Volunteer Talent + Time Tracking: Skills-Based Volunteerism Made Smarter

Talent and Time Tracking for Volunteer Impact

Guest post by Ben Bisbee and Kathy Wisniewski

Welcome to part two of our “Volunteer Talent + Time Tracking” blog series. If you remember at the beginning of part one, we talked about how volunteerism began to formalize with Benjamin Franklin’s volunteer firehouse. But let’s look a little deeper at that model for a moment.

Did you know on average it takes 2-3 years of planning and training to become a firefighter? Volunteer or paid, the position requires about 24 months of fire academy training and over 200 hours of EMT training to qualify for duty. That’s quite the skill-building and skills-based experience. This means that, while we often think of “skills-based” volunteers (SBVs) as something relatively new, if you look historically and closely at the industry, SBVs have been around almost as long as volunteerism itself!

As part two of a three-part series, volunteer thought leaders Ben Bisbee and Kathy Wisniewski are continuing the introduction of their talent + time tracking model and using it to showcase one of the biggest buzz-issues facing nonprofits: planning for and engaging SBVs and pro bono volunteers. You’ll see how leveraging a talent + time tracking model powerfully supports the design of a skills-based program and how to use it to recruit, track, and retain contemporary SBVs and pro bono volunteers for your organization with unparalleled success.  

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Part Two

Sometimes it’s hard to think about tracking volunteer contributions with time and talent when you don’t really have the time to spend thinking about the talent equation of volunteerism.

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.” —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This is one of our favorite quotes about volunteerism, but it’s also sometimes a less-than-kind reinforcement to one of the nonprofit industry’s more negative attributes: mindlessly considering volunteers as a kind of organizational widget.

If you don’t know, a “widget” is a small gadget or mechanical device, especially one whose name is unknown or unspecified that makes things happen more effectively. Remember all of those word problems you had in middle school math and how they often revolved around widget factories? Why do you think the word problem writers (does that job really exist?) used widgets as the variable? Because they were unknown and unspecified; much like a thingamabob or a doohickey. This is the same idea, only more formal. And if you really think about it, widgets are important, often essential pieces of a machine, but they go unnamed or relatively unknown because they could be anything and they can often be interchangeable.

Kind of like how the industry tends to think about volunteerism. Important, but interchangeable.

Ouch! We know…

But this blog post isn’t about making us feel guilty or to address the plight of our unintentional behaviors toward volunteers or how to fix those issues (that’s for part three!). No, part two is about how the idea of volunteers as widgets often prohibits us from thinking about SBVs as we should: as dynamic and skilled volunteers who can serve to move us forward, not just help to carry us along. Sort of like how widgets in word problems actually serve to deepen our knowledge of the mathematical concept at hand.

And the secret to this revelation? You guessed it: talent + time tracking.

Ok, so we’ve already convinced you in part one that talent + time tracking is not only good tracking, but lucrative tracking. You now know you can look at your volunteers within a spectrum of specialized skills and how those specialized roles can be leveraged against fundraising targets, grants, and financial offsets.

Now let’s go a level deeper. Let’s talk about how this model can help target organizational needs and then help to design a program model that allows you to promote, recruit, retain, and leverage highly skilled volunteers that advances your mission and vision.

No really. Are you ready? Here we go…

Why does it often seem so difficult to think about the management of SBVs? We think it’s because we’ve over-complicated the idea by not actually focusing on the obvious: skilled people want to offer their talents for free.

Stop and think about that for a moment. What if we took out the “for free” part? Skilled people want to offer their talents. How else do we engage these kinds of individuals? We hire or contract them. And in order to do so, we look at our organizational needs such as technology support, fundraising design, executive coaching, supply chain management and so forth, and build formal full- or part-time positions or contractor/consultant roles.

We then take these needed roles and develop job descriptions, objectives, and goals. We assign managers and timelines. From there, we establish orientations, trainings, and evaluations processes, and in some cases, finite or end expectations. And then we recruit, interview, confirm, and place the chosen individuals into these created roles.

Why? Because that’s what’s necessary to make these positions effective and successful. And in doing so, we have convinced ourselves that only paid positions are worthy, that the financial investment in staff or paid individuals is implicit, while financial investments for volunteers are burdensome.

This is so true, in fact, that when skilled volunteers present themselves to us as passionate, interested, and willing individuals, we find ourselves suspicious of their offerings. After all, they could and should be paid for this work elsewhere, so why are they offering their skills to us for free? And ultimately, we begin to feel conflicted and anxious about how to best engage SBVs, because essentially, they are blurring the lines we hold on to so closely with a death grip.

So let’s start thinking differently.

To us, the collection of paid vs. unpaid labor is far too limiting. We like to think of the entire human-driven organizational labor umbrella as “Human Capital”: a collection of individuals representing all the knowledge, talents, skills, abilities, experience, intelligence, training, judgment, and wisdom of your organization. Your organization’s human capital showcases the capacity of your people — paid or unpaid, contracted or volunteering, employed or with term limits, representing a form of wealth which can be directed to accomplish the goals of your organization in every aspect of need.

