03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Smart Investment

What happens when leaders and managers of more than 60 different non-profits from Chicagoland get together? Best practices are shared. New ideas come forth. And solutions are found. One of those solutions is a smart investment - in the 'right' volunteers. recently hosted our annual non-profit workshop, aimed at improving the way non-profits use volunteers, particularly those who donate their professional skills, such as strategic planning, graphic design or marketing expertise. The diversity in the non-profits that attended was incredibly wide - from Annie's Legacy, which helps socioeconomically-challenged women gain life skills, to the Polish Genealogical Society of America to the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago to 826 Chicago, a youth creative writing and tutoring organization.

But a common thread emerged - non-profits are in desperate need of assistance, but it's difficult to develop strong relationships with the 'right' volunteers.

Why is it such a challenge for non-profits to find the help they need? One reason is that non-profits don't invest their time in finding the right volunteers--they often think quantity of helping hands over quality of service. Sometimes it is more difficult and time consuming to organize a large cadre of volunteers than it is to find one or two serious volunteers with professional skills. While these skilled volunteers will need a bit of training too, it is ultimately these helping hands that may make the strongest impact.

And every volunteer relationship does not have to be ongoing to make it worthwhile. In fact, discreet, short-term volunteer relationships that utilize specialized, professional skills can be just as-and often more-effective than a long-term relationship that doesn't make use of these skills.

Unsurprisingly, non-profits around the country are facing these same challenges. has just launched in Wisconsin and South Carolina, and will continue to expand in order to connect even more non-profits with volunteers who have professional skills across the country.

But wherever you are, investing in volunteers - both in finding the right match and efficiently utilizing professional skills - can have a huge impact in reaching a non-profit's bottom-line goals.