Tips on Developing Strategies for Skills-Based Volunteers

Posted Monday, November 15th, 2021 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

Skills-based volunteering can be a bit of a mystery for volunteer managers, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s dive into some tips on scoping, sourcing, and supporting projects for skills-based volunteers.

In a recent webinar, which is now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, gave an overview of best practices for nonprofits when engaging and developing skills-based volunteers. She shared how to assess an organization’s readiness to engage skills-based volunteers and key steps to identifying a strategic project for pro bono or skills-based volunteers.

Whether you’re already engaging skills-based volunteers or not, these tips on how to develop a support plan for successful engagement may help when the opportunity arises.

Skills-Based Volunteering vs. Pro Bono Service

Getting the terminology straight is important. According to Points of Light, skills-based volunteering is a general category of engagement in which volunteers use skills, knowledge, and talents to deliver on an organization’s social mission. They define pro bono service as a category of skills-based volunteering in which a volunteer’s professional skills are tapped.

Realized Worth, a firm that helps companies with corporate volunteering, has similarly defined these terms and specifically notes that pro bono is a type of skills-based volunteering in which volunteers take a skill that is used every day in their job and applies it to work to address a complex social or environmental cause.

For example, photography is a skill that many volunteers leverage to help serve organizations’ missions, but it’s only pro bono if they volunteer as a professional photographer.

Benefits of 4 Pro Bono Models

Speed Consulting

A two-hour conversation focused on a single challenge or organizational pain point between corporate professional and nonprofit executive. Benefits: Opportunities for virtual volunteering for limited capacity volunteers.

Team Consulting

A three-to-six month engagement focused on a defined challenge. Volunteers work cross-departmentally from disciplines such as finance, human resources, and marketing. Benefits: Functional and leadership skills development and a deep investment in the nonprofit.

Mentorship and Coaching

Volunteers provide ongoing guidance on a strategic or early-stage challenge. Formats include 1-on-1 coaching with a nonprofit executive or project implementation support. Benefits: Leadership development opportunities.

Day of Service

A four-to-eight hour team-based event. Employees are matched on a single challenge scoped to their skills which can be delivered in less than a day. Benefits: Engagement of many nonprofits and employees and the opportunity to tailor to a specific Employee Resource Group (ERG).

Why Engage Skills-Based Volunteers?

“Skills-based volunteers provide a critical resource to nonprofits, supporting vital, yet underfunded core business functions and helping to close this capacity gap.”

Measuring the Social Impact of Volunteerism, Common Impact

In 2020, Common Impact released a study in partnership with True Impact designed to quantify the impact of skills-based volunteering on the social sector. With the new framework they created, nonprofits can better quantify the impact of skills-based volunteer programs on the number of clients served, supported, and developed.

Nonprofits spend an average of 2-8% on infrastructure functions, compared to the private sector’s 20-35%. Skills-based volunteers provide a critical resource to nonprofits, supporting vital, yet underfunded core business functions and helping to close this capacity gap. Skills-based volunteering amplifies investment 7:1 in critical nonprofit infrastructure compared to traditional hands-on volunteering, enabling organizations to be more effective in tackling community challenges.

Skills-Based Volunteer Engagement Steps

 Step 1 – Identify and Select Project

Generate a list of potential projects by reviewing the department’s strategic priorities, considering “to do” lists or brainstorming what you would like to accomplish if only you had more time or people – your “wish” lists. You could also attend department meetings and facilitate a discussion.

Questions to consider:

  • What would you like to increase?
  • What challenge is your nonprofit facing?
  • If you could hire a consultant, whom would you hire?

Step 2 – Assess Readiness

Assess each potential project for its feasibility for a volunteer to accomplish it through project-based volunteering. Consider the scope, urgency and knowledge needed. With paid engagements, a change in scope is addressed by charging the client for any extra time required. In pro bono work, the budget is simply time (and not money), so the team is asked to invest more time when there is a change in scope.

Questions to consider:

  • Do critical team members want this project as much as you do?
  • Do critical internal team members have the capacity to support the work?

Step 3 – Develop Project Plan

Complete a Volunteer Position Description to support the recruitment of a qualified individual to fill the project-based Volunteering role. By drafting the description, reaffirm whether the opportunity has potential to be structured as a corporate/pro bono, academic service learning, unpaid internship, or a general project-based volunteering opportunity. Be sure to collect essential information from prospective volunteers and provide guidance to screeners.

For project-based volunteering, the Volunteer Work Plan is a vital tool to set expectations and articulate the goals of the project, clarifies deliverables, check-in points, and resources. Supervisors should draft the work plan but finalize it in collaboration with the volunteer once recruited to ensure that the volunteer can provide input into the project design and tasks that will result in the desired outcomes.

Consider scope, timeline, team members, skills needed, etc. as adapted from Powered by Pro Bono, Taproot Foundation.

  • “In Scope” – What will this project accomplish?
  • “Out of Scope” – What will not be accomplished by this project?
  • “Completion Criteria” – How will you know when the project is complete?
  • “Logistics” – What timeline and resources are important to the project?

Step 4 – Recruit, Train, and Support Volunteers

While recruiting, you can find skills-based volunteers via numerous resources. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Current volunteers
  • Existing or emerging business partnerships
  • LinkedIn
  • Volunteer Search Engines (there are sites that specialize in pro bono and SBV)
  • Corporations (retail, food, health care, insurance)
  • Professional Services Firms (management consulting, Accounting, Legal, Architecture)
  • Individuals (any individual you have worked with before)
  • Professional Schools

You should also consider developing value propositions for:

  • Extended impact to community
  • Internal teambuilding
  • Learning and retention
  • Visibility and brand enhancement

Use the five guiding principles for training and support:

Principle 1 – Be prepared to invest time and track the time you spend so you can calculate your return on investment. This will help choose good projects in the future.

Principle 2 – Act like a paying client. Check in regularly. Hold the team accountable to meeting deadlines and give and receive feedback. You’ll get far better results.

Principle 3 – Foster internal team communications. Keep them updated. Without internal buy in, even the best projects can fail.

Principle 4 – Create space for skilled volunteers to share. Good and bad news – take full advantage of their expertise and their external perspective.

Principle 5 – Celebrate your volunteers!

Step 5 – Evaluate and Recognize

Measuring and communicating outcomes is key to skills-based volunteer retention, as well as future project planning. You’ll want to complete the Volunteer Performance Review at the conclusion of the project as part of the offboarding process. Then complete the Project-based Volunteering Survey to contribute to the ongoing evaluation of this type of engagement. Acknowledge the volunteer’s contributions ongoingly throughout the project and demonstrate appreciation for their work formally and informally. Be sure to share a final formal thank you to the volunteer once the project is complete.

Advice from a Specialist

“I encourage people to think differently than they always have. By conducting a needs assessment, as opposed to simply asking for ideas about how volunteers can serve, colleagues are forced to think beyond the same roles that volunteers have always filled and instead start from real needs.”

– An engagement specialist for the City of Fort Collins, Colorado

When engaging pro bono resources proactively, according to your organization’s priorities, remember that a pro bono project is a partnership.

 Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Scoping, Sourcing, and Supporting Projects for Skills-Based Volunteerswebinar and download the Project Planning for Skills-Based Volunteers handout.

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The information contained herein is for informational purposes only. Sterling is not a law firm, and none of the information contained in this notice is intended as legal advice. Clients are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel about the impacts of any requirements. This, and other important information can be found on the Sterling website at