The Power of Skills-Based Volunteering

Social responsibility is increasingly front-of-mind for employees as they consider where to build their careers. This article explores how skills-based volunteering can not only serve as a strong employee retention strategy in response to this greater desire for social impact, but also democratize highly skilled talent to help a broader range organizations and communities.
7 min read

Recently, social responsibility has gained greater prominence in the corporate world. While previous generations were primarily concerned with money and job titles, millennials, who will make up nearly half of the global workforce by 2020, place greater importance on finding a workplace culture that aligns with their value system. In fact, one study shows that 94% of millenials want to use their skills for social good. They are even willing to give up an average of $7,600 in annual salary for a job that provides opportunities to make social impact.

This shift in workforce mentality will continue to influence how and where top employees build their careers, and is therefore a crucial trend driving the future of work. To stay competitive, companies must find creative ways to deliver the opportunities for social impact that top employees desire. In this article, we explore how skills-based volunteering could address this issue and benefit companies, talent, and society. We will also share diverse examples of such volunteering in practice and offer aspiring companies a few recommendations to translate intent into action.

Leveraging a Trove of Talent

Many companies offer employees traditional volunteer opportunities at local nonprofits. Examples may include providing non-specialized services such as participating in a service day at a soup kitchen, assembling care packages, planting trees, or working the check-in desk at a charity event. While these are invaluable activities for keeping a nonprofit up and running, they do not make optimal use of volunteers’ expertise and skills.

Skills-based volunteering can enable nonprofit staff members to focus on what they do best - set the organizational vision and leverage their domain-specific knowledge to aid their clients.

To address this issue, some companies have promoted skills-based volunteering. In this model, volunteers provide specialized skills and services that leverage job-related expertise, such as marketing, HR, IT, and finance.

Skills-based volunteering helps address a major challenge that many nonprofits face. Nonprofits must often run very lean to minimize overhead costs in an effort to maximize funding for programs that directly impact the communities they serve. This constraint on resources can sometimes force nonprofits to de-prioritize strategic business initiatives, and thus undermines their missions and impact.

Skills-based volunteering helps nonprofits by democratizing high-skilled labor. As a result, nonprofits gain seasoned experts who can help develop long-term business strategies and systems that support growth, all on a pro-bono basis. Further, skills-based volunteering enables nonprofit staff members to focus on what they do best: set the organizational vision and leverage their domain-specific knowledge to aid their clients and communities.

A Win-Win-Win Scenario

The beauty of skills-based volunteering is that it’s a win-win-win scenario for all parties involved – the nonprofit, the volunteer, and the company.

For nonprofits, skills-based volunteering provides access to specialized skill sets and talent that they may not otherwise be able to afford. A volunteer may develop a social media marketing strategy that could help a nonprofit stay relevant and grow their organization for several years. Another volunteer could set up an employee management system and help a nonprofit reduce administrative work by several hours per day.

When companies offer skills-based volunteering opportunities, their employees are empowered to make a long-term strategic impact on the causes they care about beyond the workplace. Drawing on expertise to drive positive social change can increase an employee’s sense of purpose and fulfillment. Skills-based volunteering also enables volunteers to expand their networks, develop meaningful relationships in their communities, and encounter new scenarios to apply and hone their professional skills.

Socially engaged employees are proud of where they work. A commitment to social responsibility through non-traditional means speaks volumes about a company’s values and culture. For companies, this can translate into higher levels of employee satisfaction and retention. Skills-based volunteering can also lead to fruitful corporate partnerships with nonprofits. Through their contributions, volunteers foster strong connections with the staff of the nonprofit organizations they assist. In turn, these organizations are more likely to trust the companies employing these volunteers and seek their expertise for larger initiatives through more traditional business relationships.

Volunteers in Action

Professionals like Judy Pham, a business consultant from Los Angeles, have had success leveraging their specialized skills through company-sponsored programs to support causes they believe in. She and her team helped MASINFA, a Nicaraguan education and microfinance nonprofit, develop a strategy and implementation plan to consolidate and simplify its credit reporting process. In addition, they set up an Access database to manage student information and created tuition payment reporting templates to streamline processes and improve overall business operations.

“The rewarding thing is that skill-based volunteering allows me to make a valuable and sustainable impact that continues to resonate throughout the organization even beyond the initial project effort,” Pham says.

At Toptal, the recent launch of the TopVolunteer program has generated a great deal of interest from our designers, developers, and other business professionals worldwide. Elise Micheals, a Toptal Sales Engineer, has found a way to creatively combine her sales expertise with her passion for philanthropy. She frequently leads pro bono talks and training workshops to help people build strong sales and communication skills that will allow them to succeed both personally and professionally.

“Everything in your life is commission,” Micheals says. “If you can learn how to communicate what you want, need, and can do properly, the world is your oyster.”

Jonathan Ray, a software engineer, describes skills-based volunteering as a “prospect too good not to take up.” Currently, he’s looking forward to leveraging his professional experience to serve as a Job Interview Preparation Mentor for Talent Beyond Boundaries, an organization that helps refugees gain employment internationally. In addition to being excited about making a positive difference in people’s lives, Ray says he also benefits through “being able to keep some of [his] lesser used skills sharp” through teaching and practice.

These stories offer a glimpse of the positive impact skill-based volunteering has had on the missions of nonprofits worldwide.

How to Get Involved

Companies looking to develop a skills-based volunteering program can start by following these steps:

Align Your Values: Identify nonprofit organizations with missions that align with your company’s values and goals. What causes are most important to your business, employees, and community?

Know Your Expertise: Understand your employees’ areas of expertise and skill sets. What are your core competencies and how can these skills apply in a nonprofit setting? Having some ideas in mind for what your employees can offer may help spur conversation when approaching potential nonprofit partners.

Consider Engagement Level: Decide what level of engagement you’d like to participate in (i.e. long-term vs. short-term projects, individual service days, ongoing consulting, etc.). This may vary depending on resource availability, employee preference, or organizational needs. Does the nonprofit you’re serving have the infrastructure in place to support skills-based volunteering? Identifying a timeline and scope of work for each engagement will be critical for setting proper expectations.

Educate & Recognize: Educate your employees about the benefits of skills-based volunteering. How can you encourage, incentivize, and recognize participants? From strengthening existing job skills to practicing new methods of creative thinking, skills-based volunteering is a positive and productive way to give back to the community while growing both personally and professionally.

Together, companies and individuals can find creative ways to leverage their collective skills and maximize social impact. Skills-based volunteering stands as a crucial strategy for companies looking to not only increase employee retention and satisfaction, but also drive broad cultural and social improvement.






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