Why you could consider offering ‘skills-based volunteering’

Setting up volunteering opportunities for staff involves a lot of back-office work for HR departments. That's why Leila Saad argues companies need to get something back from it too:

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May 14, 2024

Ever since workers started to dribble back to the office, keen to mix with their peers, feel part of their community once again and reconnect to their employers’ vision, corporate volunteering has been the good-news story that has kept on giving.

Participation levels are up, hours volunteered are up, reward programs linked to volunteering are increasing, while the numbers of new volunteers is also hitting new highs. [See Benevity’s recently produced State of Corporate Volunteering Report), and TLNT’s own take on what it means last month].

In fact, of all the things employers can be doing to promote wellness amongst their staff, it was recently revealed that is was only volunteering that was found to have any clear benefit.

According to data from the Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre, which studied the outcomes of 90 different well-being interventions (including the likes of mindfulness apps, coaching sessions, relaxation classes and resilience courses), it concluded volunteering was the only intervention that made any significant wellbeing improvements.

Could volunteering be more strategic though?

All of this is obviously great to see.

Staff get a well-needed wellbeing kick; while the charities staff do their volunteering for also get a boost too – be it from a staff volunteering their labor, or their skills.

To many, it’s a win-win all around.

But could volunteering be ‘even more’ beneficial?

One woman, Leila Saad, thinks it can. Saad is the CEO of Common Impact, which works to pair-up volunteers and organizations in what she claims is a much more strategic way.

Saad aims to find opportunities that not only help the charities, but actually equip volunteering staff with new skills in return – skills that they can bring back into their own organization.

She calls this ‘skills-based volunteering’ (as opposed to traditional volunteering), and believes it’s is a much better quid-pro-quo outcome for organizations that have to coordinate volunteering for staff.

Rather than have people offer up their own well-honed skills, but which are the sort of things they can do in their sleep – she says it’s better if volunteering staff are also learning new skills too.

It sound intriguing. So, to hear a bit more about what she means by all of this, TNLT decided to sit down and have a chat with her:

Q: For those who have never heard of skills-based volunteering, are you able to describe that it is?

A: “Skills-based volunteering is where employees who are volunteering specifically gain a new skill back. This is the key difference. Employees gain from the volunteering activity, by gaining new skills they can bring back into the organization. We try to match people with projects where they’ll be giving their own skills, but in the course of doing a project, it will test them too – such as around their project management or leadership. When we ask people about the value of engagements we offer, 90% claim they develop useful professional skills. Another way we work, is that if a company has a specific skill in mind that they are deficient in, we’ll find a volunteering opportunity that will specifically cultivate this for those that take part.”

Q: So is this simply a surrogate for training, and a more calculated way of up-skilling? Some might say it’s contrary to the spirit of volunteering.

A: “People will often draw this conclusion. But we see it a little differently. We know, from our work over the last 20 years, that there is increased demand from employees to offer some form of CSR activity; while organizations want to develop their employees at low cost. These two things can then work together. By intentionally being more specific with volunteering opportunities, we feel organizations can also ‘get back’ a bit more from participating in volunteering. We have to remember, that volunteering doesn’t just happen – organizations have to devote time and effort to it, and so I think they feel it’s right that they also benefit from it too. There is a company ‘cost’ to volunteering, so gaining something back helps make the volunteering possible in the first place.”

Q: “So would you say skills-based volunteering will be the dominant type of volunteering going forward, as companies want some better ROI?

A: “We think this is quite likely, yes. I think companies want to cut down on the ‘arbitrary’ nature that some volunteering appears to have. It can often be a bit random, often something that volunteers themselves don’t feel that engaged with, because it’s something that doesn’t excite or challenge them. To us, this leads to a poor volunteering experience.”

Q: “By definition, are skills-based volunteering projects more satisfying all-round?

A: “We believe so, yes. Sometimes a project will involve lots of preparation work, designing timelines and deliverables. But by getting people involved with projects that push them, we know that volunteering becomes a much more awe-inspiring and exciting thing. It also feels more meaningful to them too. Quite often, these sorts of projects are also more impactful for all involved – because, by their nature, they’re longer. More in-depth projects have a purpose, rather than being something random, like comprising painting a school fence, or some community gardening. We regularly have projects lasting up to three months, with meetings once a week. Closer relationships are formed.”

Q: Do enough people know about skills-based volunteering?

A: “I would argue not. The dominant model is still traditional volunteering. But what I keep on hearing is that organizations increasingly want to know that they’re getting a share of the outcome that volunteering entails – so that they get something back as well as the cause that the volunteers work with. To me, that sounds like a much better quid pro quo.”

Does the data back up skills-based volunteering?

According to a study by True Impact, the business impact of skills-based volunteering exceeds that of traditional volunteering in nearly all categories measured:

It also found:

  • Skills-based volunteers were significantly more likely than traditional, hands-on volunteers to increase the organizational capacity of the nonprofits they were serving, by 35% (increasing nonprofit reach) and 28% (increasing nonprofit efficiency and effectiveness).
  • Skills-based volunteer projects help build new, job-related skills and experiences, by offering greater management responsibility, increasing client or stakeholder interactions, or exposing volunteers to new subject matter, at 95% the rate of traditional volunteer projects.
  • Skills-based volunteers were also significantly more likely to create and strengthen relationships with regulators, legislators, advocacy groups, or other stakeholders (+89%), and similarly build or strengthen sales-related relationships (+40%).
  • Skills-based volunteers served an average of 25 hours, compared to traditional volunteers’ 12 hours.

Common Impact’s own research finds:

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