Nonprofit 411: Skills-Based Volunteering: Effectively Engage Volunteers to Build Organizational Capacity

By Danielle Holly, Executive Director, Common Impact

Danielle Holly will be a presenter at the 2013 MNN Conference in October. Click to learn about her workshop and register to attend!Danielle Holly Headshot

Skills-Based Volunteering has gained wide popularity among nonprofit organizations, companies and individuals.  For nonprofits, skills-based service offers a new way to build the capacity and talent at their organizations.  For individuals, it offers a tangible, impactful way to engage with the community while building critical professional and consulting skills that ultimately expand their careers. Still, this important resource requires a significant amount of thought and time to be truly effective.  Below are some key considerations for nonprofits to think through as they engage skills-based volunteers.

Determine Organizational and Project Readiness

Be sure to evaluate your organization’s capacity to take on the selected project.  Has your organization’s leadership and financial state remained relatively stable?  Does your staff have the time and resources it needs to prioritize the project and move it forward?  Assess the project’s technical and logistical needs and your organization’s ability to maintain the project work once your team has transitioned off the project. Thinking through these issues before the project officially begins will ensure that you’re getting the most of your volunteer team’s time and efforts.

Tightly Scope Your Project

Before the project begins, create a project scoping document that defines key components of the project and sets expectations for project goals, roles, responsibilities and time commitment involved.  This document will serve as a decision making tool as you’re determining which pieces of work are the most critical and as a “home base” to refer back to if the project scope or timeline starts to move off track.

Engage Your Staff Effectively

Lead Contact: Identify a point person from your staff to work directly with the volunteer team.  That person will have ultimate accountability for the project’s process, be responsible for gathering staff feedback and making or facilitating the decisions needed to move the project forward.

Involve Appropriate Staff: Incorporate space in the process for getting feedback from key staff members. Involve a mix of end users, gathering support and feedback from all levels of staff, early on in the project’s development to avoid larger changes or barriers to adoption down the line.

Expect Professional Services

Approach your skills-based volunteer project as if it were a paid engagement.  Expect that your volunteers meet deadlines and deliver the services/product promised at the onset of the project.  You can be flexible with your volunteer team, while still serving as a strong advocate for your organization and driving towards a deliverable that aligns well with what you need.  Your skills-based team will be able to tell how valuable and usable the service they’re delivering is by their interactions with your team – and they’ll feel much better about their engagement and their relationship with your organization if you push back when something’s not working for you.

To learn more about how to make skills-based volunteers work for your organization, visit

Cultivate Long Lasting Relationships

Invite your volunteers to learn more about your mission and programs by engaging them in your organization beyond their project work.  Send them your newsletter, invite them to your events, share industry news and anything else that will keep them in the loop on what’s currently happening at your organization!  With a little extra effort, you can turn the individuals on your team into longer term volunteers, potential donors and champions of the organization.