Challenges In Welcoming Pro Bono Volunteers

There is nothing inherently new about volunteers donating professional expertise. During the past year, a variety of summits and action campaigns have examined the potential of intentionally and strategically applying business talents to “strengthen the management capacity” of nonprofits.

Perhaps the most developed initiative is A Billion + Change, run through the Corporation for National and Community Service, which has issued the challenge to leverage $1 billion in skilled volunteering and pro bono services from the corporate community.

Of course it can be enormously helpful for a nonprofit to have access to the donated time of experts in everything from the law to marketing to purchasing. It’s also fine for a company with reduced cash flow to consider employee volunteering a way to stretch less-available philanthropic dollars, particularly if the idea is to permit employees to do the community service during the regular, paid work day.

On the surface, this all seems ideal and simple. In practice, however, it takes some work to assure success.

Beware assumptions

To veterans of the nonprofit world, the obvious premise of the push to facilitate pro bono volunteering is the age-old assumption that agencies are best managed when “operating like a business.” This attitude comes along with the assumption that the do-gooder types in nonprofits obviously lack business skills and so anyone from a corporation — by definition — can put an agency on the right track.

Leaving aside the reasonable observation that the current economic woes came largely from poorly-led big business, this debate continues.

Accepting that the corporate volunteers seeking to donate their time and talent do indeed have skills valuable to a nonprofit, there remain a number of other assumptions to confront:

* That business expertise can automatically be transferred to the nonprofit environment. Training, talent and experience in the skills of business are not always easily applied to the challenges of community agencies, so a pro bono volunteer needs to ask good questions and possibly do some studying. This is especially true for corporate lawyers and accountants, who clearly have vital expertise but quite possibly no knowledge of the rules, practices, and purpose of nonprofit organizations.

Just take a look at most nonprofit bylaws written by a corporate lawyer to understand this point. Or, try explaining fund accounting to someone who doesn’t understand grants and designated funds as sources of revenue.

Volunteers from a corporation generally expect resources to be accessible for any planned activity, with those responsible for carrying it out having the authority to approve expenses up to a certain amount. But in a nonprofit, a proposed change might need to go before the board of directors, which might mean a delay before gaining approval. The volunteer then discovers that planning usually precedes fundraising — and the time lag between setting a goal and implementing action to attain it can be months or longer.

So the business volunteer can get frustrated while the nonprofit staffer sees the volunteer as impatient.

In that same vein, business volunteers need to understand that the intransigent community issues most agencies tackle do not lend themselves to quick fixes. Even with money and effort, it is likely that positive change will be incremental and slow, and affected by external factors such as legislation or neighborhood development.

* That all people in business know how to consult, as opposed to do or direct. Pro bono volunteering directed at building management capacity will almost always take the form of a consultancy, in which the organization identifies a need and then the expert helps to define it, explores its dynamics by interviewing those involved, proposes an approach or solution — or facilitates the selection of one — and supports the implementation. And, if a difference of opinion occurs, the client’s perspective takes precedence over the consultant’s.

* In other words, there is an art to providing technical assistance, whether the expert is paid or a volunteer. The process requires diagnosis without preconceptions and with respect for those already doing the work.  It also implies patience to allow the nonprofit staff to “own” the solution through participating in reaching it, or else there is a great chance nothing will move forward once the volunteer leaves. What happens if the business volunteer is used to independent action or tightly manages a staff member who jumps at volunteer’s requests?

* That businesses and nonprofits speak the same language. David Warshaw, founder of Vistas Volunteer Management Solutions and former head of General Electric’s global volunteerism program, has crystallized this problem as “Companies Are from Mars; Nonprofits Are from Venus.” Both have a world-view that might not be shared by the other, or even approved or wanted.

The measure of success in business is profit but, in a nonprofit, it’s accomplishing a service mission (in small steps). Businesses compete for customers’ money; nonprofits compete to impress third-party funders while needing to serve clients/members.

These differences can collide in unexpected ways. For example, take a simple pro bono assignment such as having a volunteer with marketing and advertising skills design a brochure for a nonprofit agency. What might be the trendy font or color to promote sales of a product might not give the right tone to something aimed at pregnant teens or families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. Choices about vocabulary also require an understanding of what the reader expects, understands, etc. Some pro bono volunteers will “get” this immediately, others will appreciate being trained, but a few will assume they know best.

There are assumptions at play on the nonprofit side of the equation, too. For example:

* Employee volunteers will have access to the cash and other resources of the corporation. The expertise being donated must be valued intrinsically, and not as a sideline to the real objective of fundraising. Sometimes corporate volunteers will be able to request necessary supplies or in-kind services from the company, but only in support of successful volunteering.

* That everyone in the organization welcomes the input of highly-skilled volunteers. Tension between employees and volunteers remains a major concern in many organizations, often because neither was trained in how to work together. High-performing volunteers are innately threatening to paid staff, especially when budgets are tight, because there is always the worry that someone will ask, “if a volunteer can do this, why are we paying for it?”

Pro bono volunteer projects, by definition, recruit volunteers with skills the staff does not already possess and directs attention at operational weaknesses. It takes a secure staff to welcome such help.

* That top executives do not have to be involved with pro bono volunteers. Unfortunately, in most organizations, top executives rarely work with any volunteers apart from members of the board. Volunteers are perceived as low-level help — often unfairly — in assignments supervised by front-line staff. Again, the goal of pro bono volunteering is to apply business expertise to building management capacity, and therefore high-level administrators must engage themselves in defining the needs, determining the solutions, and implementing the changes.

At the same time, it will be the volunteer services staff member who finds, orients, and monitors the new volunteer — forcing a connection between the executive suite and the volunteer office that may be unprecedented, but which has great potential for ongoing engagement of a wide range of donated talent.


Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. She can be reached via email at [email protected]. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com



This article is from NPT Weekly, a publication of The NonProfit Times.

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