Our partner and coordinator from Hungary, András F. Tóth from Volunteering Hungary (ÖKA), interviewed Viktória Vatamány and András Keller from Mastercard. Both participated in a Campus Pro Bono Program in the field of the BEESE Pro Bono Project as mentors of the students. We hope you enjoy this great interview!
AFT: Why did you decide to participate as a mentor in the BEESE student pro bono pilot projects?
VV: The reason I wanted to participate was mainly that when I was a master student at Corvinus university I did many of these pro bono projects as a student. There we also tried to help NGO-s to enhance their communication strategy and got help from mentors from another consulting company. They helped us to find the best solutions, reviewed our work. This time, I wanted to give something back to the students.
AK: I simply enjoy helping students and professionals so every time I hear about a pro bono initiative, I’m always happy to help.
AFT: What was your task? How did the cooperation work?
AK: I was mentoring four students. Despite they have already been taking part in similar events they still did not have enough experience in advising NGO-s, especially not foundations. At the beginning I started to give them strategic advices but later I realized it was not enough so we were deep diving into the issues of the foundation, had brainstorming sessions and I helped them to create real value for the customer. In the diagnose phase I helped them to raise the proper questions, to understand the issues of Perinatus Foundation. Then we saw a lot of challenges and I helped them how to structure them. Before the marathon, I always asked students to prepare for the next session as we were broken down into three different topics and separate locations. In the preparation phase I always asked them to send their proposals, which I reviewed and added my comments to them then we re-worked it so basically, I participated in the operational work as well.
VV: To be honest, my cooperation with the students had its happy moments as well as its own challenges. When I was a student myself, I was much more motivated to take part in these projects. Students wanted to work with the NGO-s, which is great, but they were not fully aware of what they wanted to learn from the cooperation and how they could improve both personally and professionally. I think, universities should have the responsibility to prepare them, teach them how to approach a problem, how to work with corporate partners, third parties or NGO-s. Whenever I had these tasks at the university, I was given guidelines on what to do. Obviously, mentors should also have an important role in this, but during this project I experienced that tasks and roles were not clearly defined
AK: I had the same feeling. Students didn’t know how they could use the help of a mentor. At the beginning they were shy, didn’t want to ask anything. I had to be proactive to move things forward. However, in my case, they were really engaged and motivated. The reason might be that Perinatus Foundation had real empathic goals which were easy to engage with, so students could easily put their heart and soul into the project because they felt it was important and they loved to help. They rather had technical issues as it was hard to find a platform for online conversation with the NGO and they didn’t know how to handle the upcoming issues. My question to Viki is if it’s possible the main issue was that students couldn’t engage with the NGO.
VV: I think they were engaged and the marketing suggestions they came up with were creative and practical. However, from organisational or project management perspective they were lacking the skill of organising or involving all stakeholders. For example, I always got to know last minute when the meetings with the NGO-s were. Whenever they sent me their deliverables, I added my comments and shared with them some tips on how to further align with the client and other stakeholders. This is the area where we as Mastercard could provide our support to them. This was proven to be helpful for the project team, but there were occasions when I did not hear from the team on time.
AFT: What are the most important elements of success for you in these projects?
VV: I think the most important factor for success is engagement. If all parties, including NGO-s, students, university teachers and mentors are engaged then it can work. If it is missing, we can easily run into challenges. NGO-s need to give a problem that they want to find a solution for, students need to be motivated, not only to pass the given class but also to learn and get something from the project. It is also true for the universities; however, the impact is not so big on them.
AFT: What were the biggest challenges and failures in the work of the students? Could you find solutions?
AK: The team faced several challenges. The first one was when our cooperation started, which was also the beginning of the pandemic. Since the students had a similar advisory project in the previous year, they wanted to follow the same steps. This time, it was quite shocking when they couldn’t visit the foundations, couldn’t meet in person and they didn’t know how to proceed online as it was not easy to find an online platform. Here, the bottleneck was rather the NGO, as the universities had several platforms available and students were familiar with IT while the NGO community consisted of elderly people who weren’t IT experts and had old laptops. The second problem I faced was something similar to what Viki already mentioned. Students were not well organised and we usually had logistic issues, time scheduling was always a problem so we set up recurring calls both with them and the NGO-s. After that, the cooperation was much more structured and we could plan ahead more easily. Just like Viki mentioned, we also had the problem that students were unable to structure the handling of issues but I could help them in this area. One problem on the NGO side was that they were sceptical about people dealing with marketing because they had bad experiences with aggressive advertising campaigns. They couldn’t imagine other type of campaigns existed where being aggressive is not a necessity in order to reach clients. The students were empathetic with the NGO colleagues which helped them find common grounds. And the last problem was that when we previously planned to start a pro bono, we imagined we’d meet in person and use whiteboards and paper charts that everyone could see. Being forced to online marathon meetings we had to do more prework and had to make the documentations before the sessions, so it required a lot more efforts in advance.
