3 Reasons Volunteering with a Social Innovator is Uniquely Compelling

International volunteering evokes images of the Peace Corps. That more than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers have written books about their experience leaves no doubt that international service impacted them deeply.

Universities have caught on. Increasingly, students are participating in international service learning in lieu of a traditional study abroad. But this trend extends beyond the Peace Corps and university students; sabbaticals are a newer expression of volunteerism, where bankers and engineers alike leave behind modern offices to learn in the field.  

Marguerite and Michael Mitterlehner did just that. They spent ten months volunteering with Ashoka Fellows in Kenya, South Africa, Indonesia and India. In so doing, they deepened their understanding of social entrepreneurship and used it as a prism through which to take in cultures, economies and people they encountered.

1.     Lessons about social change from the practitioners 

Before founding the e-commerce venture Lazada in Malaysia, Michael Mitterlehner worked in Goldman Sachs’ private equity division; he has management degrees from Vienna University of Economics and Business, and CEMS.  Marguerite, who has been volunteering since she was in grade school, worked in marketing and sales for Reckitt Benckiser and earned management degrees from HEC Paris and CEMS, and a master’s in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Although HEC and many other business schools have since added social entrepreneurship programs, they were not part of the Mitterlehners’ curriculum, so the opportunity to learn first-hand from Ashoka Fellows was welcome. The decision to leave their jobs during a fragile economic recovery was “a big risk, but we felt it was important to have this experience early in our careers,” said Marguerite 

The Mitterlehners applied skills in the areas of finance, entrepreneurship, marketing and branding at six social businesses. They included Conserve—an Indian social business making products from recycled waste; Farm Shop, which provides products and techniques to smallholder farmers in Kenya; and South African sustainable development organization Tlholego.

At the core, they witnessed local organizations taking risks to develop business solutions to local problems, such as reducing urban waste or helping farmers access capital.

Conserve was created to tackle waste in Delhi, in particular plastic bags, while providing opportunities to the city’s poorest population.  Refuse is collected, cleaned and pressed into large sheets to make purses, belts, wallets, and shoes. In addition, Conserve provides ongoing training and education to help its employees advance into better jobs within the organization.

“Conserve was very inspiring…we experienced a social enterprise that was sustainable. They were making a social impact and have been living by it for the last ten years,” explained Marguerite.

2.     Supporting solutions: branding and raising capital   

At Conserve, Michael worked on investor strategy while Marguerite guided branding strategy—two areas that present challenges for social enterprises, according to Anita Ahuja, Ashoka Fellow and Conserve co-founder.

“Social enterprises find investor strategy a difficult area to negotiate. We come from an NGO background where the relationship between the funder and the recipient is based on trust and a common concern for the community the proposal seeks to help.” With investors, Anita continued, “the language is different.”

To grow their market share, Conserve needed a brand strategy. “We needed to show ourselves as an edgy and contemporary brand. Traditionally social enterprises have taken this area for granted but it’s not possible to be this way anymore.” Anita continued, “With Marguerite’s help we were able to discover our strengths and weaknesses as our brand.” The Mitterlehners continue to be in contact with Anita and the team at Conserve.

In Kenya, they spent time at Farm Shop, a business providing rural farmers with training, access to information and credit, founded by Ashoka Fellow Madison Ayer.

Michael worked with Farm Shop on their operations, accounting as well as meetings with potential investors. Marguerite joined with the marketing director to craft a strategic marketing plan and branding, using feedback from franchisees and customers. “They supported Farm Shop during a critical time – Michael on helping to improve our financial modeling, and Marguerite with some very practical and professional input on our marketing and brand strategy,” said Madison. “They fit in right away with our team and became friends in a short period of time.”

 3.      More meaningful travel

Humbling is the word many returned Peace Corps volunteers have used to describe their experience.
Clearly, knowledge that comes from working alongside people, social entrepreneurs in this case, is a unique visceral experience.

“Our third project (Tlholego) was a permaculture farm, which was fascinating. It allowed us to discover South Africa from the farming point of view, which is crucial for this country. When you go as a tourist or even volunteer in the city you miss this...” said Marguerite.  Along with permaculture, Tlholego promotes sustainable development through construction and community-led enterprises. 

Driving the mission was Ashoka Fellow and South African Paul Cohen, who had found solutions to the affordable housing shortage using sustainable materials “rooted in African building technology.”

For Marguerite, connecting with individuals and organizations that valued business skills was essential. “Working with Ashoka was ideal, because of the flexibility—some NGOs have a long minimum time commitment for volunteers, but mostly there was a synergy and appreciation for business values and skills.” Fellows were also a source of inspiration.  “Ashoka Fellows were different from other people. They have so much willpower and strength…” offered Marguerite.  

In addition to Conserve in India, Ashoka needs field volunteers in Senegal, Mexico, Uganda, and Costa Rica, among other locations. All opportunities are listed on Ashoka’s volunteer website

In 2013, there were over 100 separate volunteer requests, according to Ashoka staff. Most-needed skills include: marketing, design and branding; communications, storytelling, web content and social media; web development and design; finance, sustainability strategies and fundraising; business strategy and plans; documentation and impact assessment; and research and writing.

In addition to independent volunteering, Ashoka is now building teams of remote volunteers to work on four-month projects.

For the Mitterlehners, the experience continues to impact their lives. Marguerite is in the process of starting a consultancy providing business acumen to social enterprises, building on the couple’s work during their sabbatical.

For more information about volunteer opportunities with Ashoka, visit ashoka.org/volunteer

The Mitterlehners volunteered with these organizations:  Farm Shop (Nairobi, Kenya); Brienholden Vision Institute (Durban, South Africa); Tlholego (Rustenburg, South Africa);   Conserve India (New Delhi, India); Rachel House (Jakarta, Indonesia); YCAB Foundation (Jakarta, Indonesia)