Is volunteering truly a free service?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines free as “something given or available without charge.”

Volunteers are excited to give. They’re motivated, talented, and make themselves available to you at no charge. They willingly give you their hearts and minds to help you achieve your mission to make the world a better place. On a fundamental level, however, volunteering time and talent makes people feel good. The experience can fulfill a vital social connection, nourish a sense of purpose, and encourage individuals to tap into something larger than themselves.

However, volunteers’ intentions don’t have to be wholly altruistic - sometimes, a volunteer’s motivation is professional in nature. Through the experience, they’re able to develop new skills and advance their careers. By accessing their skills to support your organizational goals everybody wins.

Yet, is this infusion of goodwill and talent really free?

Like the proverbial free lunch, it is not. Instead, it’s an exchange grounded in a mutually beneficial experience for both the volunteers and your organization. As part of this exchange, volunteers offer their time, energy, and abilities for an experience that produces a change in them. Psychologists have even coined the phrase “helper’s high” to describe a euphoric feeling that arises after performing a kind act. In exchange for the influx of talent, a nonprofit offers volunteers a potentially game-changing experience.

Pro bono volunteers offer their professional skills to deliver a product that improves organizational capacity. This product can be a new marketing plan, a recommendation for a new technology, or a talent development strategy. The work can be done by a pro bono team funded by a corporation or a single professional with a passion for giving back. Pro bono is different from the traditional hearts-and-hands volunteerism, which employs non-job-related skills like building a home for an underserved community, feeding the homeless, or walking for a cause. Because pro bono volunteering serves a different purpose, it requires a different approach and a different degree of resource allocation from your organization.

If pro bono is an exchange, how can you be sure you’re getting what you need instead of just the person or team who happens to be available?

In my role as Chief Program Officer for the nonprofit organization PYXERA Global—which specializes in facilitating Global Pro Bono engagements between corporate clients and high-impact, mission-driven organizations—I have learned that skilled matchmaking requires a blend of art and science. It is a balance between the private sector’s interest in deepening social impact, exploring new markets, and offering employees valuable, out-of-the-box professional development opportunities and meeting the needs and expectations of client organizations in a way that works for all parties.

As the implementing organization, PYXERA Global identifies compatible skillsets from pro bono volunteers for a particular scope of work to create mutual, meaningful benefits. We’ve developed multiple tools and approaches, including a standardized application form for vetting host clients filled with questions to help us—and the local organization—to understand the organizational context and constraints to scalable success.

For you and your organization, introspection and a cost-benefit analysis of your investment in targeted volunteer support can ensure a positive outcome for all stakeholders, local beneficiaries included. It’s critical for you to look at what your organization is willing to invest – in both staff time and other resources - in a pro bono project in relation to what you will achieve after the volunteers leave. Ask yourself, is this exchange equitable? Considering the resources you have available, is this project investment-worthy?

If the answer is yes, it’s time to create a road map to help you get the most out of your volunteer support.

In order to best prepare your volunteers, you need to define the project focus and how you will work together to achieve it. A Scope of Work document can be an effective road map to keep everyone moving in the same direction. A good Scope of Work outlines the organizational background, the project objective, the existing challenge, the requested deliverables, and the perceived impact. Sharing this document with your volunteers before you begin working together helps to set expectations and define the operational parameters for everyone involved.

With a well-planned pro bono project, you can gain the expertise your organization needs to fuel its mission and multiply impact. By taking the time to understand the exchange involved in volunteer projects and to create a Scope of Work, you are setting both your organization and your volunteers up for success..

If you would like more strategies for getting the most out of pro bono volunteer projects, join Amanda for her webinar, How Pro Bono Can Fuel Your Mission, on June 28.

About the Author(s)

Amanda MacArthur CPO PYXERA Global

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