The Key to Unlocking the Benefits of Corporate Volunteering

Skills-based volunteering vs. general volunteering: When it comes to long-term impacts, skills-based will win every time. So why am I still an advocate for general volunteering? Read on and join the conversation. You can comment at the bottom of the page or contact me at

I want to be very clear – I am a fan of Taproot and Aaron Hurst, the President and Founder of the Foundation. Realized Worth lists Taproot as a highly competent option for companies seeking out help with their skill-based or pro-bono volunteering efforts (read more about our thoughts on hiring consulting firms to help with employee volunteering).

If you’re unfamiliar with Taproot, I recommend you learn about them. “Taproot is a nonprofit organization that makes business talent available to organizations working to improve society.”

Recently, Aaron and I exchanged a couple tweets about the value (or lack thereof) of non-skilled volunteering. Aaron strongly believes that skilled volunteering is the way to go for companies looking for genuine impact through their employee volunteering programs. This past June, he wrote an article for the Huffington Post entitled “T he Fortune 500 Need to Take Their Own Advice.”

“The vast majority of companies still support employee volunteering programs that consist primarily of painting fences and cleaning parks, despite the fact that data clearly shows it has less community impact and provides less employee satisfaction, skills development and networking value compared to pro bono service.

On behalf of the nonprofit sector, I would like to ask companies to act more like businesses. If you truly care about making a sustainable difference in the community, do less hands-on volunteering and focus on where you can make your talent matter.”

Not only am I a fan of Aaron’s, but I think he’s right. When it comes to high impact employee volunteering, pro-bono or skill-based volunteering is the way to go.

But there’s a bit more to consider….

This is Not an Either/Or Conversation

Typically, when people refer to employee volunteering they tend to categorize the activity into one of two types:

  • General Volunteering (also known as non-skilled or hands-on volunteering). This type of volunteering involves activities that usually require little to no skill or long term commitment.
  • Skill-Based Volunteering (also known as pro-bono volunteering). This type of volunteering utilizes a specific skill set possessed by the volunteer. Often the engagements involve a longer commitment but that’s not always the case.

Given these two options, skill-based volunteering will always yield a greater return. For example, let’s say you are an accountant and you have the option to either: a) paint a fence, or; b) help a nonprofit with their financials. Which would provide the greater benefit for the nonprofit?

Admittedly, these two categories offer an easy way to discuss volunteering. However, when it comes to corporate volunteering this simple duality creates some confusion.

The litmus test for effective corporate volunteering is not skilled vs. non-skilled.

This is the litmus test: If you remove your company from the equation, does it matter?

If your employees are able to volunteer in the same way, achieving the same outcomes on their own time using their own resources (and that of the nonprofit), then your company may be offering nothing more than a day out of the office. This kind of volunteering is still good, it’s just not good enough ( here are some examples of what were talking about).

The company’s resources are the key ingredient for creating high-impact volunteering – whether it is skilled or non-skilled volunteering.

This is a Both/And Approach

Companies looking to generate high levels of impact as a result of their corporate volunteering programs need to pay attention to three realities and requirements:

REALITY ONE: Most employees don’t volunteer and are not interested in significant commitments.

On average only one out of three employees volunteer on a regular basis (UK, USA, and Canada). Yet companies have the amazing opportunity to promote volunteerism through corporate volunteering programs. According to the University of Toronto, in 2009, 42% of surveyed employees in Canada volunteered for the first time (in their lives) through the corporate volunteering program.

Business has the opportunity to significantly increase the civic engagement in the communities and nations in which they operate.

REQUIREMENT ONE: Provide employees quality experiences which allow them to explore the idea of volunteering and how it connects to them personally.

Companies need to design employee volunteering programs that allow their employees to fall in love with volunteering. This may involve skill-based activities, but at this stage it’s not about impact – it’s about conversion. It’s about creating a business culture where civic engagement is the norm.

Here’s how to do it:

Understanding The Journey of a Volunteer – Part 1

Understanding The Journey of a Volunteer – Part 2

The Key To An Engaging Volunteer Program

REALITY TWO: One out of three employees does volunteer on a regular basis, but probably not as part of the corporate volunteer program.

Many people view volunteering as a personal activity. Corporate volunteering programs are a nice option for those employees who volunteer regularly, but they’ve already made a connection with a cause or community that fits their interests. A significant number of these employees are volunteering their skills and they are highly committed.

REQUIREMENT TWO: Find and collaborate with these seasoned volunteers.

If you want your program to get off the ground, you need to find the employees who are already volunteering. They are influential because they possess the experience, knowledge and compelling stories to convince their colleagues (who have never volunteered) to try it out.

