November 19, 2017
 
A Different Ask During Giving Season: Skilled Volunteers

By Marjorie Ringrose

Marjorie Ringrose
While many nonprofits focus much of their energy during the end-of-year giving season to fundraising, there is another kind of contribution nonprofit organizations can request – skill-based volunteers.

There’s a volunteer-to-fundraising calculus that nonprofit and philanthropic leaders intuitively understand: people who volunteer for an organization are more likely to donate to it. They give larger contributions and donate more often and for longer periods of time than those who don’t volunteer.

Today, 25% of adult Americans volunteer with a nonprofit, but few nonprofits use skilled volunteers as well as they could. Only 15% of nonprofit volunteers give their professional and management expertise. Most serve food, tutor children, and provide transportation. These are vitally important, but there is clearly more room for skilled volunteering. Why isn’t there more?

It’s not because volunteers don’t want to offer their professional skills. The longevity of engaged philanthropy, the growth of corporate voluntarism, and LinkedIn’s more than four million members wanting to do skills-based volunteering and/or to join a board demonstrate professionals’ desire to volunteer their skills.

And it’s not because nonprofits don’t need people to volunteer their professional skills. According to the Taproot Foundation, two-thirds of nonprofits say they need pro bono help in areas requiring skill, such as marketing, human resources, and information technology.

Rather, it’s because many nonprofits find it difficult to use skills-based volunteers efficiently or effectively.

What a lost opportunity. Nonprofits miss out on valuable skills that could help strengthen and grow their organizations. And, they miss out on engaging a population of volunteers that is not only sizable, but can also be significant and lasting donors.

It’s hard to engage skilled volunteers, but it is possible, even for small and mid-sized nonprofits.

Let’s take some lessons from the playbooks of engaged-or venture-philanthropies, which focus on donations of time as well as money. Groups such asSocial Venture Partners, New Profit, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, among others, have mobilized countless hours of skills-based volunteering for their beneficiaries and have, in many cases, secured those very volunteers as their own reliable donor base.

They do it by bringing carefully vetted skilled volunteers to a small number of carefully selected nonprofits. They put the volunteers to work in carefully designed and managed projects that often get at the nonprofits’ most critical business challenges. They seek nonprofits that devote resources to stewarding these volunteers and with leaders who are willing to expose their stress points and welcome volunteer involvement.

Good Skills-Based Volunteering Doesn’t Come Free

Engaging skills-based volunteers takes internal resources to manage and steward the committed people.

Nonprofits need staff and volunteers with solid project and people management skills. Skills-based projects tend to be complex and lengthy. Outcomes must be defined, roles and responsibilities established, risks allayed, etc. And every volunteer is unique – in skill, commitment, personality, and goals. Matches must be made carefully and tended well.

Whether it’s the chief executive or the chief development officer, a leader at the top of the organization must be responsible for and deeply engaged with skills-based volunteers.

Skills-based volunteers are like any other people; they want to feel that they have made an impact. But their impact needs to be measured and communicated through program and capacity building outcomes. It’s the responsibility of nonprofit leaders to identify and masterfully communicate the transformative impact of the work of their skills-based volunteers.

Skills-based volunteers are fortunate. Given the nature of the projects they are skilled to do, they get to see a nonprofit’s stress points and growing pains and can help solve problems that are at the very core of a nonprofit’s ability to deliver. They can impact the very DNA of the organization.

To do this, the organization has to welcome their level of involvement and invite them to be problem solvers. And there must be sustained relationships, and relationship management, among many different parties – volunteers and the nonprofit’s leadership, staff, and boards.

Better use of skilled volunteers creates a virtuous cycle. Nonprofits get precious resources focused on their most pressing needs, volunteers feel like they are making a meaningful difference because they are being asked to do important work, in turn creating the deep commitment that can lead to even more, and more effective, volunteering and to significant, lasting contributions.

Marjorie Ringrose, who served as executive director of Social Venture Partners Boston since 2008, recently moved into the role of director of social impact for the organization. Email her at mringrose@svpboston.org.

December 2015

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