The Drive towards "Highly-skilled" and "Pro Bono" Volunteering

By Susan J. Ellis

There is nothing inherently new about volunteers donating professional expertise, but in the past year a variety of summits and action campaigns have examined the potential of intentionally and strategically applying business talents to the nonprofit world.  Perhaps the most developed initiative is “A Billion + Change”, in which the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation and the Corporation for National and Community Service issued the challenge to leverage $1 billion in skilled volunteering and pro bono services from the corporate community.

A Billion + Change makes a distinction between skilled volunteering and pro bono services, as explained in their report, “Toward a New Definition of Pro Bono”:

Pro bono is decidedly different from corporate philanthropy, serving on a nonprofit board, volunteering to deliver nonprofit services, and donating inkind products or services.

Pro bono is the donation of professional services that are included in an employees’ job description and for which the recipient nonprofit would otherwise have to pay. It is a subset of skilled volunteering that gives nonprofits access to the business skills and experience they need to develop and implement sound business strategies, increase their capabilities and improve their organizational infrastructure.

By contributing business services and skills to nonprofits, corporate pro bono programs are improving people’s lives while adding significant value to their own recruitment, productivity and profitability.

In the FAQs on their Web site, they further say:

Skilled or skills-based volunteering is the practice of using work-related knowledge and expertise in a volunteer opportunity. In other words, skills normally used to generate income are provided free of charge to a nonprofit organization…

For some organizations, the terms pro bono service and skilled volunteering may be related.

A Billion + Change’s attempt to distinguish pro bono from skilled volunteering leaves lots of gray areas, but the vocabulary does not matter so much as helping “companies identify a spectrum of ways to leverage their professional expertise to improve the scale, sustainability, and impact of nonprofits in communities across the nation and around the globe.”  Certainly this is an admirable goal, but it is based on a range of possibly questionable assumptions.

Explicit and Implicit Assumptions – Are They Correct?

As always, the emphasis of the new initiatives is on recruiting the volunteers, encouraging corporations to donate employee time and talent.  But, also as always, it is not enough to push for service unless the basics are in place to utilize the offered expertise.  The following are six premises that need to be challenged – not to negate pro bono projects but to assure their success.

Assumption 1:   That other volunteers are unskilled or not skilled in important ways.
While it may not be the intent of proponents of “highly-skilled” volunteering to denigrate other volunteers, in practice that’s what it sounds like.  What do sites such as (no longer available) (“connects talented professionals with meaningful skills-based non-profit volunteer opportunities”) think they imply about pre-existing volunteer work?  First, the list of skills offered by volunteers already is enormous and, second, the best organizations have long been welcoming every level of donated expertise.  Yes, too many have not, but let’s not paint everyone with the same brush.

In the same vein, it makes sense for a company to deploy its employees, on company time, to use their expertise on behalf of the community.  But what if the service is to be done on the employee’s personal time? Not everyone wants to spend free time doing what he or she does daily; volunteering is an opportunity to pursue passions, engage with family and friends, and have fun – all of which can still result in meaningful service. 

Assumption 2:  That nonprofits lack “professional” skills.
Again, some do and some don’t.  Let’s not fall into the trap of elevating business skills above all others.  Today’s economic crisis was brought about using business skills, remember?  Further, the level of education required in many nonprofits is a master’s degree and beyond – not a prerequisite in the for-profit world.

Assumption 3:  That nonprofits want or are ready to use pro bono talent.  
This is a tough issue.  Naturally a nonprofit will be happy to get expensive services at no charge.  But welcoming help is not the same as welcoming input.  By definition, the types of projects appropriate for highly-skilled volunteers use the  consultation model.  The agency identifies a need or problem; the volunteer asks questions and makes recommendations; the agency implements changes.  Even paid consultants face resistance in this process – and volunteers will, too.

Further, given the decision-making nature of pro bono projects, they need the engagement of executives and top managers.  How ready are these administrators to partner with volunteers whose expertise may occasionally be seen as a threat?

By separating pro bono work from “regular volunteering,” the new initiatives leave it unclear as to how volunteers will be introduced into the nonprofit.  Will both the volunteer and the agency executive understand the need to enroll the expert time donor just as any other volunteer, including possible background checks, orientation, and reporting requirements?  Will the volunteer resources manager be left out of the equation or seen as a valued coordinator?   Therefore, will all volunteering in an agency be raised in visibility?

Assumption 4:  That businesses can automatically apply their expertise to nonprofits and that their employees know how to take on the role of consultant.
Pro bono projects often require intensive and sustained effort.  In the past, corporations have been easily frustrated by the nonprofit environment because of the intractable nature of the issues involved and the slow pace of change.  Who is going to counsel business volunteers in how to adapt what works in the marketplace to what is done differently in nonprofit organizations?  Does being skilled in business always mean that a volunteer understands how to be an expert consultant, offering strategic advice in a way that it will be accepted?

Assumption 5:  That corporations are the most important source of needed expertise.
Who is going to issue the call to university professors to become volunteers?  In all the attention to service-learning, rarely does anyone mention that students are not the only assets a school offers to the community.  In fact, students come and go, but faculty remain year to year.  And teachers who engage in community service themselves are much more supportive of what their students experience and learn off campus.

And what about trade unions?  Nonprofits need plumbers, electricians, and chefs as well as accountants and marketing experts.  “Professional” means trained and paid, not just white collar.

Assumption 6:  That all volunteering is directed at nonprofits.
Once again, all the verbiage of pro bono projects is limited to “helping nonprofits.”  Yet, in the case studies used to demonstrate the value of skilled volunteering, it is clear that proponents accept the importance of serving in public schools and other public institutions.  Why not go even further?  Wouldn’t struggling municipalities and states/provinces benefit from donated expertise in areas other than fire fighting, emergency services, and parks and recreation?  Aren’t companies and their employers taxpayers with a stake in effective government?  The Corporation for National and Community Service is behind the A Billion + Change effort yet, as a Federal agency, it is not permitted itself to accept volunteer services!  Isn’t this the time to challenge such national policy and open the doors to skilled volunteers?  

  • Are you aware of the new push to increase pro bono service and what do you think?
  • Are you already engaging highly-skilled or pro bono volunteers and what’s been your experience?
  • What would you like the organizers of such initiatives to know?

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