How to Apply Any Employee Skill to Pro Bono

How do you help your employees use their unique skills for the public good? It’s a desire many people have, but a bridge that can sometimes appear difficult to cross.

One major hurdle of mentoring that your volunteers will likely encounter is the challenge that comes from stepping into someone’s world and discovering how different it is. In their day-to-day they are quite knowledgeable, but coming into contact with people from other backgrounds may give them pause.

Professionals don’t always know they have secret powers – valuable skills that they have taken for granted. They sometimes underestimate the value of pragmatic support like keeping somebody organized and motivating them. In other cases, their existing expertise may just require a small amount of adaptation to become useful to their mentee. In all cases, the creative application of existing skills to novel challenges enriches and deepens the mentor’s mastery over their own skill set.

Finding novel applications for existing knowledge

The useful application of an expertise is usually closer than you might think. It is true that organizations function differently at different sizes, sectors, industries, or locations. Still, the fundamentals of good personal and business management are universal. The key is for the mentor to first take time to learn as much as they can about the mentee’s challenges and think hard about what tools they have that can help solve a problem.

Mary Ann Johnson works in accounting at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and also has a side business helping people with their taxes. She connected with Phillip Appiah from Ghana, who is running a nonprofit, and to fundraise from US-based foundations, he needs to present his organization’s budget in US Dollars. So even though Mary is used to dealing with U.S. budgets, she can work in US Dollars and otherwise apply international accounting standards to Phillip’s budgets.

Similarly, Jan Case, a retired project manager from HP, was matched with Diana Rae Lewis (she goes by Rae), president of Chichuchas Wasi school for Peruvian girls. Rae had been running her nonprofit for decades, but was observing flagging morale in her board of directors, who were crucial to fundraising. Even though Jan had spent her entire career in the for-profit world, she had deep expertise building and managing boards, and helped Rae to create a plan to revitalize her board of directors and fundraising efforts.

An outsider has great perspective

Sometimes, being too close to a problem is actually a disadvantage. Not able to see the forest for the trees, an entrepreneur’s peers may not see an important need that would be obvious to an outsider. Also, friends, family, and co-workers tend to avoid criticizing, provide unhelpful criticism, or worst of all, be too distracted by their own problems to care enough. This is where a mentor shines.

Christine Hawkins, an employee of HP Inc., was matched with Barbara Alexander, who runs an arts academy for inner-city youth. Christine shared how her e-commerce experience felt unfit for Barbara’s topic matter, but after a few conversations, found that she could help Barbara with personal organization, prioritization, and goal setting. Christine did a lot more listening, information gathering, and basic understanding about the business Barbara was in. This, she believes, made her a better mentor because she wasn’t tempted to jump in with advice before she truly understood Barbara’s situation.

Through the process of learning about Barbara’s business, Christine was able to help Barbara also see her situation from an outsider’s perspective. Barbara was so close to what she was doing that she struggled to make effective decisions. Christine could ask very basic and powerful questions, like “which uses of your time make you the most money?” and “which activities are a waste of your time?”, seemingly simple inquiries that resulted in big changes to Barbara’s focus.

Mentees need someone that has their back

The unsung hero of mentoring is genuine, unconditional support. Being a founder is lonely, and even one’s own closest friends can’t appreciate the enormity of challenge the entrepreneur is taking on. A mentor already adds value just by staying connected, believing in their mentee, and motivating them to keep improving.

Michael Edward Jones handles channel marketing at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. He was matched with Murni, an entrepreneur from Singapore. Michael had never started or owned a small business, but he was incredibly interested to see Murni succeed. As her advocate, he would share Murni’s pitch decks to fellow employees around the office, check in regularly to see how her business plan was progressing, and routinely tell her how impressive her progress has been. Though he couldn’t help with the finer details of technology business development, Michael’s motivation and attention was essential. Murni would look forward to their check-ins as a way to hold herself accountable to her own goals, and knowing Michael was thinking about her kept Murni motivated to face the daily challenges of startup entrepreneurship with fresh resolve.

All mentoring relationships take time to evolve, so if a mentor doesn’t see how they add value in the first meeting, they shouldn’t necessarily write off the engagement. If they take the time to listen well, stay present, and follow up, they are building the foundation of a lasting relationship of guidance and support. It all starts with an open mind.


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