Most volunteer work is boring. Let’s face it. Who volunteers to man the cake stand at the school summer fete, take tickets or hand out programmes, only to be moaned at by people who don’t seem to realise that you’re doing this for nothing?
Well, actually, I do do these things, but the truth is, apart from a distant feeling of being one better than the people on the other side of the cake stand, it’s not that fulfilling. We all do it out of duty and a sense of the greater good, but ideally, we would want to be doing something much more suited to our skills and talents.
So when my colleague and partner at Fluxx, Paul Shang, asked if I would become an Apps For Good Expert, I raised a quizzical eyebrow. “You mean that these kids want to hear what I’ve learned in the last 15 years of my career? You mean that there are teachers who would really value my input into their students’ work and see me as an Expert? And they’ll all actually listen to me and heed what I say? That’s more than my own children do!”
So there I was, in my first Expert session, on Skype, a paltry one hour out of my 170 or so hours in the office that month, talking to a school in the UK that could not be further from me without actually being across the ocean.
What I saw was a glimpse into a thriving, buzzing school full of 13 and 14 year old young people, who, with the assistance of an Apps for Good trained teacher, were essentially rehearsing the job that I do every day. Group by group, several ideas were presented to me, along with designs and wireframes for how their apps would work. They ranged from an anonymous tool to report bullying to something that allowed Highland farmers to track cattle information without having to send their kids running through a muddy field to look things up on a laptop.
These were ideas and initiatives borne out of necessity and insight and with a level of creativity that you rarely witness in the working world. How well or poorly these children were advised or coached at this point would be the difference between killing their hopes and dreams or filling them with a false and naive optimism versus giving them genuine self-belief that comes from real expertise and knowledge.
So, to be honest, I was glad I was there. I had exactly the expertise they needed, and they really wanted to hear it. Their teacher was, and is still, brilliant, but his job is vast. To cover the whole of an ICT curriculum across five years of secondary education is enough in itself, let alone to try to learn all of the design, commercial and user experience skills that sit on top of ICT as it exists in the commercial world. That’s why he was glad he could call in an Expert at no additional cost to the school.
Since then, I’ve taken the approach with Apps for Good that whenever I’m around or have time I’m struggling to fill meaningfully, I’ll help in any way I can. Which means that if I’m hovering around the Apps for Good Awards and judging sessions, where Apps For Good staff have a tough time marshaling hundreds of children and judges around, I’ll take up the slack in the more mundane tasks whilst they do what they’re expert at. But at Apps for Good, the only expectation of an ‘Expert’ is simply that they be just that – whether for one hour a month or several times a week; it’s a big network and there’s never any pressure or guilt. Which is why they stared at me like I was a lunatic when I offered to set up the chairs! This is an organisation where your real, core skills are truly valued, and you’re there for your real expertise, not just to be a warm body to man the metaphorical cake stand.
When we started Fluxx, we wanted to think about how we could make a contribution to the wider world in a way that not only did good for others, but also for our company. This might not be the selfless giving of a monk, but then again, we all have to make ends meet and not all of us can afford to simply give tens of thousands of pounds away. But we still want to make a difference with what we’ve got.
But the true benefits of Apps For Good to a company like ours are not only limited to the flexible way in which individual Experts can contribute around their day job. At Fluxx, we recognised that the value of Apps for Good is also about giving our staff the opportunity to develop and consolidate their own skills – be that communication and interpersonal skills, the theory and practice of what they do, or even consulting skills.
In addition, there is a huge network attached to Apps for Good. The community of Experts in itself should be a whole new category on LinkedIn (join the general Apps for Good group here), let alone when you attend the Apps for Good Awards every year to find yourself sitting next to the CMO of Telefonica, a senior commercial person from Microsoft or the CEO of a top tier venture capital company. The opportunities for our business and any other are significant.
So I’m indebted to my colleague Paul Shang, who drives our relationship with Apps for Good, for giving me the opportunity to use my expertise in such a fulfilling way.
But nothing can equal the satisfaction of seeing the future of our industry collecting an award, them knowing that their app will become real, and me thinking to myself, simply, “I helped make that happen.”
Paul Dawson has worked in new media since the days when it was actually new. He built one of the biggest and most widely acclaimed user experience teams in the UK at agency Conchango, and worked with companies like Virgin Atlantic, Tesco and Barclays at the highest levels. Now at Fluxx, his job is to help big companies create new products and services for existing and new customers.