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The Double Bottom Line of Skills-Based Volunteering

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Marjorie Head ShotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

Marjorie Ringrose

While it uncomfortably discounts the tremendous joy and value that come when volunteers use their hands and minds to serve others, there’s a volunteer-to-fundraising calculus that nonprofit and philanthropic leaders know. 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.

Nonprofits are highly adept at creating volunteer opportunities. One-in-four American adults are nonprofit volunteers. But few nonprofits know how to use their skilled volunteers. SVP LogoAccording to the Corporation for National and Community Service:

  • 43 percent are tutoring, teaching, mentoring, coaching youth
  • 38 percent are collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food or clothing
  • 25 percent are fundraising or selling items to raise money
  • 20 percent are providing transportation and general labor support
  • 15 percent are lending professional and management expertise

Why are just 15 percent involved in skills-based volunteering?

Is it because volunteers don’t want to offer their professional skills? No. The longevity of engaged philanthropy, the growth of corporate voluntarism, and LinkedIn’s more than four million members wanting do skills-based volunteering and/or join a board are but a few markers of professionals’ desire to volunteer their skills.

Is it because nonprofits don’t need people to volunteer their professional skills? Not generally. According to Taproot, 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 have yet to develop effective and efficient ways to use their skills-based volunteers.

A missed 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 according to the volunteer-to-fundraising calculus, can also be significant and lasting donors.

Yes, finding and engaging skills-based volunteers with the right professional experience and temperament is hard. Identifying and managing complex, lengthy skills-based projects is time consuming work.

Organizations that operate with an engaged philanthropy model, which focus on donations of time as well as money, have practices in place to address this. Groups such as Social Venture Partners, New Profit Inc., 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.

How do they do it?

These organizations carefully select a small number of beneficiaries and build authentic, long-term partnerships with shared impact goals and mutual expectations. They build their organizational capacity by providing financial support and strategic counsel. Skills-based pro bono resources are focused, often through well-managed projects, on their beneficiaries’ most important organizational challenges.

Good skills-based volunteering doesn’t come free. It takes internal resources to manage and steward these volunteers.

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 and agreed, 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 very top of the organization must be responsible for and deeply engaged with skills-based volunteers. Skills-based volunteers are like any others; they want to feel that they have made an impact. But their impact needs to be measured and communicated in two ways: program and capacity building outcomes. Nonprofit leaders must be adept at identifying and masterfully communicating the transformative impact of the skills-based volunteer’s work.

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. Nonprofit leaders must be willing to bravely expose those stress points and habitually invite volunteers into problem-solving. Nonprofit leaders, staff, and boards must embrace the give-and-take (and often slower pace) that comes with inviting volunteers into problem-solving. 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 skills-based volunteers creates an authentic partnership that delivers great value and joy. It makes the most of the volunteer-to-fundraising calculus by delivering the deep engagement that strengthens both the nonprofit and the bond it has with the people willing to donate their time and money to the causes they support.


Marjorie Ringrose joined Social Venture Partners Boston as Executive Director in 2008. Recently, she moved into the role of Director of Social Impact, deepening the impact of Social Venture Partners Boston’s nearly 100 skills-based volunteers and donors. She holds a PhD from the London School of Economics. For more information about Social Venture Partners Boston, visit www.socialventurepartners.org/boston.

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