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How To Succeed with Pro Bono Volunteers

By October 21, 2019

By: Brian Mattos, Manager, Pro Bono Programs, Salesforce and Emily Patrick, Marketing Manager, Common Impact

October 21-25 is Pro Bono Week and we’re celebrating by sharing a few tips for nonprofits looking for pro bono or skilled volunteers to help their organizations thrive.

Why work with pro bono volunteers? To build capacity and provide institutional knowledge that leads your organization toward a more efficient and impactful future! That said, managing pro bono volunteers comes with a unique set of challenges compared to traditional volunteers, who may or may not have skills in specific professional areas.

Salesforce Astro Characters standing with the words Use Your Salesforce Super Powers for Good #ProBonoHero surrounding them.
Credit: Salesforce

To Work With Skilled Volunteers, First Plan Ahead

Successful pro bono engagements must be well thought out and resourced. Before you engage a pro bono volunteer, it’s important to anticipate the overall scope and impact of the project they’ll be working on. The more preparation you can do prior to engaging the volunteer, the higher your chances of overall success.

“We’ve seen the effective use of skilled volunteers transform the way organizations think about growth, program delivery and leadership development – but it can be hard for organizations to know where to start.” – Danielle Holly, CEO of Common Impact

First, understand the needs of your organization and choose a project that will effectively further your top organizational priorities. The easiest way to understand this is to do a few informal interviews with key staff and stakeholders. These interviews are your opportunity to ask questions about their needs, requirements, and expectations for the project. Doing so will also help you to understand which pro bono engagement model is most appropriate: quick-hit support (e.g. one-on-one consultations), long-term support (e.g. multi-month projects), or ongoing support (e.g. board service).

If you know what you want, you’re more likely to get it. Projects that are well-defined and carefully vetted have a greater chance of realizing their intended impact and leading to mutually beneficial experiences that unlock the potential for repeat partnerships and long-term relationships. Document key information for future reference to help both the organization and the volunteer. Before you start your skilled volunteer engagement, formalize your partnership with a written agreement. Treating your skilled volunteer as you would a paid consultant will bring professionalism to the experience and clarify expectations for both parties. Here’s a pro bono volunteer agreement template to get you started.

Second, understand how other people at your nonprofit can support and build on the skilled volunteer’s work. While pro bono is “free” in cost, it requires other internal resource allocations to be successful. The biggest is time. The volunteer should be treated as a part of the staff for the duration of the project, have access to a manager-type contact who oversees their work, and have face time with decision makers and influencers. The better the skilled volunteer understands how your organization works, the easier it will be for him or her to adapt and engage the team during the project.

Evaluate Pro Bono Volunteer Candidates

When searching for a volunteer, take the time to find the right fit. It’s not just about who is available – skills and culture fit matter too.

To assess volunteer fit, ask yourself:

  • What skills do you have access to at your organization?
  • What skills are you looking for a volunteer to bring to the project?
  • How does your team operate?
  • What makes your office and team culture unique?
  • How do you communicate internally and with what frequency or regularity?
  • What chat or video tools is your team using, if any?
  • How does your team track projects and tasks?
  • If you want to talk with a co-worker for a few minutes, what’s the process like to set that up, and what are the expectations of each person involved?
  • How do you typically go about setting up 15 or 30-minute meetings and do those expectations change?

These questions can help you identify the “magic mix” of skills and personality traits you’re looking for in a skilled volunteer.“

Next, find your volunteer match! Whether you take advantage of the Pro Bono Program or apply through an intermediary like Capacity Commons, Taproot+, or Catchafire, there are plenty of amazing tools and platforms to find pro bono assistance. When talking with volunteer candidates, it’s important to bring up your organization’s culture and process to help ensure that the volunteer will be comfortable working in this environment.

Budget Your Time to Manage Pro Bono Volunteers

Compared to other parts of pro bono, budgeting is relatively simple. Even if a volunteer is free, you must allocate enough staff time and resources for the project to be successful. Note that it is always more than you expect, so plan for it ahead of time. Since staff are usually full-time and pro bono volunteers are usually part-time, sometimes things come up. Other projects, life, any number of things can get in the way. Make sure your timeline allows for unexpected interruptions.

