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High-Impact Volunteer Engagement: Six Factors for Success

By Jackie Hodgson
September 11, 2019

An older man sits behind a desk. An older woman sits to his left. They are reviewing Medicare information.
An RSVP volunteer reviews Medicare information with a Montgomery County, Pa., resident. Image by RSVP.

This post was originally published in GrantSpace.

If you are like most nonprofits, your organization is often strapped for capacity. In fact, on average, most nonprofits spend a mere 2 percent of their budget to support key operations like marketing, technology, or human resources, while peers in the corporate sector typically invest upwards of 35 percent of their budget on these functions.

Engaging skilled volunteers (also known as pro bono service) can be an effective way to bridge the capacity gap. At Common Impact, we focus on connecting talented business professionals to impactful nonprofits with capacity building needs. Our nearly 20 years of experience developing successful skilled volunteer programs demonstrates the potential of pro bono service in complementing the work of philanthropic organizations, specifically acting as a resource for addressing capacity challenges. But volunteers aren’t “free” and in order for skilled volunteerism to be effective, your organization must be ready to make the most of this valuable contribution of time and talent.

We’ve identified six key factors that determine whether your nonprofit is ready to engage skills-based volunteers.

  1. Strong executive leadership: An engaged leader will not only inspire the volunteer team to connect with your organization’s mission but also ensure access to the support and resources necessary to a project’s success.
  2. Potential to create deep social impact: Organizations poised to create deep social impact make great candidates for skilled volunteer projects. A nonprofit with a strategic direction and measured outcomes can engage skills-based volunteers in contributing meaningful impact toward social change, which supports not only the organization’s mission, but also volunteer enthusiasm for the project.
  3. Effective relationship building: Skills-based volunteering requires partnership across sectors, so the ability to work with individuals and organizations from different cultures, sectors, and industries is crucial to a project’s success. Additionally, by fostering individual relationships with volunteers, your organization can create long-term champions, develop new corporate relationships, and potentially unlock new funding streams.​​​​​​​
  4. Organizational stability: Before engaging skilled volunteers, a nonprofit should be in a position of financial and operational stability. While no volunteer expects perfection from their nonprofit partner, and often the pro bono project can help build financial or operational capacity, the organization should not be in a period of staff or management transition or experiencing significant board turn-over. Without this stability, it is challenging to align a skilled volunteer project with an organization’s strategic direction, allocate the necessary resources to managing the project, and ensure the long-term sustainability of its outcomes.
  5. Commitment to capacity building: Since skills-based volunteerism focuses on building internal organizational infrastructure (i.e., not direct service activities), a nonprofit’s commitment to ongoing capacity building is essential. This commitment should start with senior leadership to ensure that your organization is willing to devote resources toward managing, implementing, and sustaining the results of your pro bono project.
  6. It takes time and resources to provide a positive volunteer experience. Nonprofits that evaluate volunteer experiences and plan for strategic volunteer engagement (including when to say “no” to support) will understand how to put volunteer time and talent to the best use possible to maximize the impact of your pro bono project.

Tags: Volunteers