E-volunteering: virtual teams making a real difference


Pile of gourds

Since April 2015, Cuso International has deployed hundreds of e-volunteers who contributed their expertise to local partners with the aim of improving the economic and social well-being of poor and marginalized communities in 21 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

One of these trailblazing volunteers was Brent McNiven, an International Trade Consultant with 20 years of experience working on project management and providing international business development services to Canadian small-and-medium size enterprises (SME) start-ups in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

Brent worked on a team that was matched with Maya Mountain Cacao, a socially responsible and sustainable startup focused on improving the lives of cacao farmers in Belize. Maya Mountain Cacao had developed an end-to-end supply chain optimized to channel benefits back to farmers. The company achieved significant improvements in quality of life, income and school attendance in their community. Motivated by this success, Maya Mountain Cacao founder and CEO Emily Stone wanted to duplicate these improvements in other countries. In order to do so, Stone realized she would need help to scale up her operations.

Stone turned to Ashoka Globalizer – the largest network of social entrepreneurs in the world – which helps organizations uncover the barriers to scaling and helps them develop strategies to overcome them. As partners in various international development initiatives, Ashoka Globalizer and Cuso International worked together to build an expert team to guide Maya Mountain Cacao toward their goals.

The Maya Mountain Cacao e-volunteering team consisted of a variety of professionals including a branding expert from Mexico and two analysts from Washington. “Everyone brings different strengths in and assists where they are needed,” says Brent. “With e-volunteering, you have to be prepared to form and operate in a team with people you have never met.”

With a high level of expertise in project management, Brent was tasked to keeping the project on track. The first challenge that the e-volunteering team faced was to develop a deep understanding of Maya Mountain Cacao, without ever setting foot in their office!

Once the e-volunteers understood the business, their strategy and the vision for the future, the team developed a plan that would enable Maya Mountain Cacao to achieve its goals on two levels; the solution needed to meet the needs of the project while still resonating with the Maya Mountain Cacao staff who would be responsible for running the project after the volunteers were finished.

Maya Mountain Cacao was transitioning from a small venture start-up in one country to a multinational organization with partner operations in many countries. That is a lot of change going on at the same time. Brent notes that it is critical to work with a partner who is receptive. “Being able to accept change is neither easy nor common,” says Brent. “It was Emily [Stone]’s ability to manage, accept and integrate such a huge change that made the transition a success.”

Emily was thrilled with the results of the partnership, noting that the team of e-volunteers challenged her and her staff to come up with innovative solutions for scaling. “It has absolutely made us a better organization,” says Emily. She was grateful for the insight and support she received from the team.

Overall, Brent says he enjoyed his experience and wouldn’t hesitate to volunteer again. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “You create a super-dynamic environment, developing something that is greater than the sum of its parts.”