The Knitting Factor: Making Skills-Based Volunteering Work for Your Organization

August 7, 2018 Danielle Holly

CSR trends point to the rise of skills-based volunteerism. The 2017 CECP Giving in Numbers reports that more than 50% of companies have developed skills-based volunteer programs to support community and business goals. As an organization focused on connecting talented business professionals to impactful nonprofits with capacity and organizational needs, Common Impact is excited to see this increased appetite for pro bono service. Our experience tells us that skills-based programs hold tremendous potential for corporate volunteers and the community nonprofits they support – when done right.

We know from our nearly twenty years of practice what makes skills-based volunteer programs work best to solve even the most persistent community challenges. It’s a concept we call “The Knitting Factor”, coined in our Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Promise of Skills-Based Volunteering”.

The Knitting Factor brings together three key conditions that enable skills-based engagements between the private and nonprofit sectors to create strengthened, sustainable solutions that don’t come undone when partners part ways.

  1. A Panoramic Perspective or taking a bird’s eye view when crafting partnerships, by looking at people and organizations beyond their titles and sectors and allowing value to transcend profit. Skills-based volunteerism is a powerful resource because its value is far greater than the sum of its parts.  The skills, expertise and experiences it brings to the table direct net new resources towards solving complex social and business challenges.  In order to truly tap into that potential, we must look beyond traditional sector roles, titles, and stereotypes and create real societal value – not just profit — and think openly and creatively about the value that each partner brings to the relationship. Taking this approach to nonprofit and corporate partnerships enables an environment of trust and learning as well. Nonprofits can come to the table as authorities on their organization but with an openness to learn from their volunteer subject matter experts, while corporate partners benefit from the depth of the nonprofit’s community experience and issue knowledge.
  1. Skill Sharing is a focus on two-way talent exchange, where pro bono professionals and their companies are learning as much from the nonprofits they work with as those nonprofits learn from them. Within any successful and sustainable partnership, there needs to be an expectation of shared value, knowledge and learning.  Cross-sector partnerships need to start by squashing the notion that corporate professionals are the “experts” and nonprofits should be grateful for whatever they might receive. We need to recognize and articulate the unique value each partner brings in order to reap the full benefits of the array of skill sets, experiences, and backgrounds that might otherwise remain unnamed.One excellent example from Common Impact’s work is the skill transfer between the Center for Transforming Lives (CTL) and Fidelity Investments. CTL embarked on a website development project with our partners at Fidelity to build a more user-friendly platform. The result? Much more than just a brand new website.

    “[The Fidelity team] helped us understand their project methodology which made a seemingly challenging process more fun and doable for our team,” said Carol Klocek, CEO of CTL. “We’ve now adopted this process from them, and have incorporated this methodology into our broader work.”

    For Fidelity, the volunteers not only strengthened their existing skills, but learned new ways to approach their work. According to one of the volunteers, “The agile methodology we used on this project fits right in with allowing us to be productive and innovative.”

  1. Sticky Relationships are a commitment to building long-lasting partnerships that drive missions and business forward. For skills-based volunteering to become truly transformative, organizations need to find the “sticky” relationships that enable companies and nonprofits to drive progress on both mission and business-related goals.  How do you make this happen in practice? By grounding those partnerships in your people and facilitating an on-going and open dialogue. Nonprofit partners should provide clear feedback and communicate current and emerging needs for their organization throughout the project as pro bono service can be a potential gateway to a longer-term relationship. Companies and nonprofits that nurture a culture of pro bono lay the foundation for deep personal and professional investment in an issue area, region or cause.

Common Impact’s partner, JPMorgan Chase is dedicated to developing long-term partnerships with their grantee organizations. One of their signature initiatives in New York is a commitment to expanding young people’s access to economic opportunity in the South Bronx by connecting technical and vocational schools to key employers in New York City. JPMorgan Chase not only supports these organizations with grants, but deepens their relationship and the effectiveness of those grants through skills-based volunteering engagements that provide strategic, targeted support.

While most companies and nonprofits easily understand the potential value of these sustainable cross-sector partnerships, embarking on them in practice can be challenging, particularly if you are going it alone. Having an expert partner with extensive experience crafting and implementing skills-based volunteer programs can help your organization demystify the partnership process, one dimension at a time, and provide you with the framework, tools and stories required to knit skills-based volunteering into everyday practice – whether you work at a large company or manage an entrepreneurial nonprofit.

Join us here over the next few months as we explore each aspect of The Knitting Factor in more detail and help you understand how to maximize your pro bono service engagements, move your partnerships from transactional to transformational and fully capture the knowledge exchange that happens during successful skills-based partnerships.

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