At its core, Human Capital models are about talent and time, so your trick is to figure out the best ways to track it, and then make sense of whether it should be a paid or unpaid role. To do this, we’d like to introduce the IDEA model of talent + time tracking for Human Capital:

  • Identify the Need: What are you trying to accomplish within your organization — what are the needs, outcomes, and goals?
  • Define the Role: What is necessary within the role and its design? How will this person be expected to fulfill the needs, outcomes, and goals within a position?
  • Explore the Possibilities: once you have designed the role, how can it be fulfilled? By a paid staff member? A contractor? A board position? A volunteer?
  • Attract the Talent: Now it’s time to promote the role within the correct circles of interest such as online recruiting portals, corporate skills-based volunteer forums, and/or with organizations like VolunteerMatch.

Identifying, creating, and filling roles are not new to most of us, but let’s take a closer look at “E, which stands for Explore the Possibilities”. Human Capital models take more than just a new way of thinking into account, they also take potential coordination, collaboration with your HR department, and education and buy-in with your leadership and team. As we talked about with time + talent tracking, this is about identifying a spectrum of specialized skills. Except now, it’s time to leverage that spectrum for future staffing and placement needs.

Oh no, collaboration?!

Yes, but in the best ways possible! Your HR team has to find talented individuals who can fulfill a variety of full-time, part-time, contracted, and consulting roles. And likewise, you have a pipeline of talented individuals who can fulfill a variety of roles — but who are willing to do this for free. This kind of inter-organizational collaboration offers a wealth of amazing side-effects:

  • Creates organizational synergy: Creating streamlined position descriptions across all needs is smart and savvy and allows you to develop unified orientations, departmental trainings, and shared management roles in new and powerful ways.
  • Saves your organization money: One of the first areas you can save money on is with contractors and part-time roles, two roles that are often limited in scope, finite, and ripe for SBVs.
  • Develops organizational empathy: Organizations that invest in Human Capital models are able to thrive outside of silos and barriers, offering a fresh and balanced way of meeting organizational needs with a variety of stakeholders. It creates a culture that fosters networks of people who care deeply about the organization and how they can be their best selves in any role they are interested and suited for fulfilling.

Talent, check ✔️. But what about time?

Supporting a new organizational position with SBVs instead of a paid position such as a staff member, contractor, or consultant means you need to consider time devotion and timelines differently. Thinking about roles as full- or part-time or with a limited contract has a massive time-related impact on the role, its goals, and intended outcome. So, when you’re “E — Exploring the Possibilities”, this needs to be addressed based on the type of individual you want to explore helming the role.

We wish there was an easy mathematical equation to support best practices on defining the time commitment of SBV roles, but that is as varied as the positions themselves and will be different in each case. As you know, the national average value of a volunteer’s time changes from year to year, so the roles you design need to be true to its needs and reflective of a volunteer’s involvement.

For example, if a role demands 40 hours a week, for ever-and-ever, then a paid, full-time position is ideal and would make for a difficult SBV position. However, if the role is more limited in scope, short-term skilled, of a consulting nature, or could be broken into several roles or efforts, the timelines associated with the role are far more flexible and variable and would make for a successful SBV role.

Overall, our advice is to think creatively with an eye toward flexibility when addressing and filling organizational roles. If you are in a position where you can exchange the time it takes to complete a project in order to save on the financial output, that’s perfect for SBV opportunities. This idea of exchanging time for talent is a game changer. Remember in part one when we suggested that tracking volunteer time in just hours and numbers is a little insane? This is also why. It prohibits you from thinking about the level and depth of talent your organization can support. It also tricks you into thinking time is money, when in reality, talent is money.

Final thoughts for Part Two

The topic of SBVs is not going anywhere — and that’s a really good thing! There are people who want to offer their time and talents for the good of our organizations for free. The trick is to develop a model that welcomes and smartly leverages these individuals within a larger framework of what it means to contribute to your organization’s day-to-day operations. A Human Capital model does this for everyone — paid and unpaid alike.

But this takes collaboration across your organization and a fresh way of thinking. Thinking about your organizational “workforce” as a spectrum is a skill. That skill takes a variety of new ideas, invested stakeholders and some healthy planning. But the outcome is rich and dynamic, saves your organization money and makes you a stronger, more empathetic organization. Things we all want. Things a time + talent tracking mindset can provide.

Next week with Part Three?

In our final blog of the time + talent tracking blog series, we’re going to inspire you to continue collaborating and thinking differently, this time, concerning your volunteer recruitment, retention, communications, and stewardship efforts.  

Have a thought to add? Please share it with us in the comments section below.


About the authors:

Ben Bisbee is founder + principal at Rhinocorn Consulting, focused on helping nonprofits to advance and design new strategies for successful fundraising, volunteer, engagement, partnership and CSR programs. Ben lives in NE Ohio and is married to his husband of 14yrs.

Kathy Wisniewski, CVA, is the Administrative Services Officer for the Histiocytosis Association and has spent most of her career in volunteer program design and management.  Kathy lives in NJ with her husband of 7 years.

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