Build Employee Skills While Helping Nonprofits

By Beth Mirza Aug 19, 2008

​Businesses and nonprofit organizations are teaming up for mutually beneficial partnerships called skills-based volunteering. Nonprofits identify a concern in their support services—finance, auditing, IT, marketing or human resources—and businesses send in employees who need leadership development to fix the problem. Facilitating along the way is an organization called Common Impact, founded in 2000 in Boston.

Common Impact’s CEO Theresa Ellis was inspired to start the organization when she was working with a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. A friend from graduate school needed some work experience, and the nonprofit needed help with its software system. Now Common Impact works with State Street, Fidelity and Cisco, among other large companies that are looking for ways to “engage employees in their communities, build teams, develop the talents of upcoming stars and grow leadership,” Ellis said.

Common Impact begins by developing relationships with companies, Ellis said, offering to marry the company’s desire to have an impact in the community with their talent development needs.

“Common Impact delivers a clearly scoped, defined, ready-made project to allow [the company’s] team to learn in a nonprofit environment,” Ellis said. “It’s really hard in [companies like] Fidelity to run leadership programs. They scratch their heads to come up with a fictional [project] that allows employees to practice skills but won’t be implemented. But here, the project is implemented with great impact for the nonprofit.”

Companies can also attract and retain Generation Y employees with opportunities to be involved in corporate social responsibility projects. According to research from Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, nearly two-thirds of Generation Y members want to work at companies that offer chances to volunteer. However, creating those opportunities can be difficult for the companies.

“The disconnect that we see is that most companies find corporate social responsibility difficult to operationalize,” Ellis said. So Common Impact does it for them.

A typical project requires a time commitment of one to three hours a week for each team member, allowing them to work on their lunch hour, after work hours or on the weekend but not being overly demanding, Ellis said. Projects last from three to six months. Three meetings—a kickoff, a launch of the proposed system and a wrap-up—normally take place between the nonprofit and the volunteer team.

Most nonprofits need a lot of help with marketing, Ellis said, especially with consistent messaging across all marketing appeals, including ads, brochures and annual reports. There’s a huge demand for managing data, such as helping an afterschool program wrangle data collection for the kids in the program. Financial management is another area of need, including cost-benefit analysis and managing assets strategically. In fact, 58 percent of nonprofits surveyed by Common Impact are allocating 2 percent or less of their annual operating budget to support key functions.

Program participants “end up solving a real problem,” Ellis said. “You’ve just graduated business school, you’re in your early thirties, you are still idealistic and think you can have a real impact. But in the machine of 40,000 people [at a large corporation], you’re a piece of a puzzle. [In skills-based volunteering] you are the solution, you have a sense of agency that’s different from your day-to-day experience.”

‘The Volunteers Are All Coming and Going’

With Common Impact as an intermediary, Genworth Financial and the William Byrd Community House in Richmond, Va., worked together to find a solution to the nonprofit’s sprawling volunteer program. William Byrd Community House provides social services help to clients of all ages—2,508 in 2007—including early childhood, after-school care, career skills, rental and mortgage assistance, free public library and farmers’ market. William Byrd has 40 full-time staff and six or seven major corporations that volunteer routinely, as well as seven to 10 churches and three nonprofit organizations. There are about 100 individual volunteers, said Jessica Turner, development associate at the organization.

“The volunteers are all coming and going. We needed to find a process to utilize corporate volunteers in the very best way possible, so that it’s most rewarding all the way around. We had no point person, we had communication problems, and we needed to recruit corporations to come to our facility,” Turner said.

Genworth, a global financial security company, stepped in with a team of employees from legal, marketing and IT to streamline the data management process and help William Byrd best use its volunteers. After four months, the new process was in place. More volunteers are signed up, a volunteer satisfaction survey was conducted and the time it takes to sign up a volunteer has been reduced.

“Genworth was great to work with,” Turner said. “They worked with us to find out what we need. They didn’t impose a solution on us.”

A recipient of the 2008 Corporate Volunteer Award from the Points of Light Foundation, Genworth gave more than 17,000 hours in 200 volunteer projects around the globe, said Theresa Moore, director of operations training and talent development. But the company also benefited from the William Byrd project and other skills-building volunteer programs.

“Community involvement is critical for the employee experience,” Moore said. “They will be more active in business if they are active in the community. Increasingly, candidates ask about our commitment to community. We can attract, develop and retain employees, and allow our associates to develop as well” through skills-based volunteering.”

With the William Byrd project, the team members were “very talented,” Moore said, but they were not in leadership roles at Genworth. They worked cross functionally, learning from colleagues and picking up other skills.

“This was their opportunity to flex their muscles and make a difference at the same time,” she said. “People drive our success, so we want to support their development and success.”

‘Bottom of the Pile’ Tasks

The Boston Partners in Education organization matches corporate volunteers with public school students to increase skills in math and language arts. Volunteers work with students for a year, with some visiting once a week for math tutoring sessions and others spending lunch hours reading with students. Working with volunteers in 62 schools with a staff of 12 full-time and three part-time employees—including a part-time finance manager who is onsite one day a week—Executive Director Pamela Civens has little time for those tasks that work their way to the bottom of her to-do list.

One of those tasks was updating the organization’s five-year-old personnel policies and employee handbook. The organization had almost doubled in size since 2003, and there were no policies around maternity or paternity leave and no leave granted for short-term or long-term disability. She approached Common Impact, who matched the group with a volunteer team from the HR department at Fidelity. Between October 2007 and April 2008, the HR team suggested updates to reflect new laws in Massachusetts addressing employers’ responsibility for health care; tweaking and expanding policies on sexual harassment and nondiscrimination; and clarifying the holiday schedule.

Civens is now working with a law firm, on a pro bono basis, to review the handbook and policies and hoped to have both in place by the start of fiscal 2009.

“I was really impressed with the volunteer team. They took the commitment seriously. I pretty much do everything at the office, so it’s hard to take time and concentrate on these issues. Other things take priority,” Civens said. “What I appreciated was that they drove the process. They took what they do on a day-to-day basis, and looked at [the handbook] from my perspective and what was important to my employees to make it a stronger document.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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