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Skills Based Volunteering: A Strategic Opportunity in Corporate Engagement

Skills Based Volunteering: A Strategic Opportunity in Corporate Engagement

Much that’s been said about the motivations and outcomes of skills based volunteering (SBV) has been written from the corporation’s perspective. We know less about what motivates or what it takes to engage a SBV program from a nonprofit point of view. 

Skills based volunteering, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service (2017), is defined as a means for “leveraging the specialized skills and talents of individuals to strengthen the infrastructure of nonprofits, helping them build and sustain their capacity to successfully achieve their missions” Many skills based volunteers can be likened to a pro-bono consultant, operating with a formalized scope of work and requiring supervision and integration into the work processes of a nonprofit. While skills based volunteering (SBV) may either be initiated by the nonprofit or at the request of a corporate partner, it is important to recognize that the operation of a successful SBV program requires cutting edge management capacities for the nonprofit. The engagement of volunteers in any volunteer program requires a specialized skill set and any organization looking to engage SBVs needs to ensure that the person responsible for overseeing the volunteer program  is well qualified and equipped to work with volunteers of all kinds.

Corporations are commonly engaged by nonprofits for the purpose of sponsorship and financial support, or to enhance volunteering opportunities, which typically occur in large groups for a short-term or even a one-day only event. To effectively grow a SBV program, a nonprofit must also consider how they relate to the corporate’s programs, since the relationships are typically longer-term and, in many cases, require technical capacities from the volunteer(s). The adoption of a SBV program also requires that a nonprofit understands that its partnership is not with the volunteer alone, but engages both an individual and a corporation in support of the nonprofit’s mission.

To understand how a nonprofit might go about creating a SBV program, this case study engaged a US-based nonprofit that was taking initial steps to adapt its corporate partnerships to include SBV opportunities. This case study reports on the results of interviews from a variety of stakeholders in the nonprofit organization’s (NPO) SBV initiative. The NPO in this case study serves an international mission, operating a robust volunteer program that relies upon the support of both individuals and group volunteers, and already has established relationships with corporations. In this article, we discuss the background, draw on some relevant literature, and then share what we learned from the interviews. We also discuss the benefits, costs, and coordination required to successfully pull off a SBV initiative.


Skills based volunteering initiatives are commonly included within an organization’s broader corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives; while serving external societal benefits, CSR also serves to engage a corporate’s employees, which ultimately serves the profit motivation of the corporation. CSR strategies include activities such as event sponsorship, financial or in-kind donations, and sponsored volunteering.

Skills based volunteering is a component of CSR that leverages the human capital and expertise of corporations. The value proposition of SBV is often framed from the corporation’s perspective, and according to McCallum, Schmid, and Price (2013, p. 481), the benefits of SBV include an opportunity for the corporation to build its reputation at the same time it fosters “value creation via learning and partnerships.”

From a nonprofit perspective, SBV cultivates a deeper hands-on investment from the corporation. It provides a paid corporate employee to be assigned either on or off-site to a scope of work serving a nonprofit’s operational needs, while at the same time ensuring that the mission of the nonprofit is being served. SBV engagements are often an extension of other involvements a nonprofit has with a corporation; they are just one tool, amongst a broader portfolio of engagement strategies, that a nonprofit has with corporations. In these engagements, corporate and nonprofit partners should be encouraged to relate to each other in ways that are similar to donor relations. As with the cultivation of a donor’s interest, nonprofits must invest resources to both build and manage the relationship. Thus, akin to a gift acceptance policy that governs a nonprofit’s financial donations, a nonprofit should consider both the costs and benefits of engaging a corporate for activities such as SBV so that the costs do not outweigh the benefits. (Boenigk & Schuchardt, 2015).

Corporate social responsibility relationships between corporations and nonprofits, according to Cho and Kelly (2014), are either patronizing, an exchange, or communal with both sides of the dynamic having their needs met. A patronizing relationship would indicate that the arrangement serves more the needs of the corporation over the nonprofit, whereas an exchange relationship is transactional without a strong relationship orientation. This typology of corporate-nonprofit relationships should remind us that the onus is on both the nonprofit and corporation to ensure that the value proposition of CSR is being met for both parties. Taking the nonprofit’s perspective in fostering these relationships, Logsdon, Reiner, and Burke (1990) instructed that nonprofits need to become more strategic in targeting CSR initiatives and in leveraging the corporate investment to their own advantage.

A nonprofit’s decision to engage SBV would require the nonprofit to revisit their volunteer management program strategies, as SBV may require specialized recruitment, selection, orientation, and management of the volunteer. SBV also requires that volunteers themselves operate with a clear scope of work, as volunteers may be reassigned either on a part-time or full-time basis to the nonprofit’s operations. Thus, SBV may not be the first tactic of a nonprofit wishing to engage CSR activities, but may be more of a strategic opportunity for a nonprofit that already has existing corporate relations to leverage.  

