Skills-Based Volunteering Boosts Engagement: 3 Ways to Make It Work

Cornerstone Editors

Corporate volunteer opportunities often involve hands-on activities that require little to no skill: With time and a swift orientation, most employees can serve dinner at a soup kitchen, weed a community garden or organize donations at a homeless shelter. While these efforts are noble and (temporarily) rewarding to the employees who partake, some companies are making more impactful contributions by matching their employees' unique talents with nonprofits’ needs.

Microsoft recently announced Tech for Good, a program that encourages employees to dedicate their technical expertise to projects for nonprofits near the company’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters, including Food Lifeline and the Seattle Aquarium.

This type of pairing is a win-win-win, says Gavin Cepelak, senior director of international corporate volunteer programs at PYXERA Global, a Washington-based nonprofit that forms partnerships between public, private and social sectors.

Through skills-based volunteer programs, nonprofits receive the necessary expertise they all too often can’t afford; employee volunteers gain experience and fulfillment; and companies boost employee engagement. "Employees are expanding their leadership skills, listening skills and consulting skills," Cepelak says. "[Skills-based volunteering] increases retention rates and is also a great recruitment tool."

More than 90 percent of companies surveyed by PYXERA identified increased employee motivation and commitment as very important or the most important HR objective that these programs have met.

More Bang for the Volunteering Buck

Skills-based volunteering, or pro bono work, is five times more impactful than traditional, hands-on volunteering, according to a report from Independent Sector. The firm’s research shows that an hour of traditional volunteer work is worth $22.35 to the nonprofit beneficiary, but the value of one person’s skilled service can be worth hundreds of dollars per hour.

Skills-based volunteering is nothing new: Any criminal law shows from the past few decades include plots about pro bono cases. The change is that these programs are becoming more common. In six years, the number of businesses with some kind of pro bono program jumped from 30 percent to more than 50 percent, according to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP).

3 Ways to Make Programs Work

Cepelak says that successful skills-based volunteering programs share three traits:

1. Internal support: Skills-based volunteering efforts must be entrenched in the organization, meaning they need buy-in from the C-suite. "Employee engagement programs can be one-off days here and there. But if it’s going to be long-term and impactful, you need an internal champion," Cepelak says.

2. Extension of Existing Work: Cepelak says he’s found that the more sustainable programs are tied to the company’s vision. He cites PepsiCorps, a corporate skills-based volunteering program from PepsiCo, as a prime example. The program works with global organizations to improve access to safe drinking water and help communities grow fresh produce. The efforts tie into PepsiCo’s greater corporate social responsibility efforts around nutrition and healthy livelihoods.

3. Clear Objectives and Metrics: Without clear goals and ways to measure their success, it’s hard for program managers to receive continued internal support. "At the very beginning of the program we want to understand what items we need to measure in order to tell the story of the impact of these programs — what’s the return on investment?" Cepelak says. For instance, how many entrepreneurs were trained? What kind of leadership skills did employees develop? And are they more likely to stay with the company after doing this assignment?

The Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation offers skills-based volunteerism as a core program around empowering and enabling non-profits. The HR Pro Bono Corps matches skilled HR professionals with nonprofits in need of coaching or project-based consulting to address a specific talent management challenge. Not surprisingly, these engagements end up being rewarding for both sides, as the nonprofit organization gets access to much-needed skills and experience (for free) and the HR professional gets valuable experience and networking opportunities.

As millennials continue to prioritize making a positive difference and companies look to attract and develop new generations of leaders, thoughtful corporate volunteer efforts will satisfy both parties — and the organizations that need their help.

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