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Seeing Volunteers in a New Light

By Tom Watson on August 15, 2007No Comment

Seeing Volunteers in a New Light
By Amanda Margulies, 8/15/2007

If asked to conjure an image of a volunteer, you might identify a set of characteristics that include: eager, available, and handy. One envisions an individual wearing a t-shirt and shorts — engaged, perhaps, in some form of manual labor: digging a hole, ladling soup, nailing shingles to a roof.

This may have been the case at one time, but more recently another type of volunteer has emerged. This volunteer is not a recent college graduate; rather he or she is a full-time employee of a Fortune 500 company very likely a high-level officer and wears a suit to work every day.  Instead of physically digging a hole, this volunteer will use a pen and calculator to strategize a means of getting a fledging nonprofit out of a financial hole.

The trend toward skill-based employee volunteer programs came into focus at the annual National Conference on Volunteering and Service, co-convened by the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National & Community Service recently in Philadelphia.

At the nation’s largest gathering on volunteering and service, an estimated 3,000 volunteer sector leaders assembled from July 16-18 for a series of workshops, receptions and awards ceremonies featuring prestigious leaders such as former President George H. W. Bush, Alma Powell, and Jean Case.

In the workshop “Quality Over Quantity: New Heights of Efficacy Through Employee Skill-Based Volunteering,” corporate panelists emphasized the shift from yesterday’s volunteers, who might have been young, unemployed, and well-versed in anything but corporate parlance.

More typically, today’s volunteer has a very specific set of business skills to share and thus represents the alternative capital a company can offer to a nonprofit: expertise in business strategy, operations, technology, marketing, human resources, and finance.

Welcome to the world of skill-based employee volunteering volunteer work for the benefit of nonprofit organizations and/or their causes that uses technical or professional skills. This kind of volunteer service enables nonprofit groups to tap into business skills that could elevate their overall capacity and to install sophisticated financial and organizational systems that would satisfy long-term needs.

Sounds like a pretty cool deal for the nonprofit, right? Indeed, a 2006 study by Accenture revealed that, money aside, over 75% of nonprofits identified ‘high order’ skills as the single most valuable form of assistance a company could provide. In addition, as discussed at the conference workshop, skill-based employee volunteer programs (EVPs) are equally rewarding to the companies. Service learning not only provides employees with a rewarding and meaningful experience, but it’s also a mechanism through which companies can develop an innovative workforce. 

With benefits to both sides of the partnership, one would think that corporations and nonprofits would be jumping at the chance to implement skill-based EVPs. On the contrary, a 2006 study conducted by Deloitte and Points of Light revealed that most nonprofits do not benefit from skill-based volunteers. According to workshop speaker Evan Hochberg, National Director of Community Involvement at Deloitte Services, several institutional challenges still stand in the way of a full-scale roll-out of skill-based EVP programs. Chief among them is the need for both businesses and nonprofits to determine the most effective way of transferring the business skills via volunteer service. From the nonprofits’ end, this means prioritizing the management and oversight of the volunteers. If the nonprofit suffers from an inability to identify the most pressing needs, they can use these volunteers to articulate a business plan that includes a strategy for implementation.

Similarly, companies can more aggressively engage their workforce to take part in skill-based volunteering opportunities. Companies need to shift from the perception that volunteerism is an employee benefit and think of it as an opportunity to leverage the talents and skills of their workforce for maximum social impact.   By becoming more outcomes-focused, companies can also think in terms of communicating that nonprofits are businesses and make that resonate, instead of focusing solely on the social issue.

Hochberg emphasized that it is essential for the company to be tactical when assigning employees to volunteer positions; customize the programs to match the skills specific to the workforce and tailor the EVPs accordingly.  Another workshop panelist, Heather Shaw, Director of Corporate Responsibility at Time Warner Inc., also recommended aligning the EVP with the company’s HR department as another means of promoting it as more of a joint-business initiative.

Additional recommendations for companies seeking to develop their skill-based EVPs were offered by two other workshop panelists, Paul Hasenwinkel, Senior Director of US Corporate Citizenship at Accenture and John-Anthony Meza, Associate Director for National Community Involvement at KPMG. Hasenwinkel noted that companies should also be aware that skill-based EVPs can yield innovative work that can be added to the company’s credentials. And, according to Meza, a global program for a large corporation can also cultivate infrastructure and community buy-in of the company’s various international offices.

In sum, skill-based volunteering has the potential to transform the nonprofit sector, one organization at a time. But first, both nonprofits and corporations must learn how to shed their outdated classification of volunteerism and embrace a more progressive partnership that can yield mutually satisfying results.

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