Skills-Based Volunteer Programs Engage Employees and Support Professional Development

Skills-based volunteerism engages corporate volunteers in solving nonprofit challenges by applying their functional expertise in areas such as marketing, technology, operations, or finance.

There’s been an upheaval in corporate social responsibility over the last 20-plus years, one that has resulted in an employee-driven focus on community and pro-social initiatives. It may come as no surprise that Millennials are largely the drivers of this evolution.

In the 1990s, a company’s engagement strategy was largely motivated by compliance, aligning to business policies that produced the least harm to consumers and the environment. In the early 2000s, companies began to develop more intentional community investments through what we now think of as traditional corporate social responsibility. Most recently, companies have stopped thinking about the community as an external and separate actor and are integrating pro-social, sometimes activist, initiatives into their operations to drive value to their business and society at once.

This latest wave of change is being led by employees. Earlier this year, 3BL Media/GlobeScan released survey results indicating that 8 of 10 corporate leaders believe companies are obligated to speak out on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues, and that more than 60 percent of CEOs will increase their ESG advocacy over the next 18 months, inspired in part by the leadership of Patagonia (environmental sustainability), Microsoft (diversity and inclusion), Chobani (immigration and refugee rights), and others.

While brand equity and consumer preferences certainly are factors in the focus on pro-social and environmental agendas, the main reasons cited are employee-focused. Respondents to the 3BL Media/GlobeScan survey believe their organizations should be motivated by a desire to demonstrate a commitment beyond profit and meet the expectations of employees, especially in an ever-tightening labor market. 

Believe it or not, Millennials are now the majority of today’s workforce and 56 percent of them believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues important to society. According to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, Millennials and Generation Z employees believe business success should be measured by achieving objectives beyond pure profit, such as making a positive impact on society and the environment, as well as supporting job creation and career development for the workforce. 

One excellent way to connect employee engagement and talent development with corporate community goals and values is through skills-based volunteerism. Also known as pro bono service, skills-based volunteerism engages corporate volunteers in solving nonprofit challenges by applying their functional expertise in areas such as marketing, technology, operations, or finance. It is among one of the fastest growing corporate engagement programs with more than 50% percent of companies reporting a formal skilled volunteerism program, according to research from the CECP and Conference Board. Further, Gallup reports that up to 90 percent of companies show a decrease in turnover after implementing a skilled volunteerism program. 

Pro bono programs are extraordinarily successful due to the combination of experiential learning and learning in a new environment. Skills-based volunteerism allows employees to put training concepts into practice, stretch skills, and learn new processes and techniques from the nonprofit organization and fellow volunteers—all as part of a new organization that engages different stakeholders, uses different decision-making principles, and redefines the bottom line. Plus, it allows employees who want to bring their own personal values to work to meaningfully contribute to their local community.

Tips to Get Started

With all of the benefits of skills-based volunteerism, how can a company develop a successful program? Given our nearly 20 years of experience creating pro bono programs, we offer the following tips to help your organization get started: 

1. Clearly define your community purpose and connect it to your brand. 
The best community engagement programs directly tie back to the company’s core values and marketplace expertise. As volunteers, your employees are serving as brand ambassadors, so engage them in work that reinforces your business purpose for customers and the community. If possible, ask employees directly what will help them feel more connected to the community and include those activities or issues areas in your volunteer programming. For example, when investment data firm Two Sigma started its pro bono Data Clinic in 2014, it made strategic sense for the volunteer team to pitch using their expertise in translating data for nonprofits in need of understanding and communicating their impact in numbers. 

2. Partner with CSR to design a program that meets employee and community goals. 
Think about what your company’s biggest employee recruitment and retention challenges may be and target your programs to address these needs. For example, are some regions or departments experiencing higher than normal turnover? If so, then perhaps start your programming with these groups. Providing employees most at risk of leaving the organization with a targeted way to engage can dampen attrition and build employee loyalty for both the company and community. Include CSR in the conversation to find the right community partners for this work. The CSR department often tracks goals around volunteerism and philanthropy. Plus, they know the community well and can help find the right nonprofit partners at both a local and national level that are the right fit for a skills-based volunteer team or program. Intermediaries such as Common Impact also can help with this process of finding the right nonprofit partner and project

3. Measure and communicate results.
While many community initiatives measure outputs such as employee engagement, nonprofits reached, or volunteer hours provided, these results don’t always demonstrate long-term outcomes for your organization. Instead, focus measurement on metrics such as Net Promoter Scores, employee promotions, and retention rates. Track these results with your employees by surveying them before, immediately following, and six months after a skilled engagement. Share these results with your leadership team and use positive outcomes as a way to generate more interest and participation in your programs.

We hope these tips will help you start or expand your organization’s skills-based volunteer programs. When done well, skills-based volunteer programs have tremendous potential to produce positive impact for participating nonprofits, employee volunteers, the community, and your company.

Danielle Holly is CEO of Common Impact, an organization that designs programs that direct companies most strategic philanthropic asset—their people—to the seemingly intractable social challenges they’re best positioned to address. Contact her via e-mail at or follow her on Twitter @dholly8.