Volunteering creates a network

About two and a half years ago, I decided to start a company to build database applications for biologists, NGOs, companies, government agencies and other actors in nature conservation. However, one needs to not only know who the clients are, but also what do they need so urgently that they will pay for it. To answer that one could simply ask them. Right? Yes, except that I had a network in academic research, not in nature conservation. How to move to it to a new field? A previous post deals with creating content. This one is about how volunteer work helps with networking.

Volunteer work

An acquaintance and colleague of Cristina gave me the tip to do volunteer work or pro bono work. He successfully started a consultancy and told me that even though he has his hands full he still does pro bono work. It helps growing one’s network. For me it is also important way to work on nature conservation per se. After all, not all people or organizations in nature conservation can afford to hire help even though they do essential work.

Opting for on-line international volunteer work

Frank doing off-line volunteer work … pre-cleaning the laundry for the Jaguar Rescue Center.

Although it sounded like good advice, finding suitable volunteer work turned out to be not easy. I am living in Costa Rica where one can find plenty of NGOs in nature conservation. However, my Spanish is not yet good enough to volunteer at a local NGO.

Secondly, I would like to build an international network. As far as I have had contacts with NGOs and people in the know, it appears that not most NGOs are able nor willing to invest in software development or IT in general. There is a whole world of reasons behind this, but the point is that I need access to a larger market than Costa Rica.

Thirdly, although our application for temporary residence is granted, it does not mean that we will not be forced to move away for some urgent reason. So, I do not want my future network to be too attached to this country. So, I went looking for on-line volunteer work in nature conservation.

Finding on-line volunteer work

On-line volunteer work in nature conservation is available. In fact, there is plenty of it. However, when it comes to data management or application development, it is a different story. So far, I found or ran into three options : join::table, WildLabs and WildHub.

Join::table is a broker organization for FileMaker developers such as me who want to do volunteer development work. I registered in May and never heard from them again. That is, until last week when they announced on LinkedIn that they were looking for volunteers. Huh? That does not compute. I wrote a comment and they replied gracefully. They found a possible project for me to work on and were going to get back to me. That was three weeks ago and I have yet to hear from them. So far, things with Join:table have not gone fast, and perhaps this is how it is with volunteer work. It may take time and offering to volunteer does not necessarily mean that the receiving end will accept the offer.

WildLabs is a very interesting forum for those interested in the use of technology in nature conservation. There are sub forums for many low- and high tech solutions: the inevitable camera trap, advanced miniature electronics to follow the movements of beetles, acoustic monitoring, artificial intelligence, drones, and much more. They also organize interesting webinars. What they do not do, unfortunately, is talking about database applications. Not a lot at least. So far, I have not yet found volunteer work that I could do on this platform.

Jumping, saturation and starting all over.

Although I can not remember how I found the previous two, I do remember how I found WildHub. It was through someone’s profile page on WildLabs. It highlights perhaps an important point about building a new network : keep searching for options, do not spend too much time on each one, and jump from one to another. At some point references to forums, organizations and projects start re-occurring. That is when you have reached some saturation and found perhaps 80% of what there is to find.

When you have reached this saturation and you still have not found what you were looking for, not even after months, then perhaps you ended up in the wrong network bubble. The way out is to start all over. For example, simply start with a new search on the internet, using a different set of keywords. Alternatively, retrace your jumps back towards where you started and go back to a point where you could have taken a completely different direction. Perhaps you need find a whole new way of searching. Think out of the box to get out of the bubble! It is the only advice I can give here.

My first on-line volunteer job

WildHub is a forum for professionals in nature conservation, from early-career to retired individuals. It is set up to share lessons, knowledge and tips. Here, I did an interesting discovery: my academic past in the study of science funding has use in nature conservation. Things work somewhat different in nature conservation than they do in science, but the method to analyze the practices can be the same. Moreover, funding is even more important to NGOs in nature conservation than it is in science – even though most scientists may find that difficult to believe.

Since this was an ‘old flame’ so to say, I got enthusiastic and made a list of funding organizations, sponsors and charities in nature conservation. I had stumbled upon them in the past year and collected the bookmarks. It was not a long list, probably not impressive either, but why not? This got noticed, and I was invited to update a list of sponsors which WildHub uses for a course on grant writing. They also asked me to give some feedback on the list’s data structure. I accepted the invitation and spent some time doing this between July and September. The people at WildHub were happy with the result. So, that was a start of doing actual on-line volunteer work. Jippeeee!

Frankly, I did not particularly enjoy making that data, but it was an opportunity to learn a little more about funding in nature conservation. Moreover, I collaborated with two people that I had not known before. Thirdly, the work gave me material and inspiration to write two blog posts on my company website, and on LinkedIn and on WildHub.

… and the next

The flying start at WildHub got the attention of one of the forum moderators, who invited me to participate in WildHub’s Conservation Catalyst program. This is a program where participants are to interview conservation professionals about their lessons learned, and then write an article or post a video of the interview on the WildHub forum. Once I understood how it worked, it did not take me long to say ‘yes’. It is a golden opportunity to reach out to people who work in nature conservation, learn to know them a little, and learn from their lessons learned. Added bonus : monthly talks with a coach for advice about getting the job done. In practice, it turns out to be difficult to find people to accept an invitation to an interview, or to reply at all. But that is a different matter.

What matters here is that one volunteer job may indeed lead to the next, and every one is an opportunity to expand one’s network.

The work on the list of funding opportunities not only led to the next volunteer job at WildHub, it also turned out essential for a commission that I successfully applied for, last September. I will get back to that one in a later post. Now it is time for conclusions.

Volunteering creates a network

In nature conservation, and I would assume in other areas as well, volunteer work not only serves the purpose of the volunteer work. It helps people get introduced to nature conservation, give them an opportunity to show what they can do, build a network and start building a CV if is there is no other way to start. In this post, I only focus on the networking possibilities of volunteer work. Even in the case of on-line work, one gets a chance to get into contact with other people. It is also a less superficial contact than ‘following’ or ‘connecting’ to someone on LinkedIn or other on-line social medium.

Finding volunteer work may or may not be as easy as it sounds, but perhaps in my case it was a bit more difficult. On the other hand, one does not want to do just any volunteer work, but something as closely related to ones interests or passions, and that may be difficult.

However, once found, it may lead to more and different volunteer work, and to inspiration and material for content creation. Things may start adding up.

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