VV: I totally agree with András on the online challenges, this is something we all have to cope with nowadays. Obviously, it is easier to have a brainstorming and have sessions in person. I don’t know the best solution for this, I guess, finding the right platform is the key. The other problem I had was with the key roles and responsibilities. It should be either the responsibility of mentors or universities to define who is in charge of what. It’d be useful from the mentor’s perspective as well to receive guidance on how to work with students. When I was a student myself, we always reached out to our mentors proactively. As a mentor, if students don’t contact me, I assume they don’t need help. Timig was also a challenge, since the project started later in their semester and the students were in rush to finish all the work before their exam period.
AFT: Do you think students should receive guidelines? There are individual cases and at Óbuda University we cannot make general conclusions on student pro bono programs so I’m wondering what additional steps should be taken. Should they take part in a project management or communication trainings? I’m getting the feeling they are lacking basic knowledge around these topics which are fundamental for a successful project. So how can we ensure their readiness?
VV: I think a guideline would be useful, nothing major just have it written who is the students’ team leader and what their roles and responsibilities are. It should also include that they are in charge of delivering everything on time, of planning the meetings and of being in touch with the mentors. A list like this would help them to know what is expected from them.
AK: A guideline could be useful, but I was also missing some documentation on how this advisory type of work can be performed successfully. Students didn’t know how to do things, how to ask the proper questions, how to set common goals and how to manage the project. As I saw, they wanted to give advices but without understanding the problem of the customer. They tried to follow previous year’s experiences when they created a donation site, which they wanted to reproduce in this new project as well. Unfortunately, the NGO said it was not a burning issue for them, still students insisted on doing it. It was hard to explain to them how important it is to first understand the customer’s needs and that the primary focus shouldn’t be on what they can do.
AFT: What were the outcomes and achievements of the program? Were the projects successful?
VV: Yes, absolutely. As far as I have seen, students were really creative, they deep dived into the NGO’s current communication practices, checked websites and social media posts and did a great job on the so-called ‘as is’ analysis. At the end, they came up with constructive advices, not only commenting on what they’ve done but came up with ideas that were actionable for the NGO-s.
AK: My project had a happy ending as everybody was satisfied with the end results. With the students we’ve provided a marketing concept on how to attract new clients to Perinatus Foundation. Students gave ready-made sales materials that are sharable on social media sites, created a nice advertisement-like video spot and shared ideas on how to seek donations. At the end, together we recommended a repositioning due to the pandemic. Previously this foundation organised classroom discussions with new parents which we recommended to be online now. It was a new approach for the foundation and they appreciated that they received more than expected. But I think, the best proof of success was that students offered their voluntary support for the foundation after our project. On the other hand, students were able to learn marketing practices during the cooperation, so it was a win-win situation.
AFT: Do you think the student pro bono projects were useful for the NGO-s?
AK: I am absolutely sure it was useful for the NGO-s we worked with, they were satisfied with the end results, they got plenty of new ideas from the students and received useful marketing and sales materials. Even the students managed to gain experiences in the fields of marketing.
AFT: Do you think pro bono is a good tool for the students to learn?
AK: Yes, absolutely. I would recommend it to all students because they can learn a lot from these projects, even if they are failing.
AFT: What are your most important advices (4-5) for students to maximise the success of pro bono projects?
AK: My first advise is not to be shy to use the help of mentors. The second one is to find a communication platform as early as possible, which is especially relevant in the online space. Also, I think it is essential to set up regular conversations, for example weekly calls, to have the framework and to have intensive discussions both with the mentors and the NGO-s. I offered the students to use me for pre-testing, to check their ideas first with me before presenting them to the customers so it was useful for them that they could practice presentation skills. Finally, it is good that students are preparing different documentations, for example question and issue lists or even written proposals, where they could practice in writing as well.
VV: Take your time to understand and break down the problem of the NGO – It is not a problem if the students don’t know the solution from the beginning. Use your support smartly – don’t hesitate to reach out to your mentor when in doubt. Practice to prepare top-quality documentations (It would be also nice to consider this as a part of the evaluation in the end) e.g. discovery question list, workshop material, management summary about the key recommendations, practical guide to NGOs. Practice project management skills – create deadlines for yourself, distribute task among your team, review each other’s work to drive better client value.
AT: Anything else you’d like to mention in this topic that we didn’t touch before?
AK: I think my only comment would be that if I had the opportunity to take part in a similar programme, I’d be happy to act as a mentor again. I really enjoyed it before and would like to do it again. I think it is useful for mentors as well, especially for young professionals who don’t have experiences with guiding people. If someone wants to be a line manager this mentorship is a good chance for them to practice people management skills. And as I mentioned before, I’d involve as many students as possible in these projects.