by Jan Hertzsch
Every nonprofit has that project which is both vital to the organization but beyond their reach. It might be a new accounting system, a website upgrade, a fundraising strategy, or a complete strategic plan. That project is always on the to-do list but there is never the time or knowledge to begin working on it. It would be great to just hire a consultant and turn them loose, but who has the money for that? Let me introduce you to skills-based volunteering which can be provided through specialized volunteer-matching organizations.
Most nonprofit organizations depend upon volunteers to provide critical services. Volunteers fall into two categories: general helpers and specialists who do project work. Most nonprofits are familiar with the process of recruiting general volunteers and then training them for tasks within the organization; however, recruiting specialists can be daunting. One source of specialized volunteers can come from volunteer-matching organizations which recruit volunteers seeking opportunities for organizations in need of specialized help. Volunteer-matching organizations provide the platform both for nonprofits to post their opportunities and for volunteers to apply for positions while offering logistic help during the lifespan of the program.
Several matching organizations, such as TaprootPlus.org and CatchaFire.org, are dedicated to matching professionals with specific skill sets with nonprofits who need these particular skills; examples include financial analysis, web development, coaching, fundraising, and more. Instead of the organization providing the volunteer with direction, the volunteer, by virtue of their specialized knowledge, will direct the nonprofit through the project. Project-based volunteering is a different paradigm for most nonprofits and requires a different approach as the volunteer directs and trains the organization.
This effort can return significant value to the nonprofit. CatchaFire estimates the value of the average project at $5,300 with a duration of between one and four weeks. Because there is a fixed time commitment on the part of the volunteer, organizations will want to leverage their limited time of access to the volunteer’s specific skill sets. The effective organization will strive to find an acceptable match within the first week of posting an opportunity when volunteer interest is highest. The nonprofit will also want to position themselves to be able to return to the skills-based volunteer with questions and other help, as well as attracting other volunteers for later projects.
Steps to Working with a Volunteer-matching Organization
1. Prepare the Project
The nonprofit should begin preparation for the project before posting with the volunteer-matching organization. The organization will want to identify specifics about the expected outcome as well as any resources available for the project. This information will be needed several times during the project lifecycle, so it is best to consider and document details of the project before engaging the matching organization or the volunteer.
Document the project by including:
A description of the project—The volunteer, the matching agency, and the internal stakeholders at the nonprofit will all need a detailed description of the project to understand needs and outcomes.
The metrics used to define a successful project—Do you simply need an elevator pitch or do you have more specific requirements regarding certain topics that must be delivered by a specific date?
A clear, potentially hierarchized skill set—Define the skills you want in a volunteer and then categorize them into must have and nice to have categories. This will definitely require research on the part of the nonprofit. For example, do you need a CPA specifically or just a person with experience implementing accounting systems?
A list of participants—Determine who from your organization will have to be involved and verify they will be available during the planned project duration. If your board president must participate, make sure that they are not about to leave for a trip to Australia before you post the opportunity.
Resource identification—Identify the resources you have available and what the volunteer consultant will help you select. For example, do you have a Donor Management System and wish to use it effectively or will the consulting volunteer be expected to advise in selecting one?
2. Post the Opportunity
You are now ready to post the opportunity for interested volunteers to apply. Volunteers will be reviewing and applying for opportunities with multiple nonprofits, so you will be in competition with other organizations for the volunteer’s attention.
Some things to consider:
A succinct, attractive project description—Both the description of the project and the description of your mission should be succinct; however, the project description is much more important in attracting prospective volunteers. The prospective volunteer will quickly determine if your mission is compatible with their values and then decide if the project is interesting. Being prepared with a project description document also tells the prospective volunteers that you are organized enough to properly describe the project.
Required versus desired skills—It is best to limit the required skills to the very top of your must have list. Every added requirement—such as being a CPA—reduces the pool of candidates.
