Malak Yacout's The Volunteer Circle Is Mobilizing The Next Generation Towards Active Social Impact In The Middle East And Beyond

Having witnessed firsthand the lack of human resources management in realizing social impact, Yacout set out on her entrepreneurial endeavor with a mission to better harness the power of volunteerism in the Middle East.

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"Imagine a country on the brink of collapse, yet with no entry point of support beyond donor money." This was what Malak Yacout told herself when she declined a job at her dream multinational company and decided to start The Volunteer Circle to tap into the potential of disrupting the volunteering landscape in Lebanon. "Volunteering was inaccessible when my home country was going through so many crises," she says. "It did not make sense that amidst the refugee crisis, the environmental problem, and a presidential hiatus, we still had no way to find an opportunity to volunteer our time or skills in a meaningful way. I couldn't just stand and watch." Having thus witnessed firsthand the lack of human resources management in realizing social impact, Yacout set out on her entrepreneurial endeavor with a mission to better harness the power of volunteerism in the Middle East.

The Volunteer Circle
Malak Yacout, founder and Executive Director, The Volunteer Circle

And so, after meeting former co-founder and current board member Nadine Makarem, Yacout, aided by a small crowdfunding campaign in 2019, launched The Volunteer Circle as a digital social enterprise that links individuals or groups to volunteer opportunities in Lebanon, Egypt, and other countries in the MENA. Yacout positions volunteering as a gateway solution to solve some of the most pressing national challenges, such as unemployment and lack of funds for impact entrepreneurship.

As such, The Volunteer Circle offers an artificial intelligence-powered platform, along with skills development opportunities. The platform matches volunteers, non-profit organizations, and institutions, and thus, connects the supply of skills from volunteers to community needs, on-demand. It also offers short and long-term volunteering with different levels of commitment, such as remote-only, one-shot, regular, skill-based, or time-based. "This is where you experience the sweet spot between a startup culture and social impact models," Yacout says. "We're innovative, real, and committed to supporting the MENA region by providing a smarter way to navigate volunteering, and positioning it as the primary touchpoint for sustainable development and employability."

Source: The Volunteer Circle

Following its launch, the team at The Volunteer Circle certainly had their work cut out for them as Lebanon had undergone a number of crises at the time, which included the civil protests in October 2019, followed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. Such instances saw Yacout, along with her team, make use of the platform to mobilize more than 6,000 volunteers to aid more than 250 organizations.

In its early days, Yacout recalls wearing multiple hats as a founder- from operations, to strategy, and marketing, as well as being a tech wizard, mentor, and a first responder with participating organizations. "No two days looked the same since the beginning of our journey," Yacout recalls. "The early days were mostly 2am calls with our web developers, then testing at 5am, back-to-back pitching, and not wasting time. As a woman and a young entrepreneur, society severely underestimated what I can accomplish every other day, especially in Lebanon, where you don't have the proper infrastructure to operate."

But gradually, as the team successfully fulfilled volunteer requests, they established trust and relationship with partner organizations and volunteers. The enterprise saw the number of volunteers rise from just three people to a community of more than 10,000, and it also saw the number of non-profit organizations it supported rise from 27 to over 230 of such entities across various sectors and locations. "Up to this point, the cost-saving for local authorities by The Volunteer Circle amounts to US$2,740,107," Yacout declares.

Source: The Volunteer Circle

The Volunteer Circle's growing traction, coupled with the multiple community needs it received, led Yacout and her small team to take on multiple roles in parallel, while also learning new skills through it all. This led The Volunteer Circle to start offering skills development training to volunteers, with the goal of matching them to jobs prospects later. "Through volunteering, one gains upskilling experiences and can secure a job that matches their professional ambitions, and this is mainly what we have been focusing on since August 2020," says Yacout.

The team have also been testing the option of replicating the platform's functionality for employability and talent matching, while encouraging the inclusion of profiles with previous volunteering experience. So far, Yacout states that 57 people have been able to secure jobs through The Volunteer Circle- and that happened in a span of just three months. The enterprise has also been approached by regional and international employers to source talent with volunteering experience. "We have been experimenting with a new referral-based revenue model where we connect skilled volunteer talent to full-time jobs," Yacout adds.

In June 2021, the platform launched The Volunteer Leadership Masterclass, which comes with a fee and is now a pre-requisite to join the platform. Initially taught in-person, it was turned to a comprehensive online solution that includes 12 episodes to explore the tools that organizations and volunteers need to maximize their qualitative and quantitative impact. Its other revenue stream is from fulfilling volunteer requests on behalf of institutions and organizations- which includes assisting them with attracting the right volunteers, and then retaining them as well. The startup has also developed an accelerator program, which, Yacout says, trains young talent "to become community champions in their areas, and decentralize volunteering for causes that represent them." The graduates of this program by The Volunteer Circle are called "Mayors of Impact," with Yacout calling them "a pillar of our progress, just like we have unlocked many growth opportunities for them."

