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Four steps to a killer skills-based volunteer project

Written by: Jay Cranman
Published on: Dec 19, 2017


The needs of nonprofits are as diverse as the communities they represent. At Hands On Atlanta, we ask volunteers to meet those needs every day. Some volunteers are needed to execute something essential but relatively simple: moving a mound of dirt on an urban farm, or laying a new wood floor at a community center. But what if a volunteer was able to build a financial model, develop a scheduling app, or create a fundraising video?

We’re seeing more and more volunteers using their skills for good, and more companies supporting these volunteer efforts. A quick example: This past Hands On Atlanta Day, we partnered up with 48in48, where teams from dozens of Atlanta companies (like State Farm and Delta) created 48 websites for 48 nonprofits during a 48-hour hack-a-thon.

Skills-based volunteering is proving good for everyone involved, from volunteers and nonprofits to CSR and HR departments. For anyone nodding yes to the idea, we’ve outlined a four-step process that will help you crush your next project.

Step one: Design the project.

It’s tempting to jump right in – to just start asking people for help with your bookkeeping or your social media marketing – but the first thing you need is to scope the project from start to finish. This will give everyone clear-cut expectations, and a realistic perspective on what it’s going to take. Take a deep breath, and write down the answers to these questions:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?

  • What deliverables and outcomes do you expect?

  • How long and how many people will it take?  (It’s ok to estimate here.)

  • Are there specific tools or resources required?  

  • Who will be the project manager and executive sponsor?

Include as much detail as possible: You can’t over-communicate these points, especially when asking for or offering help. Clear expectations are a must!

Step two: Find the right volunteers.

Now that you know the ins and outs of the project, you’ll need to determine who can help. Is this an individual volunteer (such as yourself) working for a few hours, or a team you might lead over several weeks? Here are a few nuggets to chew on, when thinking of where to look:

  • Skills-based work can come from professional service firms or large corporations that assign employees to volunteer projects as part of a formal CSR program or simply to help build skills and portfolios.

  • Many colleges and universities offer “consulting” opportunities for talented students, who typically tackle large, semester-long projects for nonprofits.

  • Meetups and conferences can be ripe for the picking. Need a graphic designer to mock up a new logo? Hundreds of creatives attend monthly meetups like CreativeMornings. Go, and be a part of the conversation!

Don’t forget to make the ask! It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but if you’ve put time into these first two steps, you’re ready. Be proactive and don’t wait.

Step three: Manage it all.

Now that you’ve got your plan laid out and the best volunteers for the job, you’ll need to drive the project to the end zone with proactive management techniques. Some of the most vital:

  • Clear channels of communication. Be flexible, and use the tools that are most convenient for your volunteer. (Yes, you might need to finally learn how to use Slack, Asana, or other collaboration tools!)  

  • Over-communicating everything. (Yes, we’ve already said it, but it also bears over-communicating.)

  • Clear guidelines, set up-front, including start and end dates, specific deliverables, etc.  (But be ready to course correct or pivot as your understanding of the project evolves.)

  • Readiness to help. You have context and info that will be needed, and being available to share it will pay off.

Step four: High fives!

Recognize those helping you wherever you can. Show them your gratitude and make sure they know the impact they’ve created for the organization and those it serves. Some effective ways that go beyond a face-to-face thank-you:

  • Share your thanks on social media or in a newsletter.

  • Tell their boss what a great job they’ve done.

  • If they have a feedback survey, fill it out thoughtfully – and consider giving them a survey to fill out about you. In addition to helping you do better the next time, it shows you value their thoughts on the process.

Follow this four-step process, and you’ll be on your way to skills-based volunteer stardom. For those in the area, Hands On Atlanta is here to assist: Our team of service nerds designs skills-based projects for nonprofits and companies every day of the year. So start today, tackle each step carefully, and let us know what we can do to help!

Jay Cranman is President and CEO of Hands On Atlanta, which tackles greater Atlanta's most pressing needs by igniting a passion for service and creating lifelong community volunteers.