THE BLOG
12/05/2014 01:36 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Connecting Talent With a Greater Purpose: It Matters

From the perspective of a nonprofit, finding smart, passionate, and talented people to work with you for free is a clear win. But why do professionals engage in skills-based volunteering and pro bono projects? The growth of opportunities to engage with a cause in low-effort, high visibility ways via micro-donations and social media shares should consistently push goodwill to the path of least resistance, away from deep, intensive interactions like pro bono. Engaging in a pro bono project to create a marketing plan or a new website for a nonprofit is the practical opposite of hashtag activism. It requires significant, real effort and personal commitment from a volunteer, with limited visibility or virality.

Yet, despite all that, there is a growing trend among professionals who volunteer, not just their time, but also their skills to help build capacity among nonprofit and other for-purpose organizations. The need has been consistently pervasive, a survey from Deloitte in 2006 showed that 77% of nonprofits believe their business practices would benefit from skilled volunteers. Meanwhile the willingness among volunteers is startlingly high. 82% of surveyed Linkedin members indicated a desire to volunteer their time and skills and 70% of Millennials consider "giving back and being civically engaged" their highest priority. Online tools such as Catchafire, Taproot+, npower and VolunteerMatch have made it easier than ever for these passionate people and organizations to find each other, and a budding movement around skills-based volunteering (or "pro bono") has formed.

The incredible thing about skills-based volunteering is it creates a range of social, emotional and professional benefits for volunteers. Enabling an organization you care about to feed more families, mentor more children or open access to the arts by leveraging your unique skills has a massive ROI; the increase in impact of skills-based volunteering vastly exceeds the increase in effort by spending 20 or 30 hours with an organization. Beyond the warm fuzzies, volunteers see additional benefits by honing their professional skills in real-life settings (practice does make perfect) and building meaningful relationships with people and organizations they may not otherwise encounter.

So what's the role of an employer in this space? How and why should a company care about volunteering activities of their employees, any more than they would care where they go on vacation, or what movies they see? As one would expect when employees volunteer, especially on skills-based volunteer projects, employers reap their own rewards:

Community Impact. Increasingly, communities expect the companies that operate within them to behave as good citizens. Employees play a dual role as both members of a community and representatives of their employers. Skills-based volunteering serves as natural a bridge between these two worlds. When the creatives at MTV networks brought their talents and passions to the Center for Employment Opportunities, it generalized and expanded the value of what they do every day in a new, community driven context. The ROI is similarly compelling. At Catchafire, we typically see a 15 to 30X ROI in impact vs. the cost of creating and delivering these programs.

Employee Engagement. When employees work on the same things, day-in, day-out, it becomes easy to lose sight of the real value of your work. The Gallup organization found that 70% of workers are that "not engaged" or "actively disengaged." Our internal findings at Catchafire have shown that volunteers undervalue their contributions relative to the nonprofits who receive them, by as much as 30%. Applying your job skills in a new context, with an organization that really benefits can breath new life into an employee's perspective and put a spring back in their step on Monday morning.

Employee Development. Skills-based volunteering and pro bono projects present a fantastic opportunity for on-the-job training in a unique context. By developing SBV programs companies can significantly expand the options for their employees to stretch their skills and show instead of tell why they are ready for a promotion or new role. Leading companies such as IBM, are even encouraging employees to fulfill professional development requirements via volunteering, creating unique, tailored and engaging opportunities to achieve impact while supporting the bottom line.

Companies with these objectives in mind can do a number of things to get started with skills-based volunteering and pro bono. Organizations like Taproot, npower, Common Impact, Catchafire and others directly create these opportunities for corporate partners across a variety of flavors. Foundations and other grant-makers can also serve as excellent thought partners to develop smart direct relationships with their grantees. Many companies, such as NetSuite also directly link their own corporate philanthropy efforts with pro bono, soliciting employee volunteers to both scope and develop project ideas and execute those projects. The best thing to do is to get started. The case for skills-based volunteering is strong and the need is significant. Companies that engage will see happier, more effective employees and build stronger communities for them, all at a low cost with big impact.

This blog post is part of the Plan B for Business series produced by The Huffington Post and The B Team community to help articulate a Plan B for Business. To see other posts in the series, click here. For more information about The B Team, click here.