Interview: Global overview of pro bono / skills-based volunteering

Before the Global Pro Bono Summit in October 2020, this year’s host Pro Bono Lab asked Tanja Siebert (CEO AMAIDI) for an interview about her experiences with Pro Bono in Germany and globally.

1. How would you describe best, in a few sentences, your organization and its goal?

AMAIDI International is a registered non-profit organization in Germany, acting globally. Since 2006, AMAIDI gives non-profit organizations access to professional volunteers in more than 58 countries. Engaged individuals and companies are able to get involved with their skills on-site or online. All our projects are connected to the SDGs. In short, we make sure that good social ideas find the right professional volunteers.

2. What is your role within this organization?

Legally, I am the owner and CEO of AMAIDI International, globally. The non-profit itself, it’s managed with the aim of creating sustainable value and societal responsibility.

My responsibility includes in particular the definition of the corporate goals, the strategic development, the control and monitoring of the operational units, personnel policies, financing as well as keeping contact with our partners, sponsors and creating new partnerships. And besides that, I oversee quarterly and annual financial statements. I don’t come from the social sector, so with AMAIDI, I have the opportunity to contribute with my experiences and my global network from the economic and social sectors, and not to rely on other intermediaries. In addition, we have a direct access to the projects through local teams, which show a high level of quality and which create jobs in the 58 countries where we operate, especially where the unemployment rate is very high. Besides all that, I’m a coach and a mentor for the global team.

3. Can you tell us more about the national context in which your organization operates: what might be specific to Germany (culturally, socially, economically, on a legislative level etc.) that might make your work as a pro bono facilitator different from other facilitators in the world?

It’s very hard to answer, because we don’t work just nationally as most of the Global Pro Bono Network members. So, I always have a global view on it. And of course, I personally believe we do have continuity in Germany, but the major selling point of AMAIDI is that we work independently worldwide, and with our long-term partners. Pro bono flourishes in other regions such as Asia, Pacific, America and Oceania.

Coming to Germany, where AMAIDI is registered, the story is totally different. Pro bono really never caught fire in Germany, and I would also say in Europe. Maybe it’s different for France, but it never really caught fire in general in my eyes. One reason for me is that European countries are welfare states, with access to legal and also other free pro bono services provided by the state. So if you don’t have money, you get support by the state, and that won’t cost you anything, whether you are a private person, an organization or a company. With the Covid-19 situation, you could see it: there were so many grants handed out to companies to enable them to sustain their business.

Another reason could be that volunteerism is just not part of German DNA, as it is for US, New Zealand or Australian citizens, where you start selling cookies from door to door for good cause at the age of 6, and continue to give back during school and university. And I think that in Germany, and even in the EU, most of the volunteering funds are either given to youth development or to nature and climate change, or limited to a certain age. For example, funds to send volunteers abroad are only valid for volunteers up to the age of 28. If you are older, you would have to cover all of your expenses yourself, while you’re not getting paid any salary.

Some years ago, we took part in the EVS (European Volunteering Service) program for two or three times, and then we discovered that the impact of the EVS program is on the volunteer side, not on the non-profit organization. That is totally contradictory to our company goals: we do not want to join this program, as we didn’t want to receive a grant without creating impact. It’s good money, but it causes so much problems, and in the end, there is no output. So, we need a shift there.

4. What makes it easier / harder / more challenging?

I listed three or four challenges. One, is that we need recognition and cooperation with the state’s organizations. So for Germany, the Ministry for Social Development and the EU Commission need to know what pro bono is, and what the impact is. If they don’t understand, they will never start a program. If there is no promotion of pro bono, then individual volunteers might bare the cost of their commitment completely on their own: they don’t get sent by their companies and get a salary, or if they go abroad, the company is not paying for it, so they have to pay everything by themselves. Plus, there are no grants for them: those people are 40-45, with a long track of professional experiences, and there are no programs supplementing costs for them. That’s a big challenge.

Without pro bono in Germany, Europe is missing out on a valuable resource: programs in place like youth programs cannot be used to develop an organization. At the end of the day, as a non-profit organization, you are leaking of experiences, of professionals, of donors, because your website is f.e. outdated. And you don’t have the money for it, you cannot open up a donation for your modern website, because people would never donate money for a website.

I only found a few foundations in Germany, and two in Europe, which financed the costs of corporate citizenship to be engaged with pro bono programs. There are plenty of foundations which give grants to climate change, animals’ protection, youth development, women’s empowerment. So first, it’s about awareness, and second it’s a missing brand.

5. If you had one legislative measure put in place by your government to facilitate the work you do, what would it be?

I would like to have an appointment with one of our decision-makers in our government as well as one with the EU Commission, which I did in the past, but that was unsuccessful, unfortunately. And I would ask that they should support pro bono programs, as well as they support volunteering. Maybe they should develop program lines linked to the skillset, or age of experience in a certain area, but not linked to age. What is age? Age is not an achievement, it’s just a side-effect.

Furthermore, they should either launch a campaign about pro bono itself, to raise awareness, or fund the Global Pro Bono Network so that we create the campaign. We are the specialists, we are the experts. We could create one in English, and translate it into all our members’ languages, and spread it out. Actually, we applied, together with two other members, for a grant from the EU Commission, to do exactly that. We gained enough points to get the grant, but others had more points, so we ended on a waiting list. At least our pro bono project was considered to be relevant for the EU. But “a close miss is still a miss”.

