Making skills-based volunteering work

Maya Roney Ziobro
Maya Roney Ziobro

Maya Roney Ziobro

As the recession drags on and unemployment rates climb ever higher, overburdened nonprofit staffs need the support of skilled volunteers more than ever.

At the same time, there have never been more skilled and experienced professionals who are available, willing, even eager, to work for free.

Nonprofits would be smart to seize this opportunity and figure out how to leverage these volunteer resources in a way that benefits their organization, the communities they serve and the volunteers themselves.

As a recent casualty of mass layoffs in the media industry, I have been volunteering my skills as a communications professional for Arts to Grow, a New York-area nonprofit that brings arts-education programs to students in inner-city schools.

Over 150 volunteers like myself have contributed over 21,500 volunteer hours to Arts to Grow in the past four years, supporting the core work of the organization’s talented teaching artists.

What does Arts to Grow do to recruit, manage and retain volunteers at such a remarkable level?

Director and founder Mallory King offers the following guidelines.

Define the role. Think about the skill sets your staff is lacking, or the projects that are not getting off the ground under current capacity. Instead of recruiting en masse, advertise these opportunities as if they are regular jobs, listing the responsibilities and requirements.

Don’t waste your time on people who aren’t a good fit. Be upfront with potential volunteers about what you want them to do and what you offer. For example, if you need an independent worker who can sit at the computer and send out email blasts all day, don’t offer the work to someone who is looking to volunteering as a way to have fun and make new friends.

Get them motivated. Since money is obviously not the incentive here, volunteers will do their best work when they feel inspired by the end result. Before they even get started, show them firsthand what your organization can accomplish.

Be flexible. Realistically, skilled professional volunteers are going to want to spend most of their time working on paid projects or looking for them. Give your volunteers specific tasks and short-term projects that require only a few hours per day or a few months of their time.

Recognize their important contribution. Highlight your volunteers with individual praise in an e-newsletter, on your Web site and in social media. Let volunteers see how their work helps move the organization forward. These “rewards” aid in continued motivation and retention.

Nonprofits should know that volunteering is not just advantageous to them, but also to the volunteers themselves.

Losing my job made me feel powerless and took away the structure and routine of my day. In a short period of time, and without a daunting interviewing process, I was able to find a volunteer opportunity in an area I was passionate about (the arts, education), which complemented my other responsibilities (temp and freelance work, job searching).

As a volunteer, I’m staying busy and my skills are staying sharp. I’m learning more about the nonprofit sector and arts education in inner cities. I have made a few more LinkedIn contacts and Facebook friends.

Who knows, a career change may even be in my future.

Striving for success during the recession may sometimes seem like a losing game, but when you tap into the power of volunteering, everybody-the volunteers, nonprofits and the community-wins.

Maya Roney Ziobro is volunteer for Arts to Grow, as well as a writer and communications professional, in Jersey City, N.J. She can be reached at or through

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