Follow along as I plan, and execute, a Lean Volunteer project in Central America.  For the benefit of those who want to volunteer abroad using your business expertise, I’ll start from scratch, using the process I’ve described in my book (sign up here for a discounted copy when I release it).

Here’s the Lean Volunteer process.


December 12, 2016 :   Step 1 – Decide To Go

The first decision to make is: should I go?   Is doing a Lean Volunteer (LV) project worth doing right now? What volunteer vacations can I create on my own? The book has a lot more depth about making this decision. For example, in addition to asking what I get out of doing a Lean Volunteer project, the book also goes into the motivations of the other stakeholders: the partner enterprise, the community it serves, and the funders.   For this blog project, though, I’ll focus on two areas for you:

  1. Do I want to do a Lean Volunteer project?
    1. What do I want out this adventure?
    2. Can I get it better by doing a Lean Volunteer project?
    3. Am I the right person to do an LV project?
  2. Is this the right time for me to do a LV project?
    1. Am I healthy enough to go off into the world to live for awhile?
    2. Can I take time away from my life here to volunteer abroad? How much time can I take off for an adventure?
    3. Do I have the finances, or can I arrange to have the finances, that will carry me through the time I’m away?

So let’s discuss!


1. Do I want to do a LV project?


– What do I want to get out this adventure?  Is doing a Lean Volunteer project a good way to do this?

I talked about many of my desires and goals for my 2014-2015 world tour in “How I Decided To Travel The World For A Year”:  and most of those still hold true.   But here, in December 2016, I want to refresh my thinking and see what opportunities drive this decision. I’ll talk about three drivers this time.

Who doesn’t want to see exotic jungle birds?

I Get To See New Worlds.   Even though I’ve been around the world, there’s still so much of it to see before I get old and grumpy. And, frankly, I’m getting antsy.   Central America just calls to me right now, especially Costa Rica and Panama. I’m intrigued.  I’m intrigued by the idea of buying a retirement home / income property down there. I’m intrigued by the idea of being warm during the cold North American winters. And I’m intrigued by the natural beauty of both countries that I’m seeing online. And so….why not?

I Get To Experience The World Beneath The Tourist Layer. When I travel, I love to have a tourist experience of sights, sounds, and activities.  But, for me, that can get boring after a week or so.  I’ve discovered that I also love to have a very different kind of experience that I can only get by getting beneath the “tourist layer” of western hotels, taxi drivers, tour guides (human, printed, and online), and even the staff at tourist stops.   I feel connection to and am inspired by people who live in cultures very different from mine, who I can get to know on a daily basis. I’ve learned that the best way to get to know others is to work together on some shared noble purpose.   I still keep in contact with some of the friends I made on my last trip.  Facebook makes maintaining that connection SOOOO easy, and we all continue to enjoy hearing from each other.  They make my life richer well after the trip, and doing a Lean Volunteer project is the fastest and surest way to get those connections and experiences.

I Get to (Maybe) Make A Positive Impact for a Lower Income Community. Aside from my personal interests, I also want to make a positive impact on a lower income community when I can. I could do it in the US, (and I do), but I see myself as a global citizen too, and so helping a community in Central America fits well with that. I know I can’t be guaranteed of making an impact, but I might.

So in summary, I want an adventure to a place I’ve never been before.  When I travel I like to get beneath the tourist layer, which a Lean Volunteer project enables me to do.  And I want to do what I can to help a lower income community.   So yes, I’ll get a lot of personal satisfaction and growth from taking this adventure now, and a Lean Volunteer project will give me a fun and effective way of having an experience under the tourist layer.

– Am I the right person to do an LV project?

I have experience in this so I know that I am the right person.  If I were a newbie, I’d ask a few questions.  Do I have some experience in any business function: accounting, finance, marketing, HR, strategy, decision making, operations, sales, marketing, supply chain, etc?  Or any of the subcategories of those (like photography as a subset of marketing).   If the answer is yes, then why yes you DO have the basic skill set you need to help a small social enterprise abroad.

A more important question to ask yourself is do you have an entrepreneurship attitude that enables you to look at a situation and use your skills and knowledge flexibly?  Adaption is the name of the game with Lean Volunteer projects, so if you like business diagnosis, figuring out puzzles, and working with a few people to create something useful, then you’re good!   Allowing, critically, that their way of running their business may be very different from yours, but you can still help out by adapting to their way of doing things.  I can do that, in fact I really enjoy it.