6. What are the different activities that you put in place within your organization?

Within AMAIDI, we distinguish between projects and programs. Projects are listed on our project platform. There you will find requests coming directly from our projects’ partners for the different areas. All those projects can be selected according to different criteria such as either individuals, either a group of people, SDG you would like to support, a country, experience level… You can save your searches for later, so that as soon as we publish a project related to your criteria, you receive an email.

Programs are mostly annual formats that we offer to companies. We are just about to re-launch our programs’ website, by 2021. We offer programs called the pro bono day (something like your marathon), a social day which is not related to pro bono but is more event-based and has been asked by companies: employees collecting rubbish in a park or marketing people repainting walls. Then, we joined the pro bono week: we started something called a Hackathon, then we provide tailored-made solutions so that corporates can come to us and we design a project for them.

We have another good project which is called the Marketplace for good business, a two-hour event where corporations and NPOs meet and are allowed to trade everything apart from money. So, they can trade pro bono competences (expertise, knowledge), or goods (like laptops, furniture), or contacts, time and labor. We started that some years ago, and it has become an annual event that we do in Germany, but we would like to do it as well in Africa, in Asia and in South America. I’d like to have at least three rounds before I spread it around the world. Due to Covid-19, we couldn’t do it this year, so we launched a virtual Marketplace instead, as we received offers and demands in-between the annual events.

7. Most Pro Bono facilitators run programs involving one or several corporate professionals to share their skills (usually communication, marketing, strategy, economic model, HR…) with a non-profit. Does your organization innovate compared with this traditional model and how?

Besides our project offers and our programs, we run programs with special skills such as handcraft, builder, sewer, orthopedic shoemaker. And we have teachers and students in their last semester who do teaching projects to students in Hanoi, Vietnam. This project has recently switched to an online format.

8. Is there any innovative initiative from your organization that you’d like to share with us?

All our projects are linked to the SDGs, there are all very innovative, and we have a very innovative and advanced project platform. And we use a sophisticated central IT system with automated workflows, ad-hoc reporting and streamlined communication. Means whenever we receive an application, the contact person in the applicant’s country of origin will receive it automatically, as well as the contact person in the country where the the project (the applicant applied for) takes place. I think this platform is really innovative for an NPO.

9. Can you share with us an inspiring example of a pro bono program which you put in place recently?

One of our major programs that I’m very proud of is a program that we did in Uganda. It’s a women empowerment project. The background was that a NPO came to us and said: “We need support: we have a bunch of single moms here, who are not able to read or write, we need to help them but we don’t have funds for that. My wish would be that these women earn money to be able to send their kids to school, pay doctor’s bill, run their families, without having to become prostitutes”.

So, we recruited and sent two pro bono consultants to assist and advise this organisation to develop a women’s empowerment and income-generating project. As there was no financial support or funding for the women, they produced bags from plastic waste and necklaces made out of collected paper. The participating women are now able to pay for food, doctors, medication, school fees. This project gave rise to other ones. So the next step for us would be to form a funding concept for the Internet platform to sell handmade objects from developing countries.

10. Do you have a community? If so, what does that bring to you? How do you animate it?

Yes, we do, of course. We have a community of corporations, non-profits, volunteers, with whom we are in regular contact on events, and with a newsletter, social media and blog posts. I still hope that someone invents something like a second life Zoom thingy where I can meet with someone as an avatar, shake hands and exchange diverse thought online, I’m missing that so much.

11. Have you adapted your activity to the Coronavirus situation? If so, how? What does it change for you? Have you set up any special measures / device?

Yes, we did. First of all, when the lockdown was announced, we had to ask our volunteers whether they wanted to stay or to leave, we had to see how we could send them back. I had to decide in a situation that affected everyone globally, and no one had a previous experience.

We had to go digital, but in general, ever since in AMAIDI, we worked since 2006 as a virtual organization, we are very used to work virtually with our project partners, with the team, with the volunteers. So, leading virtual teams, with or without Corona, is not an issue for me. But I’m still missing this exchange of business cards, and making new contacts: I have the feeling that I’m just meeting around with existing contacts, which is nice, but my job is to make new relationships and find new partners. So, the major change was that we couldn’t send any volunteers to our project partners, and we had to find solutions for that. We had to cope with different situations in different countries, due to the global lockdown.

So, as I mentioned before, some online activities are possible, but they are very rare as companies who send volunteers, they had different things on their plates due to Corona than donating money or sending volunteers somewhere. We are trying to use team development: at the moment, we have Monday open calls where everyone can join in and address issues and share. In some countries around the world, due to lockdown, people don’t get paid, because if they don’t work, they don’t get money. Most people, they really struggle.

12. Why is pro bono important according to you? Do you think it will be more relevant in the future, and how?

Coming from a general volunteering organization, we discovered after sending a skilled person to a project partner to look after the kids in a kinder garden or to do some nursery job, that this person could create a much bigger impact if s/he would use their skillset to do a marketing campaign for instance. That was our background, so we decided we had to ask those volunteers what their background is so that we could open projects in line with those skills. The next level for me, after skills-based volunteering, is pro bono: how can I bridge the gap between not receiving grants for an organization and development. I could easily bridge that gap if I use pro bono as an organization, and use someone’s skills for free to create a new website, to program an app, do whatever, you name it. And that is incredible, and that is what I love about pro bono. And of course, I love to exchange with other intermediaries, I love the Global Pro Bono Summits, because then you see that you’re not alone.

As long as there are no grants for NPOs, for organizational development, we need pro bono. Otherwise NPOs will be left behind, and the gap will get bigger.

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