A skills-based volunteering model that delivers value to both companies and communities

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Reduce costs or invest in professional development? Seems more organizations are wrestling with this question every day. With economic uncertainty and fiscal restraint the new norm, business leaders are justifiably concerned about costs and demands on resources.

A recent pilot project, however, shows that by implementing a strategic skills-based volunteering program Canadian companies can effectively – and cost-effectively – build intellectual capital and the skills of employees, all while supporting their communities.

Endeavour Volunteer Consulting for Non-Profits and AstraZeneca Canada partnered to launch, manage and evaluate a pilot project specifically to measure the value of employer-supported skills-based volunteering. Over a six-month period, a team of eight AstraZeneca volunteers provided consulting services to create a strategic plan for the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs. Results measured at the end of the project revealed that AstraZeneca generated significant value on multiple levels: expanded employee skills; enhanced leadership development; stronger employee engagement, satisfaction and retention; greater innovation; and improved corporate reputation. The Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs gained organizational strength and enhanced sustainability.

These results show how an investment in strategic skills-based volunteering can produce valuable returns for employers, for employees and for our communities. The pilot project also produced a model that other organizations can use to successfully implement their own SBV programs. Here's how.

For employees: leadership skills, strengthening community relationships

While many employees want to make a positive difference in their communities, they prefer flexibility with their volunteering activities and tend to resist long-term commitments. Short-term skills-based volunteering (SBV) opportunities are therefore appealing, especially because these activities allow them to pursue goals such as acquiring specific skills, gaining work experience and developing professional networks. Volunteer Canada points out that engaging talented people through well-defined, skills-focused projects can address many of their needs.

While AstraZeneca offers various volunteer engagement opportunities, the strategic SBV project with Endeavour and TKBGC introduced employees to leadership-based activities. Alison Simpson, who is Vice-President of Strategy and Future Portfolio for AstraZeneca Canada and who served as Engagement Manager for the pilot project, ensured that every person on the team had an opportunity to lead a discussion, presentation, research or project stream with the client and stakeholders.

The employees who participated came from different departments, seniority levels and stages in their careers. In a post-project survey, volunteers indicated the experience strengthened their ability to work collaboratively and helped to develop their people and organization skills. Helen Seibel, Senior Manager, Corporate Responsibility of AstraZeneca Canada, who oversaw the pilot project, also found that volunteers gained insights into how TKGBC works and they acquired a deeper connection with this charitable partner.

Many businesses have staffs of talented employees who are able, willing and eager to contribute their talents to skills-based volunteer projects. Generations X and Y employees in particular want the opportunity to make a difference in the world. By offering SBV opportunities, companies can appeal to their expectations.

While the Endeavour-AstraZeneca case model was based on a six-month consulting engagement, companies can deliver skills-based volunteering in a wide variety of formats such as done-in-a day events, ongoing skills coaching, case competitions, continuous outsourcing, and more.

For businesses: building value on multiple levels

The volunteer employees in the AstraZeneca-Endeavour pilot project reported their experience not only enhanced their professional development, it also fostered new work relationships and team building. It also deepened their pride in the company and their understanding of and commitment to its culture and values. Survey results showed those who volunteered were more likely to speak well of the company than other employees.

Taproot Foundation in the US cites five critical business benefits of pro bono service.

  1. Provides nonprofits with access to the expertise they need to achieve their missions serving our communities
  2. Deepens a company's reputation as a good corporate citizen
  3. Provides low-cost, high-impact opportunities for employee recruitment, training, retention
  4. Improves collaboration and communication by enabling employees to work with team members from across business units, departments,offices
  5. Enhances innovation for both the company and the nonprofit by enabling employees to use their skills in new and challenging environments

Since the SBV project proved to be a popular professional development option among AstraZeneca employees, the human resources department continues to offer this opportunity to employees. A second volunteer team recently completed a second consulting project.

For nonprofits: much more than free services

Beyond benefiting from free services, when nonprofits work with businesses on strategically important projects, they also build organizational strength and long-term sustainability. For the pilot project, the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs engaged the AstraZeneca consulting team to develop a five-year strategic plan that would align with its vision and mission.

Ian Edward, Executive Director of TKBGC, says one of the most meaningful contributions of the volunteer team was helping the organization conduct a community consultation. TKBGC received invaluable input that provided clear direction for the strategic plan. As well, the volunteers helped the TKBGC see in what ways it was succeeding, what could be improved upon and how the organization could position itself to enhance its impact in the community. Edward saw the consulting engagement as a valuable process in providing the organization with this clarity and direction for the future.