However, if you mostly feel comfortable in more structured command and control situations, either where you are telling others what to do, or you are being told what to do, then this may be an opportunity for you to get out of that rut, if you want to.  If you can’t, and you’re the kind of person who gets annoyed when others don’t do what you tell them the way you want them to, then maybe you should look for another way to enjoy this adventure.   I’m serious about this.   But, again, this is a great opportunity for you to expand your way of leadership, creativity, and group work!

For me, I really enjoy the creativity and discovery and playfulness that comes with figuring stuff out with a local staff.   It makes me feel more “Dave”.

2. Is this the right time for me to do an LV project?


– Am I healthy enough to go off into the world to live for awhile?

Yes, I seem to be. I have a medication I have to take for my sinuses (sadly, tragically, I’m a snorer). Those meds are easy to stock up on. But the rest of me seems to still be working at age 58.     You may find that your health needs a little more attention but still manageable, so don’t let that stop you.

– Can I take time away from my life here?

– How much time can I take off for this adventure?

At the moment, my business is this book, the education business I’m building around it, and periodic teaching gigs.   I’m really in the same place as I was in 2014 when I wrote “How I Decided To Travel The World For A Year”.  I have no company or job I have to be here for, only social commitments that are flexible.   So I now have the ability to go away for a few months.  (You may only have a few weeks, but it’s still possible.)

Depending on the situation, I’m thinking of offering 3-4 weeks of full time work to a social enterprise.   That will give me another month or so to just be a tourist. I really like North American summers, so I’d like to spend time in Michigan when it’s warm, where my family is.  So that’s my return deadline.

Now, something JUST came up last week that changed my schedule a bit. I got an offer to teach a Design Thinking class in India for the month of February 2017. I’ll know in mid January if that’s a go. If it is, then I’ll do that (don’t want to turn down that opportunity and income!), and then do my Lean Volunteer project in March. If it falls through, I’ll start the adventure as scheduled on February 1.

– Do I have the finances, or can I arrange to have the finances, that will carry me through the time I’m away?

The short answer is yes. I’m fortunate enough to have a bit of extra cash in the bank and I know that I can live MUCH less expensively in Central America as a Lean Volunteer than I can in the San Francisco Bay Area, trying to find more work.   As a 58 year old business tech professor guy, it seems I’m too old to be hired by a local tech company, and the adjunct world of higher education doesn’t pay well enough any more to sustain a Bay Area lifestyle. So I face the opportunity (and challenge) of creating an independent income stream going forward to fund my life.   Because of my skills, my best bet, I think, will be to create online products and services (like Udemy courses). And that I can develop anywhere with a decent internet connection.  Fortunately, I have done a lot of research on that, so I think I know how to pull it off.


So, to summarize Step 1: Decide To Go.  Yes, I’ll go. I’m going to do this!   I have the time, health, and the money I need.  I have the desire to see Costa Rica and Panama.  And I know enough about business to be helpful.   Plus, it’s getting cold and dark here.


Now, that’s me.  Should YOU go?

If all you have is a week off, then clearly don’t do a Lean Volunteer project. You’ll mostly likely just get a “tourist layer” experience, but that’s okay. You really can’t do a pro bono business consulting project in less than 2 weeks.  Instead, you might consider signing up with an international volunteer organization (see Resources section) to do a short term volunteer project doing some sort of program placement: teaching, building, child care, etc.  This  can also help you get below the tourist layer, and make a positive impact on local communities.

But if you’re looking to make an even more profound impact on your own life, your family’s life, and a lower income community with your business skills, then work your situation and do it.   Whatever happens, you’ll have the experience to reflect back on, knowing that you took the chance to make a difference. And, maybe for you, certainly for me, that’s huge.  I think I’m driven more as much by the annoying thought of lying on my death bed thinking “I COULD have explored the world, but I didn’t”, as I am by the prospect of having a ridiculously amazing experience abroad.

You’ll have your own process to go through, especially if you have family or work that will be hard to leave.   But I urge you to be creative about this. Maybe you can take your family along with you? Maybe you can get an unpaid leave of absence from work? Maybe you want to change careers anyway, and this could be a great breaking point.  Even if it takes a year or so to set up, try.

What issues come up for you, in your Step 1?  What is keeping you from…just…going?  Ask in the comments  below or send me an email and I’ll help you think through it.

Coming Up!

And please, sign up here for to get a discounted price for my book, when I release it!

Next:  Step 2 – Find a Good Social Enterprise Partner  (how exciting!)

Stay tuned to The Lean Volunteer Facebook page or Twitter (@leanvolunteer) for when I’ll release the next Step.  I’ll try to put some original content up, about some aspect of Lean Volunteering, every Friday.