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12 tips for engaging pro bono volunteers

In many nonprofit organizations, especially smaller ones, the staff are generalists: good at wearing many hats, and responding to the myriad needs of programs, clients and constituents. But imagine: What you could accomplish if you weren’t limited to the time and talent of paid staff?

All volunteers bring their skills and talents to our organizations, but when we engage pro bono volunteers we’re also asking them to bring their expertise. The term “pro bono” may conjure up attorneys and episodes of Law & Order, but today the term is used to describe any volunteer that uses their professional-level skills to solve strategic problems in an organization.

Engaging pro bono volunteers can be a great way to provide singular focus and experience on a project or problem. Do you need to evaluate the ROI of a program, investigate the options and costs associated with implementing a new donor database, or create marketing personas to focus your communications strategies? Engage a pro bono volunteer.

That’s easier said than done! The nonprofit space is full of pro bono engagement and skills-based volunteering gone wrong. How can we set our organizations up for success and tap into the power and promise of these volunteers without getting mired down in the problems?

When engaging pro bono volunteers, a little work ahead of time can make a big difference in the success of the project and the experiences of both paid and volunteer staff.

What do people think?

Not everyone may be as excited, or the see the potential, for pro bono volunteering in your organization. Determine what key stakeholders think or “believe” about pro bono volunteers. Identify “champions” and consider what information might be persuasive to others: case studies, pilot programs, etc.

Think big

How could the impact of staff members, programs, or the organization be expanded by engaging pro bono volunteers? What could you, your program, or your organization accomplish if you weren’t limited to the time and talent of paid staff? Engage your champions in these conversations. You can test your readiness to engage pro bono volunteers with this Skills Based Service Engagement Tool from Points of Light and the Taproot Foundation.

Build buy-in

Invite stakeholders (especially your champions) into the planning and screening processes. This collaborative effort can encourage even resistant stakeholders to be invested in the success of the project and pro bono volunteer engagement.

Start small

What projects best align with the needs of your organization, have the strongest champions, or the fewest barriers? New ideas, even if they’re good, can be challenging and scary. Aligning pro bono projects with organizational priorities can be a good place to start. Consider starting with a pilot program, or asking a pro bono volunteer to evaluate your current practices or programs. It’s easier to build on a smaller successful project, than to try to regroup after a larger project has failed.

Manage the scope

Starting small can be harder than it seems.  Check out resources from the Taproot Foundation like this Project Finder to determine deliverables, goals, and how challenging a project might be to launch and manage. (Stay away from the Black Diamonds if you’re a newbie!)

Know what success looks like

A pro bono volunteer will bring expertise and experience, but only your organization knows what it needs, and what will work for you. Have goals and outcomes in mind before looking for a volunteer to join your organization.

Tap into the network

Many individuals want to use their professional-level skills to help organizations. Volunteers want an opportunity to make a difference in their community—and pro bono volunteering is one of the best ways to do that. When surveyed, 79% say this very important factor in their decision (Hart Associates, 2010.)  Any skills-based opportunity posted on VolunteerMatch will reach up to 15 million prospective volunteers. Those opportunities will also automatically cross-post to LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace reaching up to another 10 million individuals who want to use their skills and experience while volunteering. There are also organizations like 1+ or Pro Bono Partnership that provide specialized professional services.

Consider the community

While individuals may want to use their skills when volunteering, many corporations have made pro bono and skills-based volunteering a cornerstone of their Employee Volunteer Programs (EVP). If you already partner with a corporation for single-day volunteering events, those companies can be a great place to start. If you’re looking to build a relationship with a corporation in your community to engage their employees as pro bono volunteers, there are a few things to consider:

  • Do the skills and experience need to be a key function of the company’s work? If you need help setting up a new accounting system, an accounting firm might be a good place to start, but most offices will have an accounting team even if their key work is something different.
  • Understand the goals and priorities of the company’s EVP. Your cause is awesome, but some companies restrict where employees can volunteer. Make sure your impact is aligned with the company’s stated goals before you make your ask.
  • Consider matching the size and structure of the company to your organization. If you’re a small grassroots organization, a local or regional company may have a better understanding of the challenges and limitations you might face.

Be picky

Consider whether a volunteer will be a good fit with the culture of your organization, not just if they have the skills and experience to do the work. Ask for professional references and examples of their work, and run background checks, if appropriate. Share your screening process with stakeholders to address any concerns, and include them in interviews to help build buy-in.

Get on the same page

Create an agreement letter or memorandum of understanding once you’ve identified the outcomes and deliverables for your project. Include a timeline, key deadlines, and evaluation points in the agreement letter. Ensure that Intellectual Property policies and Confidentiality Agreements are included with this documentation. Make sure everyone—paid and volunteer staff—knows their responsibilities and who to go to with questions.

Don’t check out

Volunteer engagement professionals are experienced in motivating and working with volunteers, but don’t assume that others in your organization have the same skills. Facilitate interactions between paid staff and pro bono volunteers. Ensure that everyone is communicating and that deadlines are being met. Even a quick 15-minute meeting can identify barriers, provide a key piece of information to keep a project moving forward, or keep stakeholders motivated.

Talk about it

Share updates, successes and even challenges within your organization and with your community. The more you share this work (even the things that didn’t go well the first time), the more this type of volunteer engagement will become part of your organization’s strategy for success.


Engaging pro bono volunteers can be challenging. Too often we encounter barriers around available resources, staff time and attitudes, and human resources management, but engaging pro bono volunteers can dramatically increase the impact of your organization. Make a plan, and get started! Find more resources and tools for getting started with pro bono volunteers on VolunteerMatch’s Learning Center.

 

Jennifer Bennett
Jennifer joined VolunteerMatch to formalize and manage the organization’s volunteer engagement program. With her breadth of experience she is well qualified to help VolunteerMatch’s community of Nonprofits better recruit and engage volunteers. She shares her knowledge with volunteer managers through the webinars found on the Learning Center, in newsletters and blog entries, and in person at conferences around the country. She serves on the Planning Committee for the Volunteer Engagement and Capacity Building tracks for the Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service. She’s a strong believer in the importance of engaging volunteers in meaningful work and was certified in Volunteer Administration in 2009, and joined the Board of the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration in 2012, and is the current Board Chair. She has also been an active volunteer all her life, and currently volunteers with Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco, and sits on the Steering Committee of the Friends of the California Academy of Sciences. She holds a B.A. from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, VA.