Let’s all write checks to charity instead of striving to attempt to do more. This was the course of action proposed by a recent article in the Journal, “Think Before You Donate,” through a critique of the Wharton International Volunteer Program (WIVP), and its supporters. Personally, I’m all for assisting local Philadelphia charities, but why does that have to be tied to the fate of WIVP? Why do these two things have to compete for our support, financially or otherwise? And most importantly, who among us truly believes that throwing money at a local problem is the only acceptable alternative to also rolling up our sleeves and applying our collective experience to help organizations abroad? Based on my first-hand experience as a WIVP participant in Rwanda, I am concerned that this recent coverage has misrepresented the nature of our work and I would like to set the record straight.
I, like so many of my classmates, came to Wharton eager to learn how business can make a positive difference in the world. For the last twenty-five years, WIVP has aspired to be an opportunity to learn just that, sending thousands of students to more than 150 organizations in 40 different countries across the globe. An unsubstantiated critique against WIVP, therefore, not only does a disservice to volunteers past and present, the WIVP organizing team and partner organizations, but also jeopardizes student interest in our only entirely student-run international volunteer program at a school not typically known for its social impact.
Here are three key takeaways I had from my time in Rwanda this winter:
First, WIVP projects are impactful. By the end of our time in Rwanda, a crucial element of our impact was made through the collection of actionable data that could drive real change in the social venture, impacting the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers. The proof is in the pudding. In the words of an investor of the company we served, “The directors were very impressed. Your work is going to be very useful as we move forward…. I’ll say, I’ve worked with several business school teams while at Kaizen Venture Partners and I would definitely put your group at the top”.
Second, volunteers are careful to not take time or resources away from the client. With many of the organizations deprived of in-house expertise and management teams struggling with limited bandwidth, WIVP volunteers have proven capable of identifying opportunities to unlock value by taking into account those unique constraints. Our greatest strength has been strategically deploying resources, not draining them. In Rwanda, on day one we took the initiative to go out into the field and engage with stakeholders—thereby contributing valuable insights which had not been considered before because the organization simply did not have the time or expertise to do it themselves.
Third, short-term volunteers can be useful. Why are we selling ourselves so short to suggest otherwise? WIVP volunteers bring a rich set of field experiences in developing countries.,not unlike other consulting engagements in that respect. Among us we have some of the most talented former consultants, bankers, and project managers from around the world who are comfortable tackling ambitious objectives in challenging settings . And for those who perhaps haven’t had the opportunity to work globally, what sets Wharton MBAs apart from the rest is our ability to adapt quickly to new settings and get the job done.
Along with the quality of the participants, I believe WIVP’s success stems from the leadership shown by the WIVP board. WIVP carefully assesses project design, rejecting proposals that do not meet set criteria. It then closely monitors client feedback to measure the quality of project deliverables, and maintains relationships with organizations long after the WIVP sessions conclude. WIVP also sets KPIs, recruitment procedures, and manages expectations for project managers and participants, strictly selecting the most relevant backgrounds and interests. Aside from the positive outcomes generated for our partner organizations, WIVP also provides tremendous value to the volunteers themselves – both personally and professionally. If the MBA is about experiential learning, it is grounded in reality from programs like this. WIVP provides invaluable opportunities to practice leadership and teambuilding in a real-world setting, and opportunities to challenge ourselves to design meaningful resource-limited strategies tackling issues affecting underserved communities around the world.
WIVP also expands Wharton’s global footprint, establishes our brand and reputation of generosity, and provides depth to the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. As a global MBA program striving to be known more than our financial prowess, a bigger and better WIVP can serve as a powerful positioning tool. Last year’s inaugural WIVP trip to Myanmar is a fitting example.
By no means is WIVP perfect. But here at Wharton, we have the power and the ability to drive and influence programs. Rather than bemoaning whatever shortcomings WIVP may have, let’s work together to make it even more effective. We can find ways to support the changes our class has made to the program, work with the administration on new funding sources, partner with professors who are leading experts in their respective fields, and build and sustain relationships with partner organizations. WIVP still needs our support to thrive as one of the many unique opportunities made available to us at Wharton. Philadelphia charities need our support too, and we will continue to give our time, money and resources to them as well. But ask any WIVP former participant or knowledgeable supporter and they will tell you that their time spent was more impactful and enriching than signing a check and patting ourselves on the back.