Project categories—Pay close attention to the posting categories offered by the volunteer-matching organization. Spend some time effectively matching the project category with the description of your project. If you do not take this into account, you might be posting to volunteers without the correct skill sets.
Time frame—Successful organizations review volunteer applications the moment they arrive and then schedule appointments with qualified candidates as quickly as possible. Make it your policy to schedule volunteer interviews within 24 hours of receiving the application. Decide immediately after the interview whether to offer the project. Your organization will not want to lose an excellent candidate to another nonprofit.
Volunteer expectations—Volunteers search for a new project when they have time available and expect to begin the project immediately. If you are not ready to begin the project within a week of posting, you should delay posting the project. If you are not immediately available, you risk being turned down by the volunteer.
Posting the project for applications is very much like posting a job position in a competitive job market. You must do everything you can to be assured your competition does not hire qualified resources out from under you.
3. Participate in the Project
You have been successfully matched with a volunteer of outstanding abilities and are now ready to begin the project. You will want to make effective use of every minute the volunteer is willing to provide.
Ensure a smooth project by considering:
Software and tool needs—Find out any software or other tools the volunteer will expect you to use such as Zoom, Google Meet, or Google Docs. Spend a few minutes learning how to perform your expected tasks. These tools might include screen sharing, document editing and commenting, or video recording.
The volunteer’s time—Make it a policy to give 24 hours’ notice if you have to cancel a meeting. Paid consultants can bill you for the wasted meeting time and go have an early lunch. Volunteers have no such recourse, but they can leave the project. Standing them up at the last minute will cause them to rethink their involvement with your nonprofit.
The volunteer’s needs—Ask if you have any homework at the end of every session. This is a two-edged sword as it helps move the project along but it also establishes a commitment on your part.
Session notes—Keep careful notes of every session and begin a desk manual for your use (as well as your replacement).
Remember, you are not only working to get the most out of the current project, you are also establishing a reputation with the community of volunteers for the next posting. Volunteers will read the reviews of your organization and communicate with each other informally.
4. Close the Project with the Volunteer Matching Organization
The project is complete and you are satisfied that the volunteer has accomplished the agreed-upon tasks. Now you will mark the project as successfully completed and begin laying the groundwork for the next project.
Close the project by:
Submitting a positive review
If you feel you have had a good volunteer, immediately submit a review stating specific positives. Follow this up with a thank-you email to the volunteer. Resist the urge to simply jot down a few platitudes. Instead, list specific actions you found helpful. Getting your positive review completed as soon as possible may also influence the review the volunteer writes for you.
If you feel the volunteer was mediocre or worse, use vague but positive comments in the review. Avoid posting a negative review at all costs. Potential volunteers for future projects can’t know whether the problem was with the volunteer or your organization. This can be especially damaging to future projects if the volunteer has a record of stellar reviews. There is no upside to submitting a negative review (though you can consider not submitting a review if the experience was truly bad -Editor).
Updating your information
Immediately update your desk manual and any other note to capture project information before it starts fading from memory. You will also find you have questions to ask of your volunteer before they move on to another project. Take a few minutes to capture those ideas. Your future self will be glad you did.
In summary, skills-based volunteering is your opportunity to complete that must-have project. It also allows you to build a relationship with a volunteer who is an expert in exactly what you need. I have tried to emphasize that this project-based approach is going to be different than what your staff has done before. Hopefully, your staff will be able to apply some of the lessons to other problems. The volunteer will finish with an interesting experience and, possibly, some new skill sets acquired throughout the course of the project. Many nonprofit clients return to the volunteer-matching organization for other projects and other volunteers.
Be sure to stay in touch with your volunteer as it is not unusual to have follow up questions or issues. It is also not unknown for skills-based volunteers to donate or serve on the boards of client nonprofits.
About the Author: Mr. Hertzsch has used the expertise gained over his career in accounting and systems to help a variety of nonprofits implement accounting systems of their own. He has successfully completed 173 projects and one hour “ask the expert” calls and is considered an expert on nonprofit accounting.