This article was published on Wamda.

Aspiring social entrepreneurs need to understand that the tech component of solving a social problem is only a very small part of it.

They need to realize they might be addressing deeply entrenched social practices.

The idea of creating a platform to match volunteers with opportunities keeps popping up at hackathons and social entrepreneurship competitions I attend, and this is a good example of one area where social entrepreneurs need to see past the tech to solve a problem.

Build it, and they might come

The idea of creating matching platforms for volunteers and opportunities has been around for a long time, but building the site is easy in comparison to dealing with the norms of cultural and social practices around volunteering.

Building these platforms is a no-brainer because the gap between potential volunteers and NGOs is clear.

Recently I’ve seen teams from two different programs working on this very concept, at the MIT Media Lab Dubai and at a Jusoor event in Beirut.

But what techies don’t know about building a volunteer matching solution is that the technical part is by far the least challenging.

When Nakhweh, my startup that created a volunteer and development network, was launched six years ago I had exactly the same understanding for the problem as the participants pitching at those events. I thought it was all about writing the code. I was also lucky to be a first mover in this area in the Arab world, which made me realize the other challenges early on.

Throughout the past six years, a lot of similar platforms, such as Kherna in Egypt, were launched on a local and regional level in different Arab countries. Most were shut down.

With volunteering, the online matching component is the last step in addressing a very complex problem.

Volunteers donate clothes to Syrian refugees in 2015. Getting involved in this kind of activity can be difficult as organizations and volunteers struggle to communicate their needs. (Image via Dana Ballout)

The real issues in volunteering

During the first year of Nakhweh’s life, I realized that the real problems of volunteer matching in the region were:

  • The lack of volunteering culture in our region, and how it’s often mixed up with charity.
  • A lot of young people thought volunteering was doing free work, without knowing how beneficial it was for them to enhance their soft and technical skills, especially with the weak educational systems dominating the Arab world.
  • NGOs have a major problem when it comes to understanding their needs of volunteers, who are often mismanaged inside the organization and this impacts on the image of volunteering in general.
  • There were always accusations of corruption for the nonprofit world, and this stereotype negatively impacted young people’s interest in joining them.
  • Impact information about the work of organizations and initiatives wasn’t clear. Very few NGOs were able to properly communicate their impact in a clear and understandable manner.
  • NGOs didn’t realize the importance of being present online, that’s why they didn’t consider the option of recruiting volunteers through the internet.
  • Both volunteers and organizations were too lazy to report on their experiences, hence the challenge of measuring the impact of such a platform.

I believe the problems above were the main reason why other platforms shut down.

In my case, I decided to look at the challenge from a different point of view by keeping the matching component while trying to take advantage of the power of the network and the good name Nakhweh had built to address some of the above mentioned points.

Nakhweh started focusing on spreading awareness about volunteerism and proactive citizenship through social media, in addition to working closely with youth and civil society organizations to improve the quality of volunteering experiences.

We also took advantage of the network to provide social entrepreneurs and activists with more opportunities (funding, media, recognition… etc.). In addition to extracting insights from the community by surveying different stakeholders.

Volunteering is just an example of how a web-based solution might not be the only answer for social challenges, and the Nakhweh experience of doing awareness and more offline work might apply on many other areas, such as education, healthcare, poverty.

Bootstrapping programs and platforms should add a very clear research component to be more effective and impactful, ideas can be replicated and enhanced, yet if they don’t really address the real problem they will fail trying to workaround it.