Reimagining High Impact Skills-Based Symbiosis



With corporations becoming increasingly sophisticated in their approaches to corporate social responsibility (CSR) there is a growing interest in skills-based volunteering (SBV). Skills-based volunteering is an employee engagement approach whereby companies leverage the professional expertise of their workforce to directly contribute to  non-profits and social enterprises – also known as social purpose organizations (SPO’s). Corporations represent a wealth of human and intellectual capital that has immense potential to strengthen SPO’s capabilities, allowing for higher capacity and more efficiency in achieving their goals. On the flip side, SBV programs have shown to be increasingly vital to the well-being of a corporation, driving employee satisfaction and loyalty.

Last week, at the AVPN 2017 Conference in Bangkok, a diverse panel of experienced practitioners were brought together to discuss benefits, impact, and different models of skills-based volunteering. The discussion was moderated by Sriven Naidu, Director of Program Development and Partnerships at Singapore Management University. The panelists included Tess Mackean, CEO of TalentTrust, Vijaya Balaji, CEO and Managing Director of ToolBox India Foundation, Spencer Wong, Legal Program Manager of Thomson Reuters Foundation East Asia, and Zhang Tingjun, Executive Director of Mercy Relief.

There was consensus amongst the panelists that SBV is much more sustainable when viewed as a mutually-beneficial partnership, rather than as giving-and-receiving. In fact, moderator Sriven Naidu proposed that the term be rephrased to “skills-based symbiosis” (SBS). This emphasis on partnership and collaboration makes the relationship between the corporation and the NGO more committed, intentional and productive.

What is skills-based symbiosis?

Skills-based symbiosis (SBS) is based on an exchange of tangible and intangible benefits between nonprofits, corporations, and individual contributors. Corporate partners will benefit through having the opportunity to expand the abilities of their top talent by letting them practice in unfamiliar environments that they may not be exposed to otherwise. SBS also creates a platform for more untested high-potential executives to gain practice in their fields in a relatively low risk environment. Creating a culture of volunteerism has potential to boost morale, workplace atmosphere, talent retention, and brand perception.

Why skills-based symbiosis?

Interest for SBS has also risen as a result of the “human factor,” as panelist Spencer Wong called it. He remarked, “People are looking to be inspired, and have shown significant interest in having a positive impact on the world.” SBS can give employees a sense of purpose and improve overall employee well-being. On a larger scale, corporations are rapidly recognizing the undeniable benefits of socially responsible initiatives, including improving public image, attracting and retaining investors, and building a reservoir of goodwill with stakeholders. Having corporate employees engage in skills-based volunteering is a great way to pursue all these objectives.

SBS impact metrics – Measuring vs Observing impact

From the lively discussion during the Q&A, a major difficulty with skills-based symbiosis is finding an accurate way to produce impact metrics. With a better idea of the impact they are making, individuals will be more willing to volunteer their time and talent towards that impact.

Because many aspects of this impact are difficult to quantify, storytelling and case studies are very important in communicating the success of this model of volunteerism. Panelist Tess Mackean suggested focusing on a few very influential success stories or case studies, and going in depth, telling these stories very well to communicate their influence. It is also crucial that NGOs keep their volunteers engaged throughout the project, being sure to communicate – or better still, witness first-hand the impact on the end beneficiary. Seeing what was accomplished and understanding how their contribution helped to reach that end goal will create a higher likelihood of that volunteer staying engaged in their personal philanthropic journey.

Best practices regardless of the diversity of models

When engaging in a partnership for SBS, the process should roughly follow the below best practice steps:

  1. Assess the needs and competencies of the corporation.
  2. Assess the needs and readiness of the NGO.
  3. Develop a matching scope of work (more specific the better).
  4. Implement.
  5. Evaluate and recognize.

In their parting advice, the panelists shared what they had learned in their experience engaging in skills-based partnerships. Zhang Tingjun discussed her approach from the perspective of a small NGO. This included going directly to the best-regarded corporations they hoped to partner with, rather than waiting to be sought out. She also stressed the importance of the NGO demonstrating the initiative they have taken, and clearly defining the framework of the partnership. The more you stress the collaboration factor, the more willing corporations will be to engage. Finally, there is much to be learned from each individual session of volunteer-based partnerships. Conducting careful and detailed evaluations after every session, determining what worked and did not work, can be very effective in improving future programs and increase impact.


Sriven Naidu
Director – Programme Development and Partnerships (Master of Tri-Sector Collaboration), Singapore Management University


A. Environmental Stewardship
To protect the environment, we organize programmes like mangrove nursery and Reforestation, Coastal and River Clean-Up, Community Based Environmental Solid Waste Management, Environmental IEC Campaign and Eco-Academy

B. Food Security and Sustainable Livelihood
To ensure a sustainable livelihood for the community, eco-tourism include Buhatan River Cruise Visitor Center Buhatan River Mangrove Boardwalk are run by the community. Others include Organic Vegetable and Root crops Farming, Vegetable and Root crops Chips and by-products Processing and establishing a Zero waste store.

C. Empowered Communities
To empower the community, we provide product and Agri-Enterprise Development Training, Immersion and Learnings Exchange Program, Earth Warrior Training and Community Based Social Entrepreneurship Training


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