunteering, i.e., donating not only your time or money but also your skills. Professionals or not – passionate contributors who cared about sharing knowledge created a global asset of unparalleled significance while expecting nothing in return.
Skilled volunteering can be practiced in all levels and forms, not just in one-of-a-generation initiatives. Take, for instance, a project manager. A traditional employee volunteer program may invite her to distribute food to people struggling with homelessness, sell tickets to a charity event, or tidy a local park. On the other hand, skills-based volunteering would leverage her professional skills, such as project planning, quality control, or cost management, to a third-sector organization.
But this concept goes far beyond the general idea of leveraging volunteers’ skills to create a more significant impact. It can be quantified and measured in a way that demonstrates how bigger the impact of volunteering can get once we focus our time and resources on doing something that we’re actually good at. (Organizations such as True Impace even came up with formulas for measuring the overall social impact created by skilled volunteers).
For example, if an IT professional has eight hours to donate to a nonprofit, spending those hours leveraging his expertise (such as web development support, equivalent to $49.87 per hour if a nonprofit were to hire someone to perform those services) can generate greater value than performing a task that doesn’t leverage his skills (such as painting, equivalent to $15.66 per hour).
Let’s back it up with some statistics:
In 2020, volunteers in the United States contributed a total of 6.9 billion hours of service, worth an estimated $183.4 billion. The estimated value of each volunteer hour conducted in the United States is $28.54. The latter figure experienced a significant improvement over the last 20 years (less than $18 in 2002). But there are also many unrealized potentials out there (based on the BLS reports – the average hourly rate of employees in the high-tech sector is between $40 and $50). Considering that 77% of nonprofits believe that skilled volunteers could improve their organizations’ business practices, it’s safe to say that skilled volunteering is not just a matter of quantity but also of quality.
It’s two years later. I recently completed a fascinating course about Machine Learning for Product Managers (ML4PMs) – designed and executed by a wonderful organization called “Give&Tech” (you might have heard about it by now). The participation allowed me to gain incredibly relevant and vital knowledge about the magical world of machine learning and AI. But Give&Tech also gave me an even greater opportunity: to volunteer in my field and make an impact.
The circle has been completed.