06/07/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

The Volunteer Dating Game

In the world of those who volunteer to make a better world, some dream of settling down. But not you. Nosiree. You enjoy the variety of volunteering with many different organizations and causes. Last month it was a cancer nonprofit, today it's a dog rescue. You heard that a literacy organization is having an awesome fundraiser next month so that's the next cause on tap, and maybe after that you'll try on a sustainability charity for size -- recycling could be cool.

Sure, your nonprofit relationships don't seem to be progressing, but that's fine. Volunteering
with a wide range of causes is fun and keeps things interesting.

I mean, yeah, it would be nice to get a little deep sometimes, focus on one charity that gets
to know the real you, y'know? Where you could go beyond the basics, contribute your full self,
maybe even graduate to something more long-term. Make a difference, grow a little, find that
one nonprofit that you'll keep going back to.

But for whatever reason, you haven't taken the plunge, so volunteer mingling will have to suffice.

It doesn't have to be this way. Imagine a world where the energy, passion and skills of
volunteers aligned perfectly with the needs and capacity of nonprofits. Where expectations
were calibrated and trust was built over time.

That's the world that Gap Inc. is working to create with its global teams of employee volunteers. Reflecting feedback from the community that some volunteer projects were fun for the volunteers, but not as valuable to the nonprofits as they could have been, Gap Inc. realized that if it was going to facilitate meaningful relationships between its employees and causes, it needed to get everyone "dating" with an eye towards long-term relationships between employee teams and nonprofit organizations. Gap Inc. thinks of this as the "date, then get married" approach to volunteering.

"We started our volunteer program around a more traditional skills-based framework," noted
Gail Gershon, Gap's Executive Director of Community Leadership. "We'd ask our nonprofit
partners what they needed and then try to match them with employee volunteers who had
relevant skills. But this approach wasn't sustainable. What we heard from nonprofits and
employees was that the more effective way to move toward skills-based volunteering would be
for teams to develop long-term partnerships with nonprofits, to get to know their needs and help the nonprofit better understand the skills that the team of employees represented. Then, the skills could be applied to the volunteering more naturally and build over time, and the volunteers could work to fulfill a variety of needs faced by their nonprofit partner."

Further, Gail added, Gap Inc. wants to make sure that volunteer activity is valuable to the
nonprofit, not just a pleasant diversion for the volunteer. "Sometimes volunteering is designed to be the best possible experience for the volunteer but not what is most critical to the nonprofit."

Thus was shaped a worldview that smartly applies dating philosophies to volunteer programs.

Toward this end, Gap Inc. encourages every team (which could be a store or an office location)
to elect a person who will be their Community Leader. That one person is then charged with finding an appropriate nonprofit partner that the entire team will support, ideally over an
extended period of time so that the quality of the volunteering is most meaningful for both the
volunteer and nonprofit. And just like your mama told you, Gap Inc. teams are discouraged
from marrying after their first date. Instead, they're told to ask themselves: is this a fit? When
should we go steady? When should we move in together? How can we really get to know each
other before making that final commitment?

"The nonprofit needs to invest in the volunteers and train them," said Gail. "That requires precious time and resources from the nonprofit's staff. So if the nonprofit doesn't know if you're coming back, why should they waste their time? We encourage our teams to get to a place where there's mutual trust."

When the trust and fit is there, that's when employees can effectively leverage their skills, which can potentially make a longer term impact over time.

Gap Inc. has plenty of company in their belief that skills-based volunteering is the wave of
the corporate social responsibility future. That's why they're one of more than 100 pledge
companies for A Billion + Change, a national campaign to make skills-based volunteering the new normal in every workplace, which has already elicited a promise of more than $1.7 billion and at least 11.5 million hours of time and talent dedicated to building nonprofit capacity. Gap Inc. shared their wisdom about encouraging skills-based volunteering at this week's Corporate Philanthropy Summit, a forum for best practices around corporate giving which A Billion + Change has helped organize.

For energized corporate volunteers and future changemakers, finding a nonprofit that best meets your passion is an outcome that translates into satisfaction and impact. Who knows -- Gap Inc. may even have some advice on the right wedding togs to wear when you and your nonprofit are ready to make things official.