Skills-Based Volunteering Offers More Than a Warm, Fuzzy Feeling
- Skills-based volunteering is a more specialized and customized type of engagement than traditional corporate volunteering or pro bono work.
- For businesses and employees alike, the biggest benefit of this type of volunteer work is that it accelerates professional skill development.
- Companies that partner with nonprofits can drive social impact for the greater good. But when companies align skills-based volunteering with corporate social responsibility initiatives, they can achieve business gains, as well.
- Matching nonprofit needs with employee expertise seems like a no-brainer, but skills-based volunteering comes with its own challenges.
The desire to help those in need is at the heart of volunteer work. But with skills-based volunteering—today’s fastest-growing corporate citizenship program, with 77% (PDF, p. 21) of companies lending their employees’ professional talents to nonprofit organizations—working for the greater good benefits all parties involved.
Nonprofits meet their goals through donated expertise, employee volunteers enhance their skill sets, and companies gain deeper talent within their workforce. When managed well, skills-based volunteering programs can also amplify businesses’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies and enhance their brands and reputations.
What Is Skills-Based Volunteering?
With skills-based volunteering, employees use their professional skills and experience to help a nonprofit solve a complex problem, often over an extended period of time. It’s an elevated, more specialized version of traditional corporate volunteering, which leverages employees’ general skills (think working at a food bank or planting trees) and usually requires a time commitment of less than a day.
Pro Bono Vs. Skills-Based Volunteering
Although the terms skills-based volunteering and pro bono are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same. The most common example of pro bono work is a law firm that takes on a nonprofit client and provides support using the firm’s model, approach, and structures. This transactional relationship typically ends when the project is over.
By contrast, a company that engages in skills-based volunteering customizes its approach, matching the expertise and talents of individual employees with the specific needs of the nonprofit. The company also works with the nonprofit’s employees to help them acquire new skills and knowledge. At its most successful, skills-based volunteering combines the expertise and resources of both the business and the nonprofit to create a solution with lasting value.
Why Skills-Based Volunteering Is Important
Partnership between businesses and nonprofits can produce several positive outcomes. At the highest level is the ability to drive social impact: Companies that partner with nonprofits working to address issues such as climate change, sustainability, and poverty can help effect change at local and global levels. But when companies align their skills-based volunteering programs with their missions or CSR initiatives, they can achieve business gains, as well: adding value to their impact programs and enhancing their brands and reputations among customers and employees, which increases trust and loyalty.
Skills-based-volunteering programs are also an effective recruitment tool, attracting socially conscious professionals seeking a workplace culture in sync with their values. Such programs are especially popular with millennials, who, according to the Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, want to work for companies that develop their skills and make a positive contribution to society.
Benefits of Skills-Based Volunteering
Perhaps the biggest benefit of skills-based volunteering, viewed from a business perspective or an employee angle, is that it accelerates professional skill development.
For businesses, these programs may help attract and develop talent, from today’s entry-level hires to tomorrow’s leaders, according to the 2016 Deloitte Impact Survey. Some companies even design their skills-based volunteering programs as talent-development vehicles, implementing them separately from other volunteer programs. For example, a company might place a group of employees who are being considered for promotion on a challenging, highly visible project that requires them to use or develop advanced skills. Businesses may also find that skills-based volunteering programs increase employee engagement and retention.
For employees, skills-based volunteering may help them land their next jobs or advance their careers, no matter where they are on their career paths. According to Deloitte volunteer impact research, most human-resources executives view skilled volunteer work positively when evaluating job candidates—and most think skilled volunteering makes job candidates, including college graduates, more desirable.
Skills-based volunteering also helps employees develop “must-have” leadership traits, according to the same Deloitte research. Most respondents believe volunteering improves soft skills such as communication, demonstrates accountability and commitment, and develops strong character traits.
Roadblocks to Skills-Based Volunteering
Although matching nonprofit needs with employee expertise seems like a no-brainer, skills-based volunteering comes with its own unique challenges. Businesses and nonprofits are like chalk and cheese: Their different structures and ways of working can complicate the implementation of a large-scale skills-based volunteering program. Unlike one-off volunteering activities, the longer time commitment of skilled volunteer work may not neatly align with a company’s quarterly outputs. And although traditional volunteering activities have clearly defined budgets, staffing costs, and time-off policies, skills-based volunteering is less predictable—and, thus, harder to measure.
5 Examples of Skills-Based Volunteering
Looking to create a skills-based volunteering program for your company? The following examples of corporate-nonprofit partnerships and “connector” organizations offer inspiration and ideas.
