Aaron Marcovy, Director, Business Engagement, Business Volunteers Unlimited
“I mean…how many times can you say you felt like Superman…as an accountant?” This was the question a colleague asked, and I immediately replied, “Well, you do look like mild-mannered Clark Kent with those glasses on.” We had a good laugh, but I knew what he meant. We recently completed a volunteer engagement where our accounting powers had been used for the forces of good – and there was something special about doing it for the nonprofit community.
Skills-Based Volunteering – often referred to as “pro bono” – is using your professional skills to make a meaningful impact at a nonprofit.
90% of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the U.S. have a corporate volunteer program and research shows that when employees volunteer their time, they improve their work performance. Team work is improved through volunteerism when the volunteer adapts to fit the needs and expectations of a new group of people. When volunteers lend their skills, they are challenged in ways that may fit their occupational theme, but are almost certainly a variation on their typical work patterns.
The experience of volunteering itself is paramount to create a culture of volunteerism. In the case of legal pro bono work, the reasons for volunteering have long been held as “practical, tactical, and ethical.” Practical – to gain experience; tactical – to practice in a different context with potential business/marketing development opportunities; and ethical – because it is the right thing to do. Many proponents of this simple credo, warn against “pushing” or mandating this type of volunteer work. Having a good community engagement program comes down to one thing: culture. In a workplace culture where helping others in a “pro-social” way is important, volunteerism increases because the self-motivating / intrinsic value is sustainable, while the extrinsic “my boss told me to do it” still gets a job done, but not in a sustained way. It is fair to say that “iron sharpens iron” in a cultural context. A culture of volunteerism begets a culture of volunteerism.
So, how do you start? There are a few ways to start a culture of “iron sharpening iron” for your business.
Step 1: Define your Pro Bono
Are you a law firm? Accountancy? School? Factory? Identify the skills your employees have to offer, and group them accordingly. Up to 23% of the people that volunteer from within a particular industry provide professionally-related skills-based service, meeting a huge portion of the community’s needs.
Step 2: Working ≠ Volunteering. Split it Out for your Culture.
Your volunteers are not at work – and they need to know that. Consider granting your employees “volunteer time off,” or a “service day.” That plays well with the concept of Step 3, Make it Easy. Volunteers must be aware that regardless of the creature comforts or convenience that their employers might furnish, the pro bono consultant is working for another, separate organization.
Step 3: Make it Easy – Low Barriers to Volunteer Entry and Exit
Business Volunteers Unlimited does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to creating low barriers of “entry and exit” for volunteers. We work with the nonprofit to clearly define the scope of their need/project. The project scope is then shared with the volunteer. The engagement starts with clear expectations and deliverables. When you craft your program, the typical pro bono consultant wants to a) walk in; b) fill the need, and c) leave knowing they made a meaningful impact.
Step 4: Eliminate the “Helicopter Boss” Effect
It is crucial for the volunteer to feel empowered and responsible for their activities; by functioning without their typical work-world supervisor, a volunteer can embrace a pure form of work, one that has an intrinsic motivation for doing well for the benefit of the nonprofit. Supervisors and companies should facilitate … not hover. Supervisors must take an approach that encourages an autonomy-supportive “work” environment.
Step 5: Document and Celebrate
Each volunteer will have a slightly different experience, but that is part of the magic of creating a culture of volunteerism. When multiple employees engage in skills-based volunteer projects, gather the volunteers together, celebrate the work they’ve accomplished, and have them share experiences. Their peers within the group will have a frame of reference and bond over doing good.creai.
When establishing a skills-based volunteer program, a business must establish a scenario where the “iron” of a business professional and the “iron” of a nonprofit sharpens one another. At BVU, we help businesses put these programs together every day, and know when professionals are empowered, motivated, and encouraged, they walk away from those experiences feeling like a superhero.
 Boccalandro, B. (2009). Mapping Success in Employee Volunteering: The Drivers of Effectiveness for Employee Volunteering Giving Programs and Fortune 500 Performance. Boston, MA: Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.
 McKeown, Paul (2017). Pro bono: what’s in it for law students? The students’
perspective. International Journal of Clinical Legal Education, 24 (2). pp. 43-80. ISSN 1467-1069 weblink
 Parker, Stephen. (2001). ‘Why Lawyers Should Do Pro Bono Work’ Law in Context: A Socio-Legal
 Corporation for National and Community Service- Office of Research and Policy Development, 2008
 Haivas, S., Hofmans, J., & Pepermans, R. (2012). Self-determination theory as a framework for exploring the impact of the organizational context on volunteer motivation. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 41, 1195–1214