Here’s how to do it:

How to Find Your Influentials and Let Them Lead

REALITY THREE: If the company’s assets are not essential to the employee volunteering program, it’s not having the impact it could.

There are major pharmaceutical companies that plant trees as the main employee volunteering activity. That’s good because it may turn a number of employees on to volunteering – but it’s not good enough.


Because anyone can plant trees. The pharmaceutical company is not adding anything to the equation.

Even if the pharmaceutical company was encouraging pro bono work among it’s accounts as part of the project, it’s still not good enough. Accountants don’t need their employer to volunteer in that scenario.

Remember the litmus test: If you were to remove your company from the equation, would it matter? That litmus test applies to both skilled and non-skilled volunteering.

REQUIREMENT THREE: Design corporate volunteering programs that depend on the business’ unique tangible or intangible assets ( here’s an explanation of these assets)

Here’s a great example of how to do it:

A Great Example of Employee Volunteering Done Right

The Future of Employee Volunteering

Employee volunteering programs need to offer opportunities to experience volunteering and fall in love with it. This takes time. It also requires enjoyable experiences that ask for low commitment.

Companies also need to enable/allow employees to invest their skills and abilities in ways that increase the impact of the nonprofit or community they serve. (Through Taproot, for example! They are brilliant at this.) If your employees connect with a cause or community, they’ll most likely be looking for this kind of opportunity.

In both cases, companies need to design these volunteering experiences in light of their brand and unique resources. This is the key to unlocking the profound benefits of corporate volunteering.

Contact us to talk more about it! or or 317.372.2435

7 thoughts on “The Key to Unlocking the Benefits of Corporate Volunteering

  1. The challenge I always had with skill-based volunteering, both as a coordinator of company volunteering and as a professional accountant, is fatigue. Finding that balance between work and free work, especially if passion for that work is middle of the road for most folks, is a serious challenge and really requires a certain type of organizational culture.

    Reminds me, actually, that the empathy map is really the tool that can help find that balance.

  2. I know what you mean Dave – unless you love the cause/community that you're giving your skills to, it can easily feel like work. Or worse, you put it off and it makes you feel guilty.

    Even with causes/community that I love it can be tiresome sometimes.

    That's why I wrote this article. To try and tell people the most impactful volunteering isn't skill-based – it's when volunteers LOVE the cause/community. That's where impact happens.

  3. Great article, Chris. You did a great job of laying out the differences between an either/or EVP and an EVP that has a both/and approach.

    Love that you point to concrete examples, too. It makes understanding the ideas a lot easier.

    Thanks for the great post.

  4. One of my volunteer jobs is interviewing new volunteers. (Yeah, I know… very meta.) These are local, domestic volunteers, so issues of what constitutes effective aid aren't as problematic as in international work.

    A great illustration of the skilled vs. unskilled volunteer question came to me one evening when I interviewed two candidates. Both were women who worked in public relations, maybe a decade or so apart in age, but otherwise much alike.

    The first told me she wanted to use her knowledge of public relations to help our non-profit. She brought her resume and told me about her experience and I recommended her for a position in public affairs.

    The second told me she spent 35 or 40 hours a week doing public relations and she wanted to do almost anything else. She'd do idiot work, or take training to learn new skills, but please no more public relations! She was bright and eager and we found a position that required a little training in something that interested her and I made a recommendation.

    When non-profits look to volunteer labor, they need to meet the volunteers at least half-way. I am not saying you need to compromise your organization's standards for quality service; but you do need to entice smart and enthusiastic people by allowing them to do work they will enjoy, embrace, and derive satisfaction from. Whether that means using existing skills or learning new ones, making a large time commitment or a minimal one, the experience will be best for everyone if a volunteer's wishes are met realistically. (Yes, that also means turning away volunteer candidates who cannot be accommodated at all.)

    Certainly a highly-skilled volunteer who is eager and committed is the best possible option. But a highly-skilled volunteer who isn't happy soon goes elsewhere. A less-skilled but capable volunteer who loves what he or she does–or loves the organization's mission enough to stuff envelopes for hours on end–can be a valuable resource.

  5. Thanks for the good words, Michael, Diana, Karen, and Jon! I really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

    Karen, first of all, I hope you have a blog of your own somewhere? Your writing is excellent! Secondly, I couldn't agree more with your thoughts. Each volunteer is going to be different from the last and it would be a mistake to assume that we understand their needs or what they're looking for. I'm a strong believer in creating volunteer experiences that meet people where they're at, providing space for all types of volunteers – skilled, unskilled, experienced, inexperienced, etc. The example you gave and how you provided for those volunteers is perfect – thank you so much for taking the time to share!

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