Keeping vaccines at a safe and stable temperature throughout the vaccine cold chain—the network of facilities, storage sites, and refrigerators that get vaccines from warehouses to arms—is crucial to their effectiveness, yet an estimated 75% of vaccines are exposed to harmful temperatures at some point in the journey. Los Angeles–based nonprofit Nexleaf Analytics uses data and technology to improve vaccine distribution in low- and middle-income countries, where 55% of cold-chain equipment is poor or nonfunctioning.
The nonprofit’s ColdTrace sensor technologies remotely collect real-time data on vaccine temperature and power availability, which is shared with health workers and ministries of health through an online dashboard. To support the use of this data by country users, a team of seven Autodesk employees, facilitated by the Autodesk Foundation, helped Nexleaf create visualizations of cold-chain data. This work helped inform the development of the Intelligent Maintenance and Planning Tool, a web-based platform that aggregates global real-time cold-chain equipment performance data to help countries optimize their vaccine delivery systems. The success of the Nexleaf-Autodesk partnership led Nexleaf to create a job description for an in-house data-visualization specialist.
Nexleaf continues to work with Autodesk volunteers; most recently, visual effects engineers from the company helped create an animated 3D video that shows how to use Nexleaf devices in vaccine cold rooms.
Taproot Foundation connects nonprofits and social-change organizations with business professionals who want to share their expertise and insights. The online platform Taproot+ lets professionals browse for projects that match their skills, such as business planning, marketing strategy, project management, website redesign, and board development. Projects require time commitments from one to nine weeks. In addition, a corporate membership option allows companies to create a customized skills-based volunteering program that reflects their brand, expertise, and social impact commitment.
The primary goal of Journeyman International (JI) is to inspire and train the next generation of humanitarian architects and engineers. The Oregon-based nonprofit creates teams of professional and student volunteers that provide architecture, engineering, and project-management services to global humanitarian projects. Like Taproot Foundation, JI serves as a kind of informed, socially enlightened connective tissue, matching teams with nonprofits to create partnerships. The difference with JI, however, is that mentorship is a core component of its working model.
Volunteers from architecture and design firms serve as mentors to student teams, supporting projects by contributing technical skills, design knowledge, and strategic advisory services. Journeyman’s professional-student partnerships have designed and engineered sustainable and culturally appropriate facilities such as orphanages, libraries, and schools in more than 40 countries.
Kheyti, a nonprofit based in India, designs and implements affordable farming solutions to help small farmers (those who hold less than 5 acres of land) increase their yields. The organization’s main product is Greenhouse-in-a-Box, a low-cost, modular greenhouse kit that’s bundled with end-to-end services such as financing, training, and market linkage.
A team of four Autodesk employees from Singapore, the UK, and the US worked remotely with Kheyti for three months to improve the greenhouse’s design so it could be offered to a wider audience. They created multiple prototypes using feedback from farmers in Kheyti’s pilot program and input from the manufacturer. The final design reduced installation time and labor by 50% and cut the product price by 10%.
Autodesk also helped Kheyti build its team’s engineering capabilities by offering Autodesk Fusion 360 training via KETIV, an Autodesk training partner. KETIV’s customized training focused on Kheyti’s actual greenhouse design, laying the digital foundation for future work.
Bridges to Prosperity
Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) partners with companies through its corporate partnership program to build trail bridges connecting rural communities in developing countries to essential services such as health care, education, and employment. The US-based nonprofit had typically accomplished this goal through its site-visit program, in which as many as 10 employees from a corporate partner work with a local construction team to build a bridge. But when the COVID-19 pandemic made international travel impossible, B2P needed to rethink its program.
A team of eight Autodesk employees with expertise in marketing, engineering, and sales stepped in to help. After completing market and product research, the team recommended a virtual build program that combined a livestream of the build site with custom webinars to educate partners about B2P’s work. The team helped B2P learn new software and platforms that would keep corporate partners engaged in the remote build. B2P also used the webinar platform to educate its own employees, providing technical training for in-country staff and newly hired workers unfamiliar with the construction process.
Skills-Based Volunteering Makes a Greater Impact on Everyone
There will always be a need for traditional corporate volunteering programs. Food banks need extra hands; trees need to be planted. But companies that engage in skills-based volunteering can make a greater impact: They can build the skills of both corporate and nonprofit employees, enhance their brands and reputations, and help those who need it most.
This article has been updated. It originally published in April 2016. Jeff Link contributed to this article.