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Nonprofit Management

Fired Up To Volunteer

Nonprofits can gain highly skilled volunteers through a variety of resources.

The Nonprofiteer first learned of the work of catchafire.org several months ago through our mutual colleagues at Mission Research.  She’s been getting around to writing about Catchafire’s work placing high-skill volunteers at New York nonprofits.  Now that founder Rachael Chong has been interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace, the Nonprofiteer realizes that time waits for no blogger.

Rachael describes her organization as “Match.com for volunteers and nonprofits.”  A nonprofit pays a low fee to have Catchafire figure out its needs (“scope its projects,” in site jargon) and find a volunteer with the right skills to accomplish the task.  (At the moment the group operates only in New York, which mysteriously has one of the lowest volunteering rates in the country, but it hopes to expand to other communities in fairly short order.)  Volunteer in, do project, volunteer out, bada-bing, bada-boom—the whole thing happens in a New York minute.

The Nonprofiteer applauds Catchafire’s mission and part of its approach—the part about helping nonprofits figure out what they can actually do with high-skill volunteers other than asking them to stuff envelopes.  But for every volunteer who wants to root, shoot and leave she knows two who are looking for a long-term volunteer home, and though obviously a Catchafire volunteer isn’t precluded from becoming a permanent volunteer, he or she comes in branded as a person who will, and therefore probably only can, do one thing.

The Nonprofiteer is also concerned about sending a single volunteer to do a project, even if it seems apparent that a single pair of hands is all that’s required.  Many people volunteer to alleviate their loneliness (or, more positively, to connect with others) and a single-person project—even in the midst of an agency with lots of people—is likely to be isolated, and isolating.

The Taproot Foundation, which likewise uses a project-based model of providing assistance to nonprofits, addresses the isolation concern by assembling a team to complete each project.  The good news is, each volunteer gets to know and work with other high-skill volunteers.  The bad news is, teams of volunteers are to nonprofits as hairballs are to cats: tolerable on a temporary basis but unlikely to be integrated permanently into the system.  High-skill volunteers searching for a cause about which to stay passionate and a home in which to express that passion instead find the opportunity to be coughed up.

The Nonprofiteer’s theory is that both groups are treating the symptom [failure to use high-skill volunteers] rather than the cause [staff hostility to the use of volunteers].  It may be that only the symptom can be treated; but in her own practice, the Nonprofiteer works to help organizations identify and overcome the sources of staff resistance, so they can make use of high-skill volunteers on an extensive and long-term basis rather than a restricted and short-term one.  We all know that staff turnover is expensive because every new person has to be trained; the same must be true of volunteer turnover, and therefore solutions requiring constant orientation of new people create problems of their own.

But may the best model win!  And if nonprofits use some high-skill volunteers better as a result of any of these approaches, we’ll all win.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Andy Duddleston

    ON December 16, 2010 11:18 AM

    Thoughtful post, Nonprofiteer.

    As a bootstrapping startup nonprofit (Champion Access) we were lucky enough to take advantage of Catchafire’s services early on to get some PR assistance. Our volunteer brought not only her skills to the table—and she had skills—but also a fresh and much needed outside perspective to our organization. Our first meeting was a 5 hour Saturday morning marathon where we created a six-month timeline of activities and goals. I’m not sure that it directly related to the PR Plan, but it was very helpful.

    Looking back—it has been about 4 months since the project was completed—that perspective was the real value for us. The PR Plan was solid, but a bit premature.

    I definitely believe in the concept, but did see possible conflict in that when your volunteer is a working professional—particularly if they are in the prime of their career—their time can become compromised by unforeseen work related fire drills.

  • BY Robert Rosenthal

    ON December 21, 2010 12:48 PM

    Robert here from VolunteerMatch.org. Kelly, I really like how you drew up the difference in approaches between Catchafire and Taproot, both of which have accounts at VolunteerMatch. 

    I think what both are doing right is helping nonprofits more effectively take advantage of the high skill levels of professionals. I also think they are great at introducing young professionals to the profoundly moving experience of making a difference with skills - insights that may help guide the volunteer to new heights of involvement in the future (include long-term commitments).

