Bringing rocket science to volunteering

As part of a two-year Innovation Partnership with the Australian Volunteers Program, TACSI is sharing stories of innovation in the Program, so that others can learn from them. This first article focuses on the development of innovation inside the Australian Volunteers Program.

I’ve had my favourite ideas killed by this process

Australian international volunteering has a long history

Australian international volunteering started as an organised activity nearly 70 years ago, run by a student enterprise at the University of Melbourne. It evolved into the grandly named Overseas Services Bureau and would eventually become Australian Volunteers International (AVI) who still run the Australian Volunteers Program on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Those initial volunteers were issued with a bicycle and boat tickets to get to the newly independent Indonesia and back.

For the last 60 years the Program has been funded by the Australian government, most recently  by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Generations of Australians have taken up placements with the Program and today it operates across 26 countries. The most common ages of volunteers are 28, 29 and… 64. Plane tickets have mostly replaced boat tickets and volunteers no longer get a bike, but instead are supported by training and a network of in-country offices. The Program now has a theory of change, targets, evaluation, security advisors, digital systems and even an innovation fund. More on that a bit later. 

Eager to innovate, the Australian Volunteers Program drew inspiration from NASA 

Ten years after the first Australian volunteers left the University of Melbourne for Indonesia, President Kennedy signed an Executive Order to establish the USA’s equivalent of the Australian Volunteers Program – the Peace Corps. To help with the set-up, Washington consulted the Overseas Service Bureau on their experience. By coincidence, this was the same year that Kennedy announced the plan to land on the moon. 

The task of getting to the moon – and ideally back again – was profound. NASA had to produce tens, probably hundreds of thousands of effective innovations, and to do that they needed to produce perhaps ten times as many ideas. To avoid wasting time and resources, they also needed to invent a way to identify the best ideas quickly. 

To manage that, they developed a ‘phased review process’. At the end of each phase, engineers had to demonstrate that their work justified further investment. In the early stage of development, when ideas were more embryonic, the burden of evidence was lighter; innovations just had to show potential. In the later phases, when significant dollars had been invested, scientists had to show innovations really worked. 

NASA might start with four teams working on rocket propulsion systems, knock out the least promising in the earlier phases, and focus investment on the systems that showed the most promise. In the 1980s, business would refine this phased review process to become the stage-gate process. It’s a process widely used in industry for product development, from biscuits to cars – and also at the Australian Volunteers Program.

The Australian Volunteers Program adapted the stage-gate process to help them solve problems

In 2017, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade decided to allocate funds to innovation in volunteering. They wanted to find new ways to better meet the development needs of organisations and volunteers who are part of the Program. Thus, the Australian Volunteers Program innovation fund was born.

There’s heaps of innovative practice and ideas already, but it hasn’t always gone to scale, or across countries

Anna Trahair, Australian Volunteers Program innovation fund

“There’s heaps of innovative practice and ideas already, but it hasn’t always gone to scale, or across countries,” says Anna Trahair, who heads up the innovation fund.. “And, at the same time, technology is creating new opportunities. Significantly there are some parts of the population that find it hard to participate in volunteering, but would love to. For example, people with disabilities and professionals who can’t leave their jobs and families for two years.”


Anna Trahair, AVP’s innovation manager (centre, front row) at an idea generation workshop in Mongolia, related to networked volunteering, with partner organisations from across Asia working in inclusive development. Photographer: Teagan Glenane

Innovation in organisations often starts with a particular idea or problem that needs to be solved. Innovation in the Australian Volunteers Program started in a different place, with the budget to design and run an innovation fund that would create the conditions for effective innovation – all the way from idea to program integration. 

At the height of the space program, NASA was allocated 4% of GDP and created jobs for half a million people. The resources for the Australian Volunteers Program innovation fund are a bit more modest – they receive funding of approximately 1% of the Program budget, plus a person, Anna. Now, Anna’s time is supplemented by an innovation coordinator (Karla), an innovation partnership with TACSI and a team of 16 Innovation Associates, 10 of which are volunteers spread across 15 countries. 

Like NASA and product development processes around the world, a stage-gate process is the central infrastructure for innovation in the Program. It’s designed to make sure that worthy innovations get resources, and to weed out the weak ideas early on, even if they happen to be the pet idea of the innovation fund manager.  “I think I’ve had my best ideas killed, and rightly so,” says Anna. “I think all of us have at some point, but that means it is working.”

Diagram: Innovation Pathway for the Australian Volunteers Program.

No one ever said it was going to be easy 

The fund’s stage-gate process is still a work-in-progress. While commercial stage-gate processes have to consider a three-way fit between consumers, products and the company, innovation in the Australian Volunteers Program has to consider a four-way fit between the needs of partner organisations, volunteers, the Program and government diplomacy.

