Conversations with Free World Associates’ Founder and President, David Steinman.
Free World Associates is a 30-year-old network of human rights and democracy activists. Completely volunteer run, their mission is to promote global peace and economic development by helping closed societies become more democratic, transparent, and accountable. At the helm is David Steinman, a foreign democracy revolution strategist who was honored with a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his work.
Pursuing ambitious goals while relying solely on volunteer support has made David an expert in the recruitment and management of pro bono. To date, Free World Associates has completed 33 projects through Taproot Plus – ranging from creating PR plans to executing crowdfunding campaigns – totaling an astounding $193,200 in pro bono support. And David’s not done yet. With 18 Taproot Plus projects currently underway, this prolific pro bono user continues to leverage valuable volunteer support to achieve his organization’s lofty goals.
In this two-part blog series, we chat with David about his tips for effective skilled volunteer management and how pro bono partnerships have been the critical difference maker for Free World Associates.
Read Part 2 of David’s interview here.
Part 1: A unique take on skilled volunteer management
Taproot (TR): David, can you give us a sense of your history with Free World Associates? From our understanding, this really is your brainchild.
Free World Associates (FWA): For the past 30 years, I’ve been doing pro bono consulting to foreign democracy movements. In the process of that work, Free World Associates gradually developed. We’ve supported several pro-democracy campaigns in several countries.
TR: Can you tell us more about Free World Associates and the large-scale projects you’re currently working on?
FWA: Free World Associates is an informal network of democracy promotion activists and volunteers. We have a few different ongoing projects, one of them being World Liberation Radio, which is fiscally sponsored by the Social Good Fund. World Liberation Radio’s goal is to prove with a pilot project that non-violence can be taught to oppressed populations around the world by radio. Free World Associates is also involved in the publication of the novel, Money, Blood, and Conscience, which uses the vehicle of entertainment to raise awareness of Ethiopia’s human rights struggle. We’ve just started an affiliated social campaign called Operation Conscience, which provides additional information about Ethiopia’s hidden genocide. These don’t represent the sum of Free World Associates’ work, just the specific missions for which we’ve turned to Taproot for support.
TR: Wow, that’s an extensive project list for an entirely volunteer run operation. How are you able to manage ongoing work in each of these distinct project focus areas?
FWA: Each project has its own Project Manager whom we secured through Taproot Plus. These individuals volunteer oversee the operational and administrative side of their respective focus areas. Once we have this important volunteer management piece in place, we’re able to recruit several other Taproot Plus volunteers to complete discreet tasks under the coordination of the Project Manager.
TR: With 33 pro bono projects completed through Taproot Plus, you’ve obviously learned a thing or two about the intricacies of working with skilled volunteers. Could you share if you had to overcome any challenges along the way?
FWA: Generally speaking, using pro bono to handle a task is going to take longer than if you hire people. There have been some pro bono projects where I’ve waited weeks until the right person applied to work with us. It’s a little like fishing in that regard. Additionally, volunteers don’t have all day to devote to your project, so you don’t get the same efficiency you would if you had someone working for you 9-5. But that said, for small organizations like ours that could not afford to hire consultants, the benefit of skilled volunteers is certainly worth putting up with the delays.
TR: You bring up a great point. Taproot cautions nonprofits that you should always consider urgency when deciding if a task is a good fit to get done pro bono. Tight timelines tend to disqualify projects.
FWA: I actually developed a strategy that I use to shorten the cycle. If I’ve had a great experience with a particular volunteer and another project comes up that I know they’d be qualified for, I send them a pro bono request directly. Quite a few of our Taproot volunteers have completed repeat projects with us because of this.
TR: That shows a fantastic amount of buy-in on the part of your volunteers. Do you think that’s because of a special volunteer management tactic you’re using?
FWA: I try to make sure our skilled volunteers realize the value of Free World Associates’ mission and the importance of the role they’re playing in carrying it out. And on the job, I make sure that I give them positive feedback and express my appreciation regularly. I think that means something to them as well.
Quick tips from a pro bono super user:
- Don’t have time for large-scale project management? Use pro bono! Recruit professional project managers to help you coordinate the tasks of various volunteers and scale up your use of pro bono support.
- Give yourself a cushion. Pro bono projects are typically completed on a longer timeline than paid work. If you have an event or need with a hard and fast deadline, start your volunteer recruitment process early to give yourself time to find the right person for the job.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of saying thank you. During your pro bono project, your volunteer will have devoted a substantial amount of time, energy, and passion into supporting your mission. So, be generous with your appreciation. After all, you never know if you’ll need to call on them for additional support in the future!