Getting ready for the skilled volunteer

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A new kind of volunteer is emerging. More today than ever before, people with high-level skills are offering their services to respected nonprofits. The “skilled volunteer” is someone who has specialized professional skills to offer, skills that do not fall within the scope of typical day-to-day volunteer tasks. These people may accept the day-to-day work that is necessary for volunteer-run programs to function or they may not, but regardless, they definitely have a specific expertise they wish to contribute.


Working with these volunteers is a significant opportunity for nonprofits. When offering their services, skilled volunteers take on work a contractor might undertake, except they do not charge for their services. I have met volunteers with experience developing communications plans, high-level VPs of large corporations, and people who have run extensive Information Technology departments. They are often retired or semi-retired. Any organization can make use of professional help, whether it comes in the form of an auditor, grant writer, painter or plumber. There are two huge benefits to capitalizing on these opportunities: the charity can 1) complete projects they normally could not afford and therefore might never undertake, and 2) develop a relationship with a powerful new volunteer.

Here is how you can get ready to make the most of skilled volunteers:

1. Catalogue potential projects. Create a wish list of tasks that you need and want to accomplish. For example, you may need to upgrade your computer network, develop a new strategic plan, or put a new roof on the building. Don't limit yourself and don't be afraid to think outside the box.

2. Set up your systems. Have a system and/or protocols in place to accept people who can work on your projects for free. Accommodating skilled volunteers should be relatively simple because you can use systems similar to those you use for paid professionals; just ensure people in your organization understand how this will work. Will you screen the skilled volunteer the way you would a paid contractor, or the way you would screen other volunteers? Who will the skilled volunteer ultimately be working with and reporting to? Your staff and board should know what systems are in place to accept skilled volunteers.

3. Ask and you shall receive. In conversations with potential volunteers or during volunteer interviews, ask questions that will lead you to understand everything that a volunteer has to offer. Keep records of their skills and experience in a searchable database. If the person is not already committed to your cause and doesn't know about your mission, show them how vital your nonprofit is and the impact of your work. It is important for new recruits to realize that they too can contribute to a worthwhile organization.

4. Find a match. When a skill that someone offers can be matched to your list of needed projects, be ready with your next steps. Set up a conversation with the appropriate staff or board member. Do not delay! Just as you would keep a potential financial donor engaged in order to secure a donation, you must also develop the relationship with a potential knowledge donor in a timely manner.

5. Check credentials. When you have a match and you decide to go to the next step, describe your process to the skilled volunteer. Let him or her know you need to check references, past jobs and so on. Explain the importance of this step. You don't want to get caught with someone who talks bigger than they deliver.

6. Put the task in writing. Day-to-day volunteers should have a description of their duties. The skilled volunteer requires much more detail that may include the scope of the project, deliverables, reporting schedule, etc. Outline the project as much as possible in advance and be ready to accommodate the skilled volunteer’s personal schedule. The project description may also need to be customized to fit within the skilled volunteer’s expertise. Complete this document as soon as possible.

7. Be flexible. Projects often run into delays, and in rare cases must move quicker than expected. Other changes may be necessary to fit changing circumstances. It is best to stick to the plan, but be ready to amend the project document as necessary. Communicate your needs to the skilled volunteer and decide together on any changes.

8. Evaluate. Especially when first developing a relationship with a particular skilled volunteer, it is important to review the process and the results in order to ensure you are following the best process possible. Include the skilled volunteer and all related parties in the evaluation.

Hopefully, following these steps will allow you to take advantage of the tremendous pool of talent, skills and knowledge that this new group of volunteers has to offer. Working with skilled volunteers can not only save you money and help build your organization, it will also allow you to gain an important new ally.

I would like to hear about your experiences with skilled volunteers. Write to me at

Andy Telfer has worked with charities and nonprofits in Ontario and British Columbia for more than 25 years. He is currently a Director with Volunteer BC and resides in Qualicum Beach.

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

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