Put corporate philanthropy to work with skills-based volunteering

By Theresa M. Ellis, The Boston Herald

For many, the term "corporate philanthropy" conjures images of giant checks, black-tie gala fundraisers and fancy charity auctions. But today's corporate philanthropists are looking not just to give money, but to build stronger connections with their communities, foster employee leadership skills and create a so-called double-bottom-line impact that benefits both nonprofits and the company itself. This is not to say that companies are not altruistic. But in an age of tightening budgets, close corporate governance and increased public and employee awareness of corporate social responsibility, many organizations are shifting their approach to philanthropy from straightforward check writing to a more involved, sophisticated model that engages employees in the philanthropic process. This model, known as skills-based volunteering or volunteer-based employee engagement, is being used by leading Boston-area companies and it is delivering results.

So how exactly does skills-based volunteering work? And, more important, why does it work? The evolving mission At its roots, skills-based volunteering has the same core value of more traditional philanthropic programs: to help companies leverage their resources to give back to the communities in which they operate. Until recently, most companies with community affairs or philanthropic missions have focused on finding worthy causes, writing checks and working on a limited basis to help those organizations raise additional money. Certainly, benefit events, race-for-the-cure teams and other efforts championed by community affairs staff and other employees within companies have had a significant impact on various nonprofits in need. Now, however, there's a shift in corporate philanthropic values to deeper involvement. Rather than looking at where they can put their money, more and more companies are looking at how they can put their money and their time to best use in a philanthropic context. Looked at in one light, that means that the competition for donated dollars has become tougher -- nonprofits are competing to demonstrate their effectiveness in putting these dollars to work, knowing that a return on social investment is now measured by an increasing number of organizations. It's important to note that the overall size of the philanthropic pie has not significantly diminished. Companies still donate money at about the same rate as they always have. The difference is in how they expect that money to be put to use.

The challenge for nonprofits On the other side of the philanthropic coin are the nonprofits, a diverse group of organizations from small advocacy groups to international aid agencies. As with the business world, most nonprofits manage budgets under $10 million, and many operate on much shorter purse strings. These small- and medium-sized nonprofits, which make up the vast majority of the nonprofit sector, face a perpetual dilemma: How to serve their constituents' immediate needs while building an operational foundation that positions them for long-term sustainability and effectiveness in meeting their missions. Nonprofits typically devote most of their resources toward serving clients' immediate needs, which has the potential to create what many donors perceive to be a fact of nonprofit life -- operational chaos. The stereotypical image of a nonprofit in makeshift office space, working on perpetually crashing second-hand computers and sharing a single phone line between a dozen employees, has some basis in reality. In a survey of 132 nonprofits, the majority spend less than 2 percent of their annual budgets on a given operational area, such as IT, human resources, marketing and accounting. This is due in part to donation restrictions that require funds to go directly to program outreach. Another reason for operational shortcomings at nonprofits is that they simply lack the expertise internally to manage their operations effectively. And they don't have the cash to hire these experts. Instead, they rely on underpaid consultants and unpaid volunteers to create robust internal operations, which, as any business owner will tell you, rarely delivers results.

A partnership solution If companies are looking to use their philanthropic funds more wisely and nonprofits need operational expertise in order to serve their communities in the long-term, it seems that partnerships between these organizations have the potential to answer both groups' needs. These partnerships are not based much on dollar resources, although money certainly plays a role. In the new model of skills-based volunteering, human resources are the ones making the difference. Facing the challenge to put funds earmarked for "charity" to better use, companies are beginning to leverage a vast, untapped philanthropic resource -- their employees. Often working with an outside expert or organization that manages volunteer-based employee engagement programs, companies are partnering with nonprofits to implement employee-run projects in HR, IT, marketing and other key operational areas. A corporation's community affairs department can work closely with employees and HR professionals to identify high-performing nonprofits whose mission is in line with the corporation's core values. Often, a nonprofit will be brought to community affairs' attention by an individual employee who is committed to a certain cause. Redesigning an outdated website is an example of what a skills-based volunteer team can do -- bring first-rate technical and design expertise to the nonprofit, and with that, freedom to redirect staff time and funding to other pressing needs. Additionally, a skills-based employee engagement program delivers a return not only to the nonprofits it is designed to help, but also to the company.

In addition to the inherent sense of goodwill that is created through skills-based volunteering, companies are increasingly seeing these engagements as opportunities to foster management and leadership skills in employees. Surveys of employees show that nearly all volunteer participants felt more inclined to recommend their program as a great place to work and gained useful professional development. These factors are especially attractive to achievement-hungry Generation Y and Millennial workers, who tend to be highly conscious of corporate social responsibility and value the opportunity to give back to their communities while supporting their own career growth. In this way, volunteer-based employee engagement brings together not only companies and nonprofits, but also community affairs and human resources executives, making corporate philanthropy a more strategic endeavor.

A bright future The employee engagement model of corporate philanthropy poses a unique opportunity for today's companies and nonprofits. On the one hand, the model is more time-consuming and involved than, say, attending a charity ball or cutting a check. Engagements might involve a one-day "giving" where employees work with nonprofits on discrete tasks such as newsletter production, or they might involve several hours each week for a few months in a long-term project of installing, testing and training nonprofit employees on a new database. On the other hand, the model is the logical evolution of a system that has worked in much the same way for years -- and is ready for innovation. This is not to take away from the importance of traditional cash philanthropy or the knowledgeable and dedicated corporate philanthropists who make a tremendous impact on nonprofit through giving programs. Rather, the intention is to raise awareness of a new kind of human capital philanthropy that engages people at all levels -- employees, managers, strategic planners and community affairs executives -- to create long-term success for the nonprofit sector. Based on current rates of pro bono services donated by Fortune 500 companies, employee engagement programs have the potential to generate $1.1 billion in net new nonprofit capital over the next 10 years. This represents an enormous opportunity to grow the pie of corporate philanthropic resources by putting those skilled volunteers to work in ways that impact the long-term health and performance of nonprofits. By partnering with nonprofits, corporate philanthropy can truly change the world -- one employee at a time.