    One thought: In my experience, the chief barrier to this taking place organically isn’t “hostility” to volunteers (a strongly negative word), but instead a reluctance to add volunteer management and relations to a busy manager’s already crammed schedule. In a perfect world, nonprofit professionals have all the time in the world to nurture volunteer relationships and help skilled volunteers contribute at a very high level. In the real world, however, managers need to pick and choose where they put their time.

    Keep up the great work!

    Robert Rosenthal
    (Twitter: @volmatch)

  • BY Eric Longo

    ON December 25, 2010 09:41 AM

    Hi Kelly
    Nothing like Christmas day to catch up on blogs! I want to make a few comments on your post.

    1- You make some good points comparing two key skill-based pro bono providers, though I’m much more familiar with Taproot having been a pro bono account director since 2007 than Catchafire. While I do believe in general that better work product comes out of teams (Taproot model), I am not convinced however that alleviating loneliness is the main drive why people are attracted to do pro bono service. More likely it is a desire to help nonprofits increase impact, hone their skills, and yes, network among other skilled professionals. 

    2- The Taproot service model offers consulting specific projects delivered by teams of highly skilled pro bono consultants. Like all project-based engagements, consultants come in, work with the client over a period of time, and leave once the project is completed. The Taproot clients I’ve had a chance to work with are clear about this and so I don’t think there is an expectation on their part to integrate volunteers. That said many do stay involved overtime after completing a project. Some even go on to serve an organization as a board member for example.

    3- To say, as you infer in conclusion, that nonprofits “fail at using high-skill” volunteers (symptom) is simply untrue. Most US nonprofits operate with limited resources, which means that too few can actually afford high-skilled workers on staff. That’s the very purpose of skill-based volunteerism: to fill the need for high-skill services to nonprofits that can’t afford them. The process however has a long tail: well executed consulting engagements (paid or not) also educate clients well beyond the scope of the specific project by giving them tools, resources, know-how, best practices, market intelligence, etc. to continue to improve on the job at hand once the consultants are gone.

    3- I’d like to second Robert’s comment about what you identify “staff hostility to using volunteers” as the cause to skill-based volunteerism. I think it’s more a resource and bandwidth issue than hostility. I don’t know of many nonprofits that can operate without the critical support of volunteers and I haven’t met one that is out right hostile to having volunteers chip in. What I am convinced about however is that skill-based volunteerism, though still an emerging space within the larger volunteer opportunities, it is here to stay, and will only strengthen our communities by adding much needed value to the nonprofit sector in partnership with skilled volunteers, and the private sector as a way to raise their corporate citizenship profile.

    Eric Longo
    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON December 25, 2010 10:59 AM

    Volunteer turn over is a really challenge in the sector - just as you report.  Nonprofits spend million every year training and on board volunteers that more often than not disappear quickly.  Companies make this worse by trying to position volunteering as “done in a day”.

    We must also address a simple fact when it comes to pro bono service.  Less than half of do-it-yourself pro bono done directly by nonprofits ever gets completed.  That is why nonprofit employees are frustrated and give up on pro bono as a resource despite the need.

    This is not just due to pro bono consultants getting distracted.  It often has to do with poor management on the client end - rather than issues with the pro bono consultants.  Managing consultants is hard, which is why you often hire firms rather than individuals.  You pay a premium for this added management at an ad agency, management consulting firm or accounting firm.  But many companies find it worth it as it brings the knowledge of the whole firm and the management layer.  This greatly increases the odds of success.

    It is wrong to say that nonprofits simply need to learn to manage pro bono on their own.  We don’t expect large companies to give up using firms, why do we expect it of nonprofits.  Not fair.

    I am a BIG Fan of Catachafire.  They have found a smart way to help nonprofits source talent for tactical work that requires very little management.  Nonprofits have a ton of needs in this area and it often isn’t worth investing in a firm approach when the project is simple and an individual consultant can do the trick.  This is ideal for projects with a single decision maker and where it is about execution and not strategy.  Catchafire not only provides screened talent for $400 per person, they help scope the work to greatly increase the odds of success.

    Taproot today is designed as a consulting firm.  We bring the management and knowledge to projects and focus mostly on projects that require internal transformation or change management. This requires a team and support given the stakes and complexity of the project.

    There is a need for a wide range of services to meet the diverse need of the sector.  Psyched to have Catachfire and Sparked help to provide an increasingly robust set of options for organizations doing work in our communities.

    Aaron Hurst
    Founder
    Taproot Foundation

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