According to A People Lens: 101 Ways to Move your Organization Forward, such projects also enable those on both the volunteer and nonprofit teams to learn, integrate new processes, systems and practices and broaden their outlooks and attitudes. Volunteer Krystin Scheider, who is Regulatory Affairs Project Manager for Astra Zeneca Canada says, "The experience really opened my eyes to the nonprofit sector. I learned a lot about how to work with boards of directors and on projects outside the scope of what I do in my own career." She and her team members all acquired a greater understanding of the nonprofit sector and their ability to contribute to society.

The pilot project identified three factors that were key to the success of a skills-based volunteering partnership. The first is obvious – all parties must benefit from the relationship. Second, the strategic goals and culture of the organizations involved must be aligned. And finally, there must be leadership and commitment from all partners. In the case of the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs, both leadership staff and board members were committed to the project. They made themselves available to the AstraZeneca project team, and facilitated frequent meetings and discussions to help the team move through its strategic planning process.

A model to successfully implement a skills-based volunteer program

Overall, the pilot project also produced a made-in-Canada model for successful implementation of a strategic SBV program.

A Canadian model for employer-supported strategic skills-based volunteering

1. Leverage the expertise of an experienced non-profit intermediary. Involving an intermediary addresses the key obstacles that prevent companies from launching skills-based volunteering programs: lack of experience and insufficient resources. A qualified intermediary can provide support in assessing needs, designing, scoping, staffing, managing, troubleshooting and evaluating an SBV program.

2. Select an appropriate nonprofit. Evaluate the needs of a potential nonprofit partner and its readiness to participate in the project. In order to succeed, SBV projects require a stable organization, a strong commitment to building capacity and relationships and dedicated staff time.

3. Determine alignment. Ensure that all parties involved will benefit from working together and the project is aligned with the strategic goals, priorities and culture of each.

4. Acquire leadership commitment. Secure top leadership buy-in to formalize and support the employee time and commitment required and to help promote the initiative internally.

5. Coordinate with the human resources department. SBV programs can generate valuable benefits for the Human Resources department: employee engagement, skills/leadership development, recruitment incentives, employee satisfaction, talent retention and a more interconnected workplace. Therefore, align the program with the company's talent management objectives in order to achieve priorities. Human Resources can also help to identify employee skill sets and individual staff members who may offer the best potential for SBV.

6. Integrate with corporate responsibility initiatives. This will help to strengthen the company's existing relationships with nonprofits and will deepen community engagement and impact.

7. Choose a manageable volunteering approach. There are numerous ways a company can deliver skills-based volunteering: time-defined consulting project, done-in-a day event, ongoing skills coaching, case competition, continuous outsourcing, and more. Select what works best for the organization and employees.

8. Define the scope of the project. Volunteer projects can quickly expand beyond the original intent. This is why it is essential to define the specific goals of the project, deliverables, tasks, and timeframe and also to secure agreement from all of the parties involved. Scoping also facilitates the ability to determine the necessary skills required.

9. Recruit, screen, train volunteers. Properly screen, prepare and support volunteers . This will help them succeed and encourage them to volunteer again. A nonprofit intermediary can assist with screening employees for the appropriate skills and commitment, provide nonprofit orientation and deliver required training and tools.

10. Proactively manage the project. Appoint a volunteer Engagement Manager to help manage expectations and address problems that may arise. Effective project management also requires supporting both volunteer and non-profit teams, scheduling regular team check-ins, monitoring milestones and tracking volunteer hours and contributions.

11. Evaluate impact. Using metrics linked to business goals, examine the outcomes of the service provided. Conduct surveys and interviews with the volunteer project team and leadership of the nonprofit and of the company to evaluate results, review successes/failures and determine next steps.

As the nonprofit community faces escalating challenges to strength, capacity and infrastructure, the importance of strategic skills-based volunteering is being recognized. At the same time, this project demonstrates how an employer-sponsored skills-based volunteering program can deliver value not only to the bottom line, but also to employees and to the community.

This successful pilot test of a made-in-Canada SBV model can help business leaders work with our country's other 165,000 non-profits and charities to align philanthropic and business goals and build long-term value.

Andrea Wong is Co-founder and President of Endeavour Volunteer Consulting for Non-profits . October 19-25, 2014 is Pro Bono Week, a global celebration of those who use their talents to make a difference.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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