This is an emerging approach in the public sector, and it’s increasingly being talked about but it’s not very well understood at this point

Dr Elizabeth St George

“This is an emerging approach in the public sector, and it’s increasingly being talked about but it’s not very well understood at this point,” says Dr Elizabeth St George, who supports innovative practice at DFAT and is a long standing member of the Innovation Pathways Group, who help the Australian Volunteers Program make decisions about what progresses through the pathway and what doesn’t. “In the private sector there have been processes around selecting and developing ideas for some time, but in the public sector something like this is very new.”

Image: Members of the IPG in Canberra making decisions on what to advance in the pipeline. Dr Elizabeth St George is pictured fourth from the right (in pink) Photo:TACSI

There’s some precedent for using the stage-gate process in the public sector for digital service development, but this may be a rare example of a non-digital application. Given that stage-gate processes wrap some healthy bureaucracy around innovation, you might in fact expect them to be more popular in government than they are.

Anna describes the innovation fund and the stage-gate process as looking for ‘a burden of proof’. “At the outset we’re looking for a believable balance of evidence, just in the same way that a legal system and courts look for evidence,” she says. Anna has a legal and engineering background and brings a level of clarity to innovation decision-making that’s very different to innovation managers coming from a more creative or art-based training. It may very well turn out to be the way of thinking that’s needed to mainstream innovation in the public sector.  

DFAT, who have been closely involved in the development of the approach and in decision making, have demanded rigour throughout the process. For Elizabeth, there are benefits of having a well-defined process, for both decision-makers and innovators.

“It’s a way of bringing together program managers to clarify their expectations about what they are trying to achieve and where they are going,” she says. “This way, they can select innovations that are most likely to achieve the kinds of impact they’re looking for.”

Introducing the Innovation Associates

Having a budget and headcount that’s distinctly unlike NASA’s has also forced Anna to innovate how to do innovation. “We’re across 26 countries and I obviously can’t get to all of those, so we needed a quick way to test ideas and get feedback from partner organisations,” she says. “So we created the Innovation Associates.”  

The Innovation Associates are 10 volunteers and six staff who’ve been trained to be the in-country eyes, ears and hands of the innovation fund. Rufus Coffield-Feith is one of them. He’s currently on a two-year placement in Vietnam, supporting the Ministry for Natural Resources and Environment to develop new biodiversity laws. He also happens to be the grandson of Herb Feith, who was the first student volunteer back in 1951.

Laura McKenna (Left) volunteering in a ‘Open Volunteer’ Position, with her colleagues Urantseseg Ulziikhuu and Anudari Badrakh at Transparency International. She is a Youth Integrity Officer working both on the ground in Mongolia and remotely a few hours a week upon return to Australia, in a model being prototyped by the Innovation Fund. Photographer: Teagan Glenane

As a volunteer in Vietnam I’ve had ideas about how we improve volunteering – almost everyone does!

Rufus Coffield-Feith

“As a volunteer in Vietnam I’ve had ideas about how we improve volunteering – almost everyone does!” says Rufus. “What I like about this work is testing the assumptions about what works and doesn’t, and having the space to go for the novel.”

After a selection process, Rufus and the rest of the Innovation Associates were trained at a three day innovation camp in Cambodia. Now, they’re briefed by video conferences to do research with partner organisations, interview other volunteers, test responses to emerging prototypes and develop their own ideas. Rufus is embracing the opportunity to create some new kinds of adventures to test a new idea about how the Program could better support partnerships.

“This has been a chance to practically explore what more we could be doing,” says Rufus. “I took myself eight hours away from Hanoi to volunteer one week with another Australian Volunteer Program partner organisation and see how flexible we can be about partnerships. I wouldn’t have had the impetus if I wasn’t doing research design for the innovation fund.”

Image: Rufus (in black) role-playing interviewing in-country partners as part of the Innovation Associate Training in Cambodia. Photo:TACSI

It’s still early days for the innovation fund 

To date, around 30 early stage ideas or ‘hunches’ have been put forward to the pathway, and only three have got through the first gate. A proposal to do more for young people was stopped after an initial investigation showed that young people were already over-represented in the Program.

The most progressed opportunity at this stage is OPEN volunteering, a mixed-mode of volunteering that combines two weeks in-country with four months of follow-up online volunteering. “It creates potential for so many more Australians to take part in the program, as well as giving our partners  access to a much wider range of skills and experience,” says Emma Hess, Manager Partnerships and Innovation.

Another stream of work is exploring if there just might be something new out there in volunteering, by taking a ‘speculative futures’ approach to exploring volunteering in 2050. Who knows what the future might bring…

Since the time of writing, due to COVID19, the Australian Volunteers Program has repatriated Australian volunteers, and has temporarily suspended sending Australians overseas as skilled volunteers. The program is continuing to explore flexible ways of support partners overseas, and the innovation fund is playing an important role in creatively responding to this rapidly changing environment.