What Your Volunteer Program Really Needs: A Gourmet Salad Dressing

Editor’s note: In honor of VM Summit 16, which is all about corporate/ nonprofit collaboration, this series of volunteerism-related blog posts will take one topic and explain how it’s relevant to both groups. Today’s topic? Skills-based volunteering. Check out our other blog, Volunteering is CSR, for the same topic from the perspective of corporate volunteer program managers.

By Sasha Bechtler-Levin

This blog series aims to address aspects of volunteering from both a nonprofit and a corporate side. In trying to write these two posts, I was at first frustrated by how difficult it was to tease apart which pieces of skills-based volunteering I should highlight in which post. That challenge, however, is just a testament to the mutually beneficial nature of skills-based volunteering. Let’s unpack why!

Napoleon Dynomite agrees that skills are important.
That’s right, Napoleon! Skills are key.

Imagine this: Your neighbor is throwing a dinner party for some visiting family. She posts on your neighborhood bulletin that she needs to borrow some kitchen items, including a large salad bowl, three chairs, and a tablecloth. You like to be neighborly, and you have a large salad bowl, so you bring it over to her, have a quick chat, and wish her good luck with the party. That’s all fine and well–she got what she needed, you feel good for helping her, you’ve worked on your relationship– things are good!

Skilled Volunteering is Like... Salad Dressing?
Skilled volunteering is like… salad dressing?

But what if she knew that you make a delightful salad dressing? What if instead of lending her your salad bowl, you stop by to ask if she’d instead like you to prepare your signature salad dressing. She replies that she does need a salad dressing, and was going to buy one from the store (she doesn’t have time to find a good recipe, source the ingredients, and make a large enough batch). She needs a bowl too, but you’re really great at salad dressing, you like making it anyway, and the challenge of scaling up your recipe for a bigger group is an interesting new twist. You know that the dressing will be an important piece of the meal, so you spend more time than you normally would sourcing the freshest ingredients, and measuring, and mixing, and when you bring the dressing over, you’re proud of your product.

In the process, you build a closer connection with your neighbor, maybe she’ll start inviting you to her dinner parties in the future, and maybe you’ll meet some interesting people at those dinner parties. You’ve also learned to understand your recipe on a deeper level, and maybe even improved it in a way you didn’t think was possible before.

If you haven’t already figured it out, this isn’t really about salad dressing. Skills-based volunteering can be the “salad dressing” to your nonprofit’s volunteer program, AKA “dinner party”. While many people have a variety of skills to “bring to the table,” corporate volunteers can be an exceptional resource.

So why do corporate volunteers want to use their skills to volunteer in the first place?

We already know that volunteering can be, and usually is, very fulfilling. That’s sort of a baseline for us volunteers, and here at VolunteerMatch, we’re into going beyond that baseline to look at how to make the best of volunteering. In a city as vibrant as San Francisco, we’re surrounded by experts and innovators–people are doing a lot of things and many of them are very good at doing those things. Potential corporate volunteers dedicate their time and energy to careers that are also fulfilling and meaningful to them. So, using the skills of their craft/trade/profession/passion to help others is like doubling their fulfillment. Why not harness those existing skills to help those who could use that expertise–your nonprofit and its clients?

This is what skills-based volunteering looks like.

Skills-based volunteering can also have more lasting effects–when volunteering feels more like a meaningful extension of your job and less like a once-in-a-blue-moon class field trip, volunteerism becomes a more naturally integrated part of corporate life. When professionals are using their skills to complete a service project, they will likely feel more like they “own” it and less like a visitor lending a hand at something new. This kind of ownership can inspire all kinds of positive change.

Shifting towards a program that accommodates the skills-based volunteering, however, can be tricky. Even the adaptation itself can be beneficial for your organization, however, because it forces you to prioritize your needs and communicate them clearly. In the salad dressing example, the neighbor (you, the nonprofit) didn’t add “salad dressing” to the neighborhood bulletin posting because she didn’t know that anyone specialized in and was happy to provide that. The lesson here is that you must make sure to ask for a salad dressing specialist (ie: website builder, marketing genius, graphic designer extraordinaire) if that is what your dinner party (organization) needs to be a great one.

Shifting towards this kind of program requires you to know what you want, communicate that you want it, and have a conversation with companies that may have the interested and capable volunteers. These kinds of conversations mark the happy place of nonprofit and corporate collaboration that makes our collective spine here at VolunteerMatch tingle.

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Author bio: Sasha is a summer volunteer for VolunteerMatch’s marketing team. She is also a rising senior at the University of Southern California, where she’s pursuing her bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics, and law. When not volunteering, she spends her time trying to quit coffee, teaching herself to shoot film photography, and wandering San Francisco.

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