Combining Philanthropic Spirit with Professional Skills

Monica Eaton-Cardone

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Whether it's helping to feed those in need, cleaning up a local park, or mentoring younger kids, Americans overall contribute a fair amount of volunteer hours each year.

Studies show more than 25% of Americans volunteer regularly, contributing a collective total of 7.9 billion charitable service hours, or $184 billion, each year. While it's great that so many people are willing to help out in whatever way they can, what nonprofit organizations really need are skills-based volunteers.

Web designers, financial experts, lawyers, HR professionals - these are the kind of highly-skilled individuals that the nonprofit sector desperately needs.

Especially for those of us who possess certain technical skills, we have a social responsibility to share our abilities.

What is Skills-Based Volunteering?

Volunteer work falls along a spectrum, moving from unskilled to highly-skilled labor. On one of the spectrum is traditional volunteer work that just about anyone could do - planting trees, painting houses, serving meals. On the opposite end is what's commonly referred to as pro bono work, like legal aid.

Skills-based volunteering is an approach that seeks to match individuals who possess specialized skills to nonprofit organizations in need of their services. This approach enables people to give back to their communities, using a specialized skillset that relatively few people possess.

Skills-based volunteering benefits the organization, of course, but it also helps volunteers. This type of community service allows individuals to practice and sharpen their skills in a new setting while also expanding their network.

In recent years, we've seen a big increase in the number of people interested in seeking these kinds of skills-based service opportunities. Everyone from recent graduates looking for work experience to retirees who want to put a wealth of experience to use are jumping into the skills-based nonprofit sector.

Not only that, but the individuals served reap greater rewards when they're matched with experts and professionals. For example, I'm the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization called Get Paid for Grades. We provide life skills and career preparedness lessons to local high school students. I've found the students respond better to people with real-world experience, rather than just theory. We are constantly looking for people to help provide that more meaningful experience and make our efforts as effective as they can be.

How to Find the Perfect Match

What's the best way to share your expertise and give back in a way that benefits everyone involved?

Evaluate your skillset.

Inventory your personal qualities and skills. Try focusing on three attributes:

1. Personal Traits - Find a position where your unique personality will be valued. If you have a naturally outgoing, enthusiastic personality, then you'll probably want to take on a higher-energy opportunity that involves more interpersonal contact. On the other hand, if you're more of a reserved individual, you might be better off with a low-key, behind-the-scenes commitment.

Knowledge - Review the knowledge you've gained through education and experience. What information do you possess that others might be wanting? What have you learned that could help others?

Transferable skills - Take a look at your natural talents and professional skills. Which of these abilities can be transferred or shared with individuals or establishments?

2. Recognize your needs.

What do you expect to get out of volunteering?

Are you doing it primarily for professional experience? To expand or refine your skillset? Or simply because you think helping people would be the most valuable application of your energy and abilities?

Either way, you have a motivation in wanting to engage in nonprofit work - otherwise you wouldn't be interested in doing it.

You have to decide what it is you want to gain from this experience, as well as what you personally need the experience to offer you in terms of comfort and security.

3. Identify the appropriate audience.

Some skills-based opportunities enable the volunteer to work directly with the public being served. Other times, the best way to give back is to aid the actual organization and equip those individuals to then, in turn, better serve their clientele.

For example, a recent poll determined how technologically adept non-profit organizations were. These organizations were considered "challenged" in 33 of 44 key areas of evaluation.

While there certainly are organizations that would allow technologically-enabled individuals to share their expertise with the public, there are far more opportunities to directly impact the non-profit organization and increase efficiency.

4. Know what's expected.

Just like a new job, volunteers need to understand what's expected of them. Consider a job description of sorts, something that outlines roles and responsibilities. What project details need to be attended to, what hours are expected, and what is the anticipated end result?

Try to avoid "scope creep" by identifying one area of expertise. This will help optimized productivity while limiting burnout.

Putting Your Skills to Work

As professionals in the technology sphere, there are countless different ways in which we can help make the world a better place. Everything from teaching programming skills to young people in the developing world, to helping organize community programs within your own neighborhood - all are accessible to individuals with the drive and the right abilities.

Now is the perfect time to put your skills to good work!