All Volunteers Are Equal. Some Are More Equal Than Others.

May 8, 2013

[Editor’s Note: BCLC and Richard Crespin will be continuing the discussion on non-profit capacity building at the upcoming Weekend in Boca VI. To learn more, visit]

As the Arab Spring blossomed, the team at the Cairo Hilton knew the fallout would hit society's most vulnerable the hardest. So they teamed up with a local women’s shelter to ramp up its operations. “Our team mapped out all the functions and where we could help,” said Jennifer Silberman, Hilton’s VP of Corporate Citizenship. “Housekeepers worked the cleanliness issues. Engineers worked facilities, electricity, power, and light issues. Our Food and Beverage team worked on the kitchen and food operations. The whole team pulled together to set them up to better serve their constituents. We ended up mapping all the departments of the shelter to all the departments of the hotel and team members self-selected where they would have the most impact.”

Picture a volunteer. Do you see someone in a t-shirt, maybe holding a hammer, smiling face in the bright sunshine? Or do you see someone in a suit, with a calculator, face lit by a computer screen? Most of us -- including executives running major volunteer programs for businesses and nonprofits -- picture the t-shirt wearing volunteer (perhaps with a corporate logo emblazoned across the front). And if you only want or have manual labor, maybe that's the right picture. But what if volunteers have more to give?

"Nonprofits often look at volunteers like widgets -- one's as good as another,” said Delores Morton of Points of Light, one of the leading organizations working to improve nonprofits’ ability to scale and grow. “As a result, volunteer managers are often overlooked as a key part of the executive team of a nonprofit. When we go in to do volunteer management training, we work to upgrade that mindset. Different volunteers bring different talents -- especially those from the corporations. Upgrading how nonprofits think about volunteers unlocks new avenues to impact."

It might seem obvious to have volunteers do what they know how to do, but most nonprofits and companies have not approached corporate volunteering that way. American corporations have some of the brightest, best-trained, and innovative people in the world on payroll -- and they're offering their skills for free. Yet too often nonprofits ask too little of their volunteers.

"We need to totally rethink and resell pro bono," said Deloitte's Evan Hochberg, National Director of Community Involvement. "At my first Impact Day with the company [in 2005]," said Hochberg describing Deloitte's annual community service day, "I had one executive come up to me [dressed in a suit], and say, 'This is not Impact Day. I need to be outside in a t-shirt,'" doing something with her hands, not her skills.

If only we could match up skills to needs. Skills-based volunteering has become one of the "cutting-edge" ideas in the nonprofit world, but has had only limited adoption. "So far, [skills-based volunteering] has been sold as an employee benefit, not as a deliberate way of having social impact," said Deloitte's Hochberg. "Our country can't afford for us to be that cavalier with human capital."

Too often nonprofits regard companies as piggy banks of cash and reservoirs of brute labor. Unlocking the true potential of highly-skilled volunteers means changing some attitudes and behaviors. As Points of Light's Morton pointed out, many nonprofits don't view volunteer management as a core function. Very few volunteer managers get promoted to the executive ranks, which means few executive directors and even fewer board members know firsthand what it takes to effectively deploy these incredible assets. It also means the most talented rising nonprofit execs rarely choose volunteer management as a career path, perpetuating the cycle.

For companies, that Deloitte partner who wanted to go outside and pound in nails, epitomizes a pretty entrenched viewpoint. But her attitude shifted over the course of that Impact Day, after she saw the transformative impact of Deloitte's skills-based volunteers with her own eyes.

We need to break the cycle. Nonprofits need both financial and human capital. Companies like Hilton, Deloitte, and CapitalOne are pointing the way. Carolyn Berkowitz at CapitalOne said, "We call our approach Investing for Good, and it’s a holistic approach to community involvement. This involves, of course, financial support, but is also driven by volunteerism, pro bono service and thought leadership – for us it’s about providing a system of wrap-around support for an organization or an issue."

Nonprofits need to demand more of their volunteers and volunteers need to demand more of their nonprofits. As my dad and so many other dads have said, "the world needs nail-bangers and ditch-diggers," and if you want to swing a hammer or tote a shovel, by all means do it. But if you have unique skills and insights, don't leave them at work. Take them with you when you volunteer.

Next week I'll be at Office Depot's Weekend in Boca speaking on this and other nonprofit management issues. I hope you'll join me or send me your thoughts and questions to share with this dedicated audience of professionals: richard.j.crespin@gmail.comor comment below.