Profile of a Pro Bono Super User:
Conversations with Child Steps International’s Founder and President, Tenneh Johnson Kemah
Tenneh Johnson Kemah is originally from Liberia. She left the country after the civil war broke out, when she was just a teenager. She promised herself that she would return, that she would be a part of healing her country – but she didn’t know how. In 2012, she founded Child Steps International to ensure that the rights of children in war-torn and impoverished countries were protected and that they had the opportunities they deserve to live prosperous and healthy lives in the places they call home.
In this blog series, we chat with Tenneh about how pro bono has helped her organization grow and the innovative ways she engages skilled volunteers and her supporters to move her organization’s mission forward.
Part IV: The Volunteer Connection
Taproot: The next question I have for you is about managing skilled volunteers. One of the biggest challenges in this area is that people tend think they can have a skilled volunteer come in, give them some direction, and just have that volunteer complete the project. And you know, that’s not how it works – you have to be ready, and you have to keep the lines of communication open. Sometimes the only way to learn those practices is to fail once or twice.
Tenneh, are you just a really good project manager in general? Have you done it in the past? Managing several volunteers on a single project, splitting up tasks, engaging volunteers – this all sounds like it comes naturally for you.
Tenneh Johnson Kemah: You know, I have managed projects, but not volunteers before Taproot+. I have experience managing paid employees whose livelihoods are based on the jobs they had to do. But with volunteers it’s different, because you’re asking these people to do you a favor. You don’t see them in an office setting, you don’t see them face to face. They’re all over the country. So I do two things with Taproot+ volunteers. One, after the initial interview and before they start a project, we talk. I make sure they know exactly what Child Steps is about and have a full understanding of who we are. And by explaining the work that we do and showing them that I care, it inspires them.
The second thing I do for Taproot+ volunteers is to be thankful to them at all times. To say “we TRULY appreciate your work, and let us know how we can help you make this an easier process.”
TR: That was my next question – do you see different results with volunteers who are invested in the mission? But it sounds like you make that part of what we would call your ‘onboarding’ process.
TJK: What’s really interesting is that with almost all of my Taproot+ volunteers, they support us. Our first volunteer we worked with, she wasn’t able to complete the project. But she became one of our biggest contributors; whenever we send out one of our newsletters she forwards it to her friends and to a lot of people around her, she’s calling and checking in all the time. And another volunteer, who was able to complete projects with us, is now still working with us as a volunteer because she got to understand the mission, and what we are doing on a lot of different levels. She said “I’m going to commit to this, and I’m going to work with you for at least the next year.”
TR: It’s so good to hear you say that! We definitely see a trend similar to what you mention. If a volunteer really feels strongly about the mission and can see how the work they did contributes to the needs of an organization, 7 out of 10 times, the volunteer will stay on and continue to volunteer with that organization.
TJK: Another example is a volunteer who is helping us with our website. In Liberia, because of the conditions and brain drain, our volunteers don’t have a lot of training for being teachers. They are what they have, you know? So what we’re doing with our website is to have a whole section with information for our teachers, where they can go download curriculum and other tools that can help them in the classroom. When the website is done, we’re going to be serving over a thousand teachers who need resources. And the volunteer, he is getting more and more excited because he’s connecting with people in Liberia. He’s talking with me, and he keeps saying that when this finishes, we should put it up for some kind of award, because it’s serving so many people.
TR: I love hearing this story, because it truly speaks to why these volunteers want to help. They want to use their skills for something great, and they know that there are organizations like yours that are doing incredible things. It can be a life changing experience for the volunteers to be involved in something like this. You’re a great example of what an organization can do to have a maximum impact on the volunteers and how that translates into the work that they do for you.
TJK: And you know, I give them something to brag about! (laughing) When we finished a book project with the help of volunteer editors, we put their names on the book as contributors. I took some pictures, and I tagged all of them in the pictures [on social media], and I said “We’re here training 10,000 who will learn something with this book.” I know that some of the volunteers were so excited to like the post, tag their family members, and say “Look, I was part of this book, and we’re gonna reach 10,000 people in Africa.” They were really happy about it.
TR: You know, it’s important to celebrate the volunteers and the work that they’re doing with you. You mentioned earlier that you say thank you whenever you can and keep encouraging them. Organizations ask how they should celebrate their volunteers, should they throw a party? And we say, well, yeah, it would be nice to throw a party, but honestly if you just send them a nice thank you note, that means everything.
Quick Tips from Tenneh:
- Acknowledge the difference between your staff and your volunteers: Tenneh talked about seeing her staff daily, but not having that same experience working remotely with volunteers. To make certain that the volunteer feels like part of the organization, she has a kick-off call where she shares Child Steps International’s mission and the heart of what they’re all about.
- Be thankful at every turn: Tenneh shared that she says thank you as often as possible and makes sure they feel supported in the work they’re doing. Gestures like posting on social media or sending a thank you card can go a long way.
- Help the volunteer see the impact of their work: Volunteers do the work they do because they see a need, but sometimes they don’t see the end results of their work. Be sure to share the impact so they see how important their work is to your organization’s success!
About Child Steps International
Child Steps International (CSI) is committed to solving some of the world’s biggest problems faced by its most vulnerable citizens—children and youth—through partnerships that engage local and international stakeholders, working collaboratively for lasting solutions. CSI’s mission is to improve the lives of children and their families who have been affected by war, poverty, and discrimination. CSI accomplishes this by assisting communities in the development and strengthening of innovative, progressive, and effective services, which protect children’s rights and gives families the opportunity to be prosperous, healthy, and safe in the place they call home. http://www.childstepsinternational.org/