07/09/2010 05:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Turning Billable Hours into Volunteer Hours: Five Ways to Capitalize on New Skills-based Volunteering Trend

It's no secret that retaining professionals, such as a lawyer or accountant for example, can be costly, especially with rates often exceeding $200 per hour. Yet, while their skills are often needed by nonprofits for long-term, ongoing projects, there are occasions when nonprofits can leverage these highly-skilled professionals as volunteers.

Skills-based volunteering, such as editing a strategic plan, designing an event invitation or streamlining a database, is a growing trend, and with professionals time valued at $200 per hour on average, nonprofits can stretch their budgets by leveraging the professional skills of their volunteers.

The challenge lies in finding and retaining these professional volunteers. In its article, "The New Volunteer Workforce," the Stanford Social Innovation Review notes that despite the research showing the impact volunteer work can have, "most nonprofits are still letting volunteer talent slip away like water through a leaky bucket."


If nonprofit leaders want highly skilled volunteers to come and stay, they need to expand their vision of volunteering by creating an experience that is meaningful for the volunteer, develops skills, demonstrates impact, and taps into volunteers' abilities and interests...people will make time to volunteer if they are stimulated and engaged.

The authors, including David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, note several critical reasons why highly-skilled volunteers do not stay, and ways that nonprofits can reverse that trend. I've highlighted five of the top ways I've found that nonprofits can increase the likelihood that highly skilled volunteers will come -- and stay.

1. Match volunteers' skills with assignments. If a large corporation plans a big, one-time clean-up service project, see if smaller teams could come back to assist with more skill-driven projects after the big day. For example, perhaps the HR team can return to do a training presentation or share best practices with your HR staff. Or the IT professional from the corporation could come back to help streamline a database.

2. Recognize volunteer contributions. Almost all nonprofits recognize donors who give cash contributions in their annual reports, but rarely do they recognize those that give of their time. Don't just give lip service to your most valued non-staff contributors - special ceremonies or certificates can make volunteers feel part of the team and fully engaged.

3. Measure the value of volunteers. Many nonprofits don't tally the number of volunteer hours given, much less add a dollar value to it. How can a board authorize the use of funds for volunteer training or recruitment if they are not aware of the vital impact volunteers have on the organization? Make sure volunteer programs are included in your strategic plan.

4. Train and invest in volunteer staff. A volunteer may have an interest in animal shelters and be skilled in marketing, but without fully understanding the in's and out's of your shelter, she may not be able to come up with relevant ideas to promote your work. Training her so she knows your vision, goals and how your office functions may take some upfront resources, but a successful marketing strategy is well worth it.

5. Use new technology. Online sites such as allow nonprofits to reach out to volunteers who have specific skills and interests, and ensure the right opportunities come to the right volunteers, without having to search and search. Plus, technology also allows people to volunteer without having to actually visit the nonprofit's office, by working online at home.

Finally, finding highly skilled volunteers often means tapping into the over 50 crowd. Some have retired from their careers, but want to share their professional skills with causes they care about. Others are still working, but want to stay connected to their community after the kids have moved away. All have years of experience that can be shared to the benefit of nonprofits -- both by working on specific projects and by serving as staff mentors.

While capitalizing upon volunteer talent does take initial resources of time, and, in some cases, funding, the results are strong enough to make it well worth the investment.