Credit: The Grameen Foundation
Shannon Maynard is the Director of Bankers without Borders®, Grameen Foundation’s skilled-volunteer initiative. Maynard has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management and volunteer mobilization. Before joining Grameen Foundation, she served as Executive Director of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, and managed strategic initiatives for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency.
A new study released last week found what many of us in the nonprofit sector know from experience: philosophically, we like the idea of engaging pro bono talent to help us achieve our social missions. Operationally, we lack the knowledge, will, and infrastructure to actually attract and manage skilled volunteers on projects that can make a meaningful difference for our work.
Three and a half years ago, I joined Grameen Foundation (GF) to help this global NGO take its aspirations of engaging skilled business professionals to support its work and the sectors it works in and turn that into a reality.
As we pursued the creation of a strategic framework for engaging volunteers ourselves, we designed our program, Bankers without Borders, to respond to eight common barriers that prevent organizations from strategically engaging volunteers. You can check out all eight in our white paper, but below are the four most pertinent to this latest research report on the use of pro bono support in the nonprofit sector.
1. Myth that volunteers are free. Too often, people assume that volunteers are a completely cost-free resource because they are donating their services. In reality, the benefit of volunteer engagement to an organization is directly proportional to its investment in volunteer management. Although these costs are often much lower than paying consultant fees directly, there are always real or opportunity costs involved.
For each pro bono project Bankers without Borders facilitates, one of our team members spends between 10 and 60 hours – depending on the nature of the project – facilitating the project. In addition, a project manager from the nonprofit client we are serving will spend from five and 50 hours of their time supervising the volunteers’ work. However, our volunteers, on average, donate more than 100 hours per engagement, and there are on average at least two volunteers assigned per project. Our value proposition isn’t that volunteers are free, but that they present a strong return on investment (ROI): for every $1 invested in a Bankers without Borders project, we can leverage at least $6 in donated services or cost savings.
2. Lack of advanced planning. The demand for volunteers is often out of sync with the supply of volunteers because organizations rarely incorporate identification of potential volunteer roles as part of annual planning, or build roles and funding for volunteers into their program design and related fundraising proposals. Then, volunteer projects that do take place are ad-hoc and a matter of serendipity, rather than a strategic intervention. If managers proactively identified places where volunteers could free up staff capacity or bring new expertise to the organization, they could build in the time to find the best-qualified volunteer candidates. Without advance planning and a reserve corps of skills to draw from, it can be difficult to find a marketing expert from the commercial banking sector who speaks Spanish — on two-weeks notice!
3. Poor project management. Nonprofits often have limited resources to invest in project management training or software for staff. Good volunteer management is essentially good project management. Staff often juggles too many projects, while not applying discipline to how they define the project scope and work plan, manage the work, establish communication protocols, and build in quality control of deliverables and project metrics.
Bankers without Border recently launched an online course, "Orientation for New Clients and Project Managers" to help our clients better understand their role as project managers in what is truly a collaborative effort between them, the volunteers, and the Bankers without Borders team.
4. Staff burden to find the right volunteers. Without a centralized volunteer-management function or an ample pipeline of volunteer talent, individual staff members are responsible for sourcing their own volunteer talent. With skills-based volunteering, this can be a time-intensive endeavor when you factor in outreach, recruitment, screening, and selection.
By investing in the development of a skills-based volunteer reserve corps, we have found a greater supply of skilled volunteers (almost 9,000) than demand from Grameen Foundation itself and our current network of partners – which is why we are expanding and looking for other poverty-focused NGOs and social enterprises interested in sharing the wealth of skills and talent that exists in our database.
To the leaders of the 66 percent of U.S. nonprofits who said they need skilled volunteers: why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to? Take advantage of the lessons learned and services of folks such as ourselves, Taproot Foundation, Catchafire, and the many other third parties who specialize in creating an effective platform for matching skilled volunteers with nonprofit needs.
We are willing to make our technology and technical assistance available to organizations interested in developing their own internal skills-based volunteering infrastructure or be the outsourced solution for all your skills-based volunteering needs. Using skilled volunteers can become a way of doing business for your organization and unlock a goldmine of value, but not without making an investment and commitment to doing things differently.
Photo Caption: Actuary Sean Nossel saved Indian microfinance institution, The People’s Forum, more than $35,000 in consulting fees and helped them develop and pilot a microinsurance product now available to more than 3,000 of the poor women they serve. It cost Bankers without Borders approximately $2,500 to facilitate the project, resulting in an ROI of 1:14.