3 Ways for Social Enterprises to Get the Best from Skilled Volunteers

April 29, 2014

By Nicole Herman, Communications Officer, Bankers without Borders

Randy Coutts and his wife, Cathy, helped a women’s cooperative in India to develop a business plan for its spice company
Randy Coutts and his wife, Cathy, helped a women’s cooperative in India to develop a business plan for its spice company

Over the past six years, the image of the typical international development volunteer has been changing. The bright-eyed, young college graduate eager to change the world is now giving way to more seasoned professionals.

Skills-based volunteerism is increasingly being recognized as a powerful driver of social change. When social enterprises and nonprofit organizations lack the resources or capacity to address their operational or strategic challenges, engaging skilled volunteers can be an effective—and cost efficient—solution to access the talent and expertise they need. And with a growing number of corporate sector institutions incorporating skills-based volunteer initiatives into their CSR and philanthropy programs, social enterprises today have unprecedented access to some of the world’s brightest minds.

Many organizations, however, struggle to leverage skilled volunteers in a way that both maximizes impact and is mutually beneficial.

Since launching our Bankers without Borders® initiative in 2008, we have placed 1,647 volunteers with 150 organizations both in the U.S. and internationally. Based on our experience, here are three key factors that can help organizations more effectively engage and benefit from skilled volunteers.

Size Matters

Organizations benefit from different types of projects depending on the size and the maturity of the organization.  For example, smaller organizations, or those in a start-up or expansion phase, report larger gains from projects that result in strategic skill transfer. Larger or more established organizations with more developed internal capacity, instead benefit more from having additional manpower to help with scaling capacity. Volunteer projects should be appropriate to the stage and capacity of an organization.

Project Design is Critical

Well-designed projects are successful projects. The majority of skills-based volunteer project will be completed in a relatively short timeframe. In order to maximize the volunteer’s time, it is critical that a detailed project plan is in place before the engagement begins. Organizations that were clear on the purpose of the engagement and the specific outcomes they expected report the highest levels of success and impact. Additionally, inclusion of an action plan for pursuing next steps and continued work post-volunteer engagement can help boost long-term improvement rates.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Handle

Staff capacity and interest matter. Even well designed and appropriate volunteer projects can fail to reach their expected impact if the staff isn’t sufficiently engaged. Both clients and volunteers report greater project satisfaction and success rates when the hosting organization has a clear understanding of its own project-related responsibilities and when staff members are interested and willing to invest their time and resources in the project. 

To learn more of our insights and lessons on using skilled volunteers to advance social change, please read our Bankers without Borders Five Year Impact Report.