Using a Case Study to understand SBV

To better understand skills based volunteering, we engaged in a case study with one nonprofit as they took the initial steps to adapt their corporate partnership strategies to also include SBV opportunities. The international nonprofit involved in this study operates a robust volunteer program that is integral to their mission. Their current volunteer program engages individuals and large groups of volunteers which it sources from agencies such as churches, schools, and corporations. These volunteer opportunities are short-term, do not require specialist skills, and volunteers are typically engaged for several hours at a time. The nonprofit was being asked by some of its existing corporate partners to participate in SBV engagements and, at the time of the case study, had taken on several opportunities. However, the nonprofit was curious to understand how it might engage SBV more strategically.

We conducted 20 interviews to inform this case study. Participants for the interviews were identified using a snowball sample, which involves initial participants recommended by the non-profit’s (NPO) staff, who in turn suggest other interviewees. A summary of participants is included in Table 1. Interviews were conducted over the phone and were between 30 minutes and 1 hour in length and were structured around a questionnaire asking about motivations, experiences, and processes surrounding SBV experiences.

Table 1 – Interview Participant Breakdown


Number of participants 


NPO employees 


Leadership team, corporate engagement team, and others involved in SBV at the NPO

Corporate Social Responsibility Managers 

Specifically those who placed volunteers with the NPO 

Volunteers who participated in SBV 

Not all volunteered with the NPO 

SBV organizations 

Third-party organizations that coordinate SBV opportunities 





Learning from Experience

The interviews were instructive about the adoption of a SBV program from a nonprofit’s perspective, and the findings are summarized according to these three themes: Benefits, Costs, and Coordination.

Benefits of Skills Based Volunteering

Position perspectives differed and stressed relationships and new capacities: Nonprofit (NPO) executives stressed that the relationship with the corporation was most important, describing the SBV opportunity as creating “impact partners” that extended beyond current established corporate volunteer engagements. NPO professional staff, however, described SBV as accessing “key talent without touching the budget;” they noted that SBV assignments addressed existing nonprofit needs by leveraging donated expertise and capacity that the nonprofit would have otherwise expended financial resources to access. These NPO employees went on to describe that skills based volunteers were capable of “filling holes” in the nonprofit, supporting strategic initiatives, and transferring knowledge or presenting subject matter expertise that produced cost savings for the NPO. While this is an interesting observation, it may also highlight a danger that senior nonprofit executives don’t always understand that engaging SBVs does in fact come at a cost to the organization.

Benefits extend beyond the SBV engagement: Skills based volunteering engagements produced longer term results, both in terms of the impact that the volunteering produced, but also in how the SBV influenced the NPO staff. One staff member described SBV’s professionalism and skills as "rubbing off" onto NPO staff and said that “private sector experience shows an intangible impact on the NPO’s staff and their levels of professionalism.” 

SBV engagements are mutually beneficial: In addition to the benefits that SBV brings to nonprofit partners (as discussed earlier in this article), there are also direct benefits for corporate partners. Corporations reported SBV engagements as being professionally and personally rewarding for their employees, even “energizing” and contributing to personal satisfaction and skill development. One corporate partner explained that SBVs get to “apply their expertise to a cause that matters to them, access their skill set, and deepen loyalty and engagement of employee and employer.” Another partner described SBV as “a way to differentiate ourselves from other companies that do volunteering but may not think about the donation of expertise/professional skill. It can be a much more powerful contribution to a nonprofit’s mission.” Corporate partners also described internal benefits related to the retention of employees, and noted that SBV produced “new collaborations and partnerships within the corporation.” 

Costs of Skills Based Volunteering

Skills matching is importantWhen the needs of the nonprofit are matched appropriately with the volunteer’s skill, SBV produced positive outcomes. But when the skills were not well matched, many of the participants found that coordinating the initiative had more drawbacks than benefits. Nonprofit participants often found that volunteers’ time was not used effectively if tasks were not clear, and volunteers themselves sometimes reported frustration with unclear and/or changing tasks for which they were less prepared to assist.

Volunteers should be actively managedAccording to the corporate partners, the least effective SBV experiences occurred when volunteers did not work closely enough with nonprofit managers for them to provide meaningful feedback. Corporate partners also had weaker experiences when there were not dedicated points of contact, and when the partnership lacked a defined scope. In short, the project management skills of the nonprofit make a big difference for corporate partners. The corporate partners we talked to saw value in third party coordination because they have closer oversight and make the match more explicit.

Active management of SBVs is costlyHowever, nonprofit managers pointed out that they preferred volunteers who needed little guidance and could hit the ground running without much ongoing coordination, since much of the value which nonprofits saw in SBVs was rooted in extending the already over-stretched capacity of the nonprofit. Additionally, nonprofit employees noted that too much time spent training and coordinating SBVs left too little time to carry out the project. As we discussed earlier, this is an important reminder that nonprofits should ensure that they have the right personnel and resources in place to appropriately engage SBVs,  regardless of their immediate skill level or support needs. Where these needs are not met well, it can easily lead to a less than satisfactory experience for both the SBV and the nonprofit.

Coordination of Skills Based Volunteering

Coordinating project scope: All parties interviewed agreed that coordinating SBV partnerships was easiest and most fruitful when the nonprofit had a clearly scoped project and a sound plan for how its own management was to be involved with the SBV. The corporate partners we interviewed generally left orientation and onboarding of SBVs to their nonprofit partners, so it is important that nonprofits set up clear expectations and coordination mechanisms from the very beginning.

Third-Party Brokers: Corporate partners seemed to find great value in third-party match coordinators. They helped scope out projects, coordinate matches, reduce some of the transaction costs of partnering, and provide data on how well that match went for the partners involved. While nonprofits must consider the costs incurred in retaining such partners, third-party organizations seem to provide value with match quality and simplified processes. Nonprofit partners we interviewed, particularly executives, seem to value the trust-building and long-term relationships that working directly with corporate partners provide. From the nonprofit perspective, some of the partnership benefits might be lessened if a third-party organization is engaged.

Coordinating SBV constraints and motives: SBV partnerships often go well when volunteers are mission driven and excited to “give back” in a meaningful way. Coordinating these volunteers may be easier for nonprofits because the volunteer is motivated by the task’s intrinsic value. For the corporate partners, SBVs are not given time off to perform their nonprofit duties unless formally part of a longer-term project, and must secure the buy-in of their managers in order to dedicate time to the SBV engagement. Thus, the opportunity cost for SBVs includes both work and personal time invested.

Coordinating with a point of contact: All corporate partners we talked to pointed to a need for a single point of contact at the nonprofit to coordinate the SBV relationship. In their motivation to leverage additional capacity, NPOs might overlook or underappreciate the capacity it takes to relate to a SBV. Nonprofits seek out SBVs to help solve business problems they don’t have the capacity or skill set to solve, so time spent coordinating and monitoring SBVs seems to detract from the SBVs value. For both the sake of the nonprofit and its corporate partners, a SBV engagement should have clarity about the scope of work, how much time it should take, when the relationship should begin and end, and agreement upon the specific skills needed. 

Concluding Thoughts

This case study was undertaken with the intention of sharing the results with the NPO, and accordingly, the findings are interpreted as recommendations to highlight key take-aways.

An overarching recommendation is for the nonprofit to view SBV as strategic rather than opportunistic. SBV is intended to serve the operational needs of the nonprofit over the service needs of the corporation, but at the NPO featured in this case study, the reverse was reported as occurring. This opportunistic implementation of SBV had led to both staff and volunteers not feeling completely satisfied with their experiences. Continuing to operate the SBV program in this manner will lead to dissatisfied staff and volunteers, and it will be counterproductive to the goal of deepening engagement with corporate partners. That is not to say that interviewees saw no value being added to the NPO by the volunteers; rather, the interviews suggested that a more formalized and coordinated effort would improve communication about SBV and enhance the value the program can make to the NPO. Skills based volunteering was viewed as an opportunity to bolster corporate relations; both the nonprofit and the corporate partners featured in this case study reported, either explicitly or implicitly, stronger relations stemming from the SBV opportunities.  

SBV requires a formalized volunteer management procedure to ensure the skills based volunteer is appropriately integrated and utilized in their assignment. A formal contract detailing the nature of task, time, point of contact, number of hours, deliverables, and number of meetings may be appropriate and viewed as a useful tool to both the nonprofit and corporation. When capacity does not exist within the nonprofit for SBV arrangements, third-party matching organizations are helpful in creating these SBV engagements. It's important to note that matching organizations may create some distance between the nonprofit and the corporate partner.  

These findings from this case study help explain that a nonprofit’s understanding of volunteers, their roles, and management must be updated to include the SBV roles and responsibilities. The nonprofit staff and leadership had consensus that SBV was conceptually a worthwhile effort, but did not share a common understanding in the NPO about the ownership, purpose, costs, and benefits of the SBV initiative. The case study lends insights to the importance of designating leadership responsible for the coordination of a successful SBV program, as well as strategically balancing public relations and corporate engagement goals with the operational goals of the nonprofit.

In summary, SBV programs pose an opportunity for nonprofits to leverage expertise and skill for their missions, but the adoption of such a volunteering initiative requires nonprofit resources and capacity. As such, SBV programs should be undertaken strategically to ensure that the costs do not outweigh the benefits. 



Boenigk, S. & V. Schuchardt. (2015). Nonprofit collaboration with luxury brands: Positive and negative effects for cause-related marketing. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 44(4), 708-733.

Cho, M. & K. S. Kelly. (2014). Corporate donor-charitable organization partners: A coorientation study of relationship types. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 43(4), 693-715.

Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). (2017). Accessed 2017.

Logsdon, J. M., M. Reiner, & L. Burke. (1990). Coroporate philanthropy: Strategic responses to the firm’s stakeholders. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 19(2). 93-109.

McCallum, S., Schmid, M. A., & Price, L. (2013). CSR: a case for employee skills-based volunteering. Social Responsibility Journal9(3), 479-495.

Veleva, V., Parker, S., Lee, A., & Pinney, C. (2012). Measuring the business impacts of community involvement: The case of employee volunteering at UL. Business and Society Review117(1), 123-142.

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