Source: The Volunteer Circle

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So far, according to Yacout, 20% of the enterprise's funds has come from the services they provide, and 80% from crowdfunding campaigns, grants, competitions, and awards won. As for the future, Yacout hopes that impact investors will be a part of The Volunteer Circle story going forward. "To catalyze more change and have a more significant impact, we need to encourage more venture philanthropists in the space of impact investing," she says. "Moving forward with our vision, we will be launching our pre-seed funding round in 2023 to boost our expansion and scalability plans in the MENA region."

At the same time, Yacout and the team are planning to grow The Volunteer Circle across the region- they're kicking it off with online volunteering awareness campaigns, while also scaling their activity to other locations with the support of strategic partners abroad. The company is also voicing its support for legislation around policies regarding volunteering and its importance- indeed, The Volunteer Circle itself published an official report on the impact of volunteering in Lebanon with comparable qualitative and quantitative data. "Our dream vision is to become the go-to platform [for volunteering] in the MENA region and beyond," Yacout says. "We are working to create the exemplary resource volunteer hub that the world needs- for the people, by the people."

Of course, Yacout's journey with The Volunteer Circle hasn't been a joyride. Creating awareness about a need that people didn't know existed was the first challenge. Before positioning the platform as a tool that transforms traditional volunteering systems into a personalized and effective experience, Yacout says that she and her team first had to create a market around it. "Our concept resonated with people deeply," she recalls. "Every time we would pitch the idea, people's eyes would light up, and so many times, they would say, 'Where have you been all my life?'" But Yacout and her team also learned that they had to constantly personalize their tone and approach, depending on the stakeholder or issue they were addressing, and the needs of the hour. "From one crisis to another, the civil uprisings, the global pandemic, Lebanon going bankrupt, and the Beirut blast, we were operating in triage mode, and many of our legal documents were halted," Yacout recalls. "This episode allowed us to develop the agility of a startup, yet the hyper-responsiveness of a non-profit."

Malak Yacout, founder and Executive Director, The Volunteer Circle. Source: The Volunteer Circle

Such experiences have also led Yacout and her team to be better equipped to deal with any new hurdle that might come their way. "The more we get into it, the more we learn and unlearn important principles to succeed," she says. "By this point, whatever challenge comes our way, it always brings us back to our purpose front and center. As an impact entrepreneur, I don't see my job and purpose as separate paths. My job is to utilize my purpose, to unlock opportunities and a better life for anybody who has been robbed of it, including myself." Although Yacout is honest about sometimes feeling disheartened with her journey, the founder still believes that the hardships have been worth it nevertheless. "Many times, I felt discouraged to continue growing The Volunteer Circle," she says. "I built my career capital alongside building it, so I did not have access to a readily existing network and resources to channel and make it a loud success since the beginning."

The most prominent lesson, she states, has been realizing there's no other path she would have rather taken. "Being an impact entrepreneur allows me to put my purpose into practice. I engaged in all cognitive/mental gymnastics until I reached a point where I go to bed at peace, knowing that we have created a wheel of impact that keeps opening opportunities for those who need it the most," she says. In fact, through building The Volunteer Circle, Yacout notes that that she has acquired insights on challenges and gaps in the market that should be addressed immediately, and in fact, that has pushed her to start building a second social enterprise. "With our constant renewal of energy and resources, I learned that there are no ends, only new beginnings. To create a substantial impact in Lebanon means you create value, then water it yourself- with little to no state assistance. Kudos to all the mountain movers, the entrepreneurs, the innovators… They grow gardens in the shade."

'TREP TALK: Tips on making social impact from The Volunteer Circle founder Malak Yacout

Learn by doing "At the beginning of your journey, when it is common to struggle to find resources, or to achieve your mission, don't be afraid to fly without a safety net, especially if you are pioneering the market, and there is no benchmark for you to rely on or to compare to. Keep working well and with quality; funding and support will follow. Action is the best device for learning. You make a decision, take action, look at the result, and learn. This learning informs your following action and your next."

Impact over everything "If you don't have an opportunity to be an impact entrepreneur, help one. Impact entrepreneurship is the future. The world does not need more capitalists. We can no longer afford to look at our challenges mindlessly, where we only search for ways to make money. The world needs more people who leverage their journeys to create a legacy that improves livelihoods, while solving the most pressing challenges we face. Building a legacy means that the impact would remain, even if your business moves outside the industry."

Serve first, lead later "The most successful entrepreneurs are the number one volunteers in their field. Volunteer frequently for the groups you serve, and always be the first responder to whatever your enterprise or partners need. This is how you keep learning and stay ahead. Between pitching and funding rounds, it is easy to lose sight of why we started our enterprises in the first place. Don't miss out on the growth in between."

Take the plunge "It is what you do with what you have that matters. Channel your time and energy where they cannot be easily replaceable. The journey from idea to reality is thrilling. And on most days, this is enough to keep going, despite all the challenges."

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