Skills-based Volunteering: The Business Case 

Benefits span corporate community engagement and nonprofit capacity building

by Danielle Holly

The last year has been marked by an unprecedented combination of challenges: a pandemic, economic downturn and devastating racial injustice, all of which have affected individuals as well as public and private-sector organizations. At the same time, pervasive social issues such as unequal access to healthcare, housing, food, education and workforce development remain. Making progress in these areas while navigating the unique context of 2020 is difficult, but there is a strategic way for the sectors to collaborate and truly make a difference: skills-based volunteering.

Skills-based volunteering (SBV) taps the experience and professional talents of individuals — often corporate professionals — to build and sustain nonprofit operations and services, which are needed now more than ever. Skilled volunteer programs can address nonprofit needs across chronically under-funded infrastructure areas like marketing, finance, technology, HR, project management, strategy planning and operations realignment. They can be as brief as a day of service or as in-depth as a multi-week or multi-month consulting project. It’s also something companies can do right now to directly engage in positive community change. In fact, during the pandemic, SBV has easily adapted to a virtual environment, making it accessible even for remote or distributed teams. 

SBV is not a new concept, but it is a growing one: More than 60% of companies have a formal pro bono program. It is one of the most tangible, measurable connection points between employee engagement, values and corporate community goals. It makes the most of a company’s strongest asset — its employees — to have lasting effects on the community-based organizations’ capacity to deliver real change.

The organization I lead, Common Impact, connects talented business professionals with nonprofit organizations to build capacity for the social sector. Our experience tells us that when done right, skills-based programs hold tremendous potential for corporate volunteers and the nonprofits they support. A vast majority of volunteers who participate in our programs indicate they are more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work, leading to stronger recruitment and retention for their employers and, ultimately, reinforcing BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s thesis that long-term sustainability and profitability requires increased corporate activism.

There is a wide range of SBV models that can be customized to nonprofit needs and corporate talents, and even timely needs like disaster resiliency or support for racial justice organizations. Here are some of the models we’ve seen produce impact for nonprofit partners and skilled volunteers alike, even when delivered in a virtual format.

Hotline (1 hour): When time is at a premium for both volunteers and nonprofits, the pro bono hotline offers rapid response support in urgent situations or a quick injection of advice for capacity-strapped organizations via a one-hour consultation. 

Day of Service (4-8 hours): This model consists of team-based consulting executed over the course of a single day, either as “flash consulting” (where corporate teams are matched to nonprofit challenges that align to the volunteers’ collective skill set) or a “pitch competition” (where multiple volunteer teams compete to create the best solution to a nonprofit challenge).

Team Consulting (6 weeks – 6 months): Ranging from weeks to months in duration, team consulting involves a functional or cross-functional group of corporate volunteers focused on a defined nonprofit challenge. 

Coaching (2 hours per month): A mid- or senior-level corporate employee provides guidance on a strategic or early-stage challenge via direct one-on-one coaching with a nonprofit executive or coaching a junior team of corporate skills-based volunteers.

Virtual Education: Through a single or series of virtual convenings, skilled volunteers with specific expertise can support a timely, sector-wide need, such as financial scenario planning or crisis communication. Nonprofit leaders gain fresh information and insight to further their missions.

Sabbatical (immersion): A corporate employee provides a nonprofit with full-time support for a period of six weeks to one year. With a deep investment in an issue area or organization, sabbaticals are a powerful CSR differentiator for a company, as well as a valuable talent and leadership development opportunity for the employee.

Board Training and Matching: Serving on a nonprofit board of directors is an attractive opportunity for corporate leaders wishing to make a strategic investment in an organization. These programs equip corporate professionals for effective board service and connect them with the right nonprofit organization.

At Common Impact, we consistently engage in conversations with our corporate partners to ensure programs drive nonprofit performance. Workforce capability is our largest untapped philanthropic asset. We cannot solve our communities’ greatest challenges  — and the issues that so often divide us  —  if we don’t tap into the talents and empathy of our people.

Particularly in times of crisis, people want to get involved in a meaningful way. They need a connection point, a way to transform those intentions into action. Skills-based volunteerism answers this need by channeling the talents and expertise of caring professionals to the challenges they are best positioned to address. The result: deeper, more strategic civic engagement; a more conscious, resilient workforce; and the acceleration of solutions to social challenges, both the ongoing ones and those exacerbated by COVID-19 and racial injustice.

Skills-based Volunteering: Measurements of Success

Employee Engagement

  • 86% of SBV participants met new colleagues; 93% said new connections will help solve future business challenges. 
  • 96% of Common Impact participants believe their project made a real difference to their nonprofit partner.
  • Engaged employees extend 57% more effort and are 87% less likely to resign.

Talent Development

  • 91% of HR executives believe SBV adds value to training and development programs.
  • Employees are three times more likely to gain work-related skills development through pro bono than traditional volunteering.

Millennials 

  • Two-thirds of millennials say they won’t work for a company that doesn’t have strong corporate responsibility programming.
  • Gallup reports millennial turnover costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually.

The Charles Schwab Pro Bono Challenge: Making a difference for nonprofits and communities nationwide during COVID-19.

Common Impact partner Charles Schwab has long recognized the benefits of skilled volunteerism and offers an annual opportunity through its Pro Bono Challenge. Now in its sixth year, the Pro Bono Challenge is a skills-based flash consulting event that will enable Schwab employees to apply their business expertise to building capacity for nonprofits in 12 U.S. communities. 

The 2020 Pro Bono Challenge served multiple Phoenix-area nonprofit organizations, including the Arizona Foundation for Women, Boys Girls Clubs of the Valley – Arizona, Central Arizona Shelter Services, Furnishing Dignity, Junior Achievement of Arizona, OCJ Kids, Phoenix ToolBank and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. 

In 2020, the Pro Bono Challenge engaged more than 370 Schwab employees in service to 60 nonprofits and delivered nearly $600,000 in skilled volunteer consulting in the areas of financial sustainability, crisis communications, technology and human resources, among others.  

Danielle Holly is CEO of Common Impact, an organization which designs programs that direct companies’ most strategic philanthropic asset — their people — to the seemingly intractable societal challenges they’re best positioned to address. 

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