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Mobilizing a Global Volunteer Network for Social Good

Michelle No — Journalist
Tasnuva Orchi — Former Senior Data Analyst, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation

Across the globe, over 20,000 highly experienced and exceptionally productive data scientists, AI engineers, designers, and thinkers make up the DataKind community.

This base of pro bono volunteer experts is the organization’s heartbeat. In leading the Data for Good movement, the nonprofit’s focus on meaningful work has drawn hordes of professionals eager to spend their free time tackling high-impact, high-caliber projects. And without this passionate and dedicated community, the global nonprofit would have just 21 staffers to cover the hundreds of requests it has received since its inception 10 years ago.

Leveraging Data Science and AI
for Social Good

Founded in 2012, DataKind harnesses the power of data science to enable social change and AI in the service of humanity. DataKind is valued as a leading technical partner for many mission-driven organizations ranging from international NGOs to social enterprises to government agencies.

Together, they work to tackle pressing global challenges through data science innovations. DataKind’s staff leads teams of pro bono data scientists to co-create projects with our local partners in the service of underserved, marginalized, and vulnerable communities. Their projects accelerate missions by leveraging data science and transform thousands and thousands of lives through the organizations we serve.

Since 2018, The Rockefeller Foundation has been awarding DataKind grants to support their efforts bridging the gap between those who have data science and AI resources and those who critically need them. These grants supported the expansion of DataKind’s thematic portfolio model by developing interventions that have relevance across a range of contexts.  By doing so, DataKind has been able to deliver insights and de-risk innovations that can drive sector-level change and improve the lives of millions.

  • Datakind's focus on scalable projects has benefits far beyond resource sharing. Their approach helps build collaborative networks between organizations, which is crucial in working towards sustainable solutions.
    Michelle Leonard
    Director, Data Science, The Rockefeller Foundation

Building & Supporting Diverse Teams of Expert Technologists

For many nonprofits looking in, DataKind seems to have unlocked the key to enabling large-scale work on a budget. Just this year, the work of volunteers translated into $600,000 worth of pro bono services, says Director, Global Volunteers, Shanna Lee. When it comes down to it, the secret to their volunteer infrastructure hinges on organization, values alignment, and clarity of vision.

Throughout the year, DataKind hosts DataDive events such as these in which volunteers program side by side with the goal of tackling a central project together. (Photo courtesy of DataKind)

“They are not staff — they are giving up their time and resources. It’s really thinking about how to prepare them to succeed and feel empowered within their roles,” Lee says. “To that end, it starts at the time of recruitment. We want to give transparency to the volunteers early on so they can assess, is this something of interest to me?”

When it comes to onboarding, volunteers go through role-specific training, are introduced to the DataKind Playbook (a holistic manual outlining how to execute a high-quality Data for Good project at DataKind), and given time for team-building. Beyond this, they’re invited to participate in the organization’s Slack community, workshops, events, and a global volunteer summit to showcase the projects they’ve worked on and engage in peer-to-peer learning.

“There’s intentional work that needs to be done to cultivate and support [volunteers] in their role,” says Lee. “We hope it also encourages them to come back for another opportunity or to refer someone else.”

Lasting Impact
for Volunteers & Mission-Driven Organizations

With volunteers on almost every continent and Chapters in Bengaluru, San Francisco, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Washington DC, DataKind’s reach is expansive.

Creating this volunteer-powered infrastructure allows experts to focus purely on the work, which in itself offers benefits beyond its altruistic results. For one, while most volunteers come in with a desire to do good, they also relish the opportunity to take ownership of projects and deepen skills they might not have a chance to flex at their day jobs.

It’s not uncommon for volunteers to attribute their DataKind experience with helping them find a new job, as was the case for one volunteer who pivoted fields to health economics research following working on DataKind’s DataCorps® model. For another volunteer, her work at DataKind was an opportunity to sharpen her Python skills using a new and exciting dataset.

To give a fuller example of the scope of impact that volunteers can make, Lee cited one project in which, within a six-month period, a team of volunteers created the FEAT (Foreclosure and Eviction Analysis Tool). In partnership with New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program, the tool was created to help local leaders across 14 cities and counties within the United States understand where housing loss occurs and, using that data, be able to make equitable decisions for COVID relief funding in a proactive way.

“It’s not just simple data entry or exploratory data analysis. Yes, that’s included, but they do so much more,” Lee says.

DataKind’s work has also helped organizations access more resources. This was the case for the City of San Jose, California, who worked with DataKind’s San Francisco Chapter to create a framework and data tool to evaluate community needs to direct resources in an equitable fashion. Part of that partnership was consequently an impetus towards the City of San Jose getting a million-dollar grant from the Knight Foundation.

“That project really set up the opportunity for the City to pursue and receive that funding,” Lee said.

Providing Technical Capacity to the Social Sector

There’s another advantage to recruiting volunteers: Their workforce’s global profile has allowed DataKind to scale at a rapid clip, partnering with mission-driven organizations to leverage data science and AI to advance their work.

For a typical project, DataKind leads a team of expert technologists, often with a combined 25+ years of experience, who give over 1,500 total hours. Volunteers are diverse in every aspect and have professional titles ranging from data scientist to AI engineer, from physicist to computational neuroscientist, and more. The outcomes the volunteers help to drive are those that nonprofits simply don’t have the capacity to produce on their own, enabling DataKind to turn to the most pressing issues being addressed by organizations all over the world.

For most volunteers, the community, beyond the project work, is indeed one of the most lasting gifts from their volunteer engagements.

“This is, by far, the highlight of volunteering at DataKind – the people. All of the people I interacted with, from the moment I was interviewed to our weekly check-ins to even talking to Riders, were fantastic!” said volunteer Alexander Sack, who volunteered on a Riders for Health project. “I cannot stress how gracious, professional, and just a joy it was to interact with everyone.”

It’s this community of pro bono experts that lends DataKind its high standing in the tech community — and even its longevity.


Getting Involved with DataKind

Now, on the eve of their 10-year anniversary, DataKind is excited for what lies ahead and deeply thankful for the volunteers, project partners, funders, and staff who have made the growth of this organization possible over the last decade.

If you’re interested in volunteering or learning more about DataKind’s 10 Year Anniversary celebration, visit: