How Skills-Based Volunteering Enriches Onboarding, Training, and Talent Development

Skills-based volunteering doesn’t just boost engagement; it can be a powerful component of talent development and leadership training programs, as well.

Training Magazine

The pandemic has redefined the nature of work. Employer costs are rising. More and more employees are changing careers. And they are more selective in the jobs they take.

Data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLTS) report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics saw an accelerating number of quits in 2021, hitting an all-time high in the fourth quarter. There were departures across sectors, including arts, entertainment and recreation, services, and education. And it wasn’t just lower wage jobs that were impacted; the Wall Street Journal notes that higher paid workers are “quitting in droves to become their own bosses.” If employers didn’t know already, they do now: These days, employees have options.

Two years ago, we wrote in this magazine that skills-based volunteerism is among the fastest growing corporate engagement programs in the country, with more than 50 percent of companies reporting they have a formal program. The movement continued to gain momentum during the pandemic as employers sought opportunities for virtual volunteering and remote teambuilding and talent development engagements. The benefits to nonprofits are clear: access to talent that might otherwise be unavailable. But the corporate volunteers benefit, too, in ways that often make them more engaged and productive employees.

Purpose-First Professionals

Skills-based volunteering gives corporate volunteers an opportunity to leverage their unique skills and expertise to help strengthen social sector organizations and address pressing community needs and causes. From the employer’s point of view, the most obvious business benefit is stronger employee engagement. A recent study from Porter Novelli found that “93 percent of employees today believe now, more than ever before, companies must lead with the purpose.” This sentiment directly relates to the issue of retention: 69 percent of survey respondents said they won’t work for a company that doesn’t have a strong purpose, while a further 60 percent said they’d take a pay cut to work at a purpose-driven organization. Leading with purpose now should be considered table stakes in maintaining employee morale and mitigating turnover.

Enhancing Employee Capabilities, Accelerating Career Growth

Skills-based volunteering doesn’t just boost engagement; it can be a powerful component of talent development and leadership training programs, as well, positioning participants for stronger performance or even promotion. A survey of volunteers from our October 2021 Skills for Cities event showed that 96 percent of corporate participants who participated in the day of skills-based consulting found it a useful professional development opportunity, reporting gains in areas such as creative thinking and innovation, problem solving, navigating ambiguity, adaptability, and synthesizing ideas in real time as a result of their work with nonprofits. The benefit can be as straightforward as refining their expertise in a specific tool—a software application such as Salesforce or WordPress, for example. For others, it may mean the chance to assemble a cross-functional team for the first time in support of a major initiative such as membership development, staffing, or updating a Website.

Similar gains can benefit new employees, too. Although every onboarding process is different, most seek to give recruits broad exposure to the organization and its mission. Skills-based volunteering can accelerate and enhance this learning phase by familiarizing incoming employees with internal systems and processes, providing perspective, creating opportunities to build relationships across the company, and developing leadership and decision-making skills. Collaborating with their new peers and being able to leverage their skills in a nonprofit context early in their tenure also can serve to make their new company’s values clear from the get-go.

Serving Community and Business Goals

Skills-based volunteering can take a variety of formats, always aligned with the nonprofit’s needs and goals while also taking the company’s employee engagement and talent development priorities into account. Take flash consulting events: 6- to 8-hour assignments designed to solve a specific nonprofit capacity-building challenge, such as developing an inclusive recruitment and hiring process in order to expand staff numbers for new programming.

AIG Life & Retirement participated in one such event a year into the pandemic, when some nonprofits had reached a point where they felt equipped to return to promising capacity-building projects they had put on hold. Thirty-eight skills-based volunteers spent six hours supporting five nonprofits on projects such as developing a high-level digital communications strategy and improving program delivery efficiency by helping an organization select a new customer relationship management (CRM) system. Common Impact designed this event to simultaneously contribute to AIG’s internal objectives of combatting silos in the remote work environment and fostering employee engagement. The day of service was successful in boosting cross-department and cross-region collaboration, with 84 percent of volunteer survey respondents even reporting they formed new relationships with colleagues that they believe will help them solve a future business challenge.

Another day-of-service model offering a slightly different set of strategic employee development benefits is pitch competitions. Teams of corporate volunteers develop recommendations for the same nonprofit challenge and then hone their presentation skills by pitching their ideas to the organization. The volunteers’ efforts create immediate results for the nonprofit and put their skills to work in a different, often resource-constrained, environment. Through the process of quickly understanding an unfamiliar business challenge and developing a deliverable, this model helps foster teamwork, creative problem solving, quick thinking, and the ability to deliver under pressure.

Where we see the strongest talent development wins and the deepest impact on nonprofits and volunteers is team consulting, a long-term skills-based volunteering model that takes place over the course of multiple weeks or months. This enables employee volunteers to work with nonprofits on a substantive capacity-building challenge while making progress on specific, pre-defined professional development goals. In a four-month team consulting project with Fidelity Investments and America Needs You, skills-based volunteers worked with the education and career mentorship nonprofit to complete a full redesign of its Website. The project enabled the volunteers to gain fluency in a new content management system (CMS), WordPress, and make consistent improvements to their everyday technical skills such as Website design, user experience (UX), content development, and IT, as well as strategy and leadership skills such as project management and client relations. The long-term nature of the project allowed for the volunteers to incorporate it into their everyday work for several months. This created an integrated professional development opportunity with lasting knowledge gains that will enhance their performance well into the future and contribute to career advancement.

Capable Employees, Strong Workplaces, Thriving Communities

Cultural affinity is a clear condition of employment these days: Employees want to live their values at work and take pride in their employer. In the past, it may have been possible for employers to deprioritize these concerns, but no longer. Engagement is a top priority, particularly for younger workers, and an important way for employers to differentiate themselves when competing for talent.

As attitudes about work shift, employees are more mobile than ever. Employers must adapt to this changed reality or risk losing their most powerful asset—their people—to competitors and career paths that more closely align with their priorities. Skills-based volunteering programs are a proven strategy for energizing employees while giving back to the community, lowering turnover, and increasing productivity—an all-around win.

Tessa Vithayathil is the director of Programs at Common Impact. She helps bring businesses and nonprofits together via meaningful skills-based volunteering engagements. As part of this work, Vithayathil oversees Common Impact’s programs and products, and shepherds partners throughout the process, from design to implementation and evaluation. She connects private-sector skills to public-sector needs, ensuring that individuals across the spectrum are strengthening the local communities in which they live and work. Over Vithayathil’s decade of social impact experience, she’s worked with leading companies and nonprofits to create meaningful long-term change