Some financial costs might arise too, especially for technology-focused projects with new tools or services. Take time to plan before the volunteer arrives, review the plan once the volunteer gets started, and set up time to consistently review the working plan. Proactive and ongoing planning helps reduce unwanted surprises. Capterra has several useful budgeting templates you can use for free.

Nonprofit staff working around a table with a pro bono volunteer.

Credit: Common Impact Skills For Cities Event, Boston 2019

You may find you need to “sell” your colleagues, leadership, or Board of Directors on how pro bono will deliver value for your organization. Capacity Commons can help you make the internal business case for skills-based volunteering with support for how it will increase efficiency, build infrastructure at minimal cost, develop staff’s skills, and save money in the long-run. Check out Capacity Common’s Pro Bono Calculator to quantify the unique monetary value of your specific pro bono project. (Tip: showing the monetary value of a project compared to the expected costs will help your case when requesting resources.)

Manage the Pro Bono Volunteer Project

Once all of the above have been considered – engaging a volunteer to work on the project, agreeing on the scope of the work to be completed, creating a budget for the costs (if any) and time, and building out an accepted timeline for completion – it’s time to get started!

Work with the volunteer to identify the major tasks that need to be completed. Take that list of tasks and apply it to your timeline for project completion. By starting with the end goal in mind and then subdividing it into manageable steps or components in terms of size, duration, and responsibility, it breaks up what can sometimes seem like an overwhelming amount of work. You might also consider asking someone on your team who is PMP certified (a project management certification) to help.

It’s important to have two types of people involved in pro bono projects: individuals with a high-level view of the entire project who can oversee the work and keep it on track and individuals who can focus on specific aspects or steps to keep the project moving forward. As a general rule, no task or step should be less than 2-3 hours or more than 20 hours. This allows for meaningful division of work while also keeping the project moving forward (and everyone on the team happier). At this point, project management tools like Quip may come into play as they can help facilitate the process and enable you to better track progress and goals. Capacity Commons has even more tips for managing your project effectively, such as providing your volunteer with the right information up front, establishing frequent touchpoints and deadlines, and identifying opportunities to “skill share.”

Create an Environment of Collaboration with Skilled Volunteers

The overall success of the project is dependent on you creating space for your employees and the volunteer to share and collaborate. Fostering an environment of trust and communication ensures that everyone feels comfortable engaging. Then, when it comes time to share all the news, both good and bad, people feel more confident in providing open and honest progress updates and feedback. See Capacity Commons’ tips for creating an equitable and productive pro bono relationship that isn’t plagued by power dynamics. A great book on communications when things get tough is Crucial Conversations.

Disappointment and/or frustration is a natural part of any project. What is important is that you learn from the mistakes and grow as a team, not losing sight of your goals. Ultimately, you want to take full advantage of your staff’s knowledge of your processes and clients, as well as your volunteer’s expertise and external perspective. This is only possible when you’ve established a culture of collaboration around the project. Bottom line: Collaborate Better (and listen to this podcast from the Harvard Business Review and Heidi K. Gardner).

Eric Schultz, a Senior Product Manager at Salesforce and pro bono volunteer, shared his thoughts on collaboration and trust: “A challenge I’ve encountered is high expectations to do advanced things without the capacity to maintain it. Even if you teach something like process builder, you have to ask yourself, does the System Admin have the time to maintain it? And what’s the plan if the admin leaves?”

Thank Participants for their Work

A successful project means more impact, more effectiveness, more learning, and continued development for all those involved. It is a momentous occasion to celebrate everyone’s dedication and hard work! Before, during, and after the project, remember: recognition is an important form of gratitude for your employees involved with the project and especially for the volunteer. Make sure to include time during your project (especially if it’s a larger one) to take a break from the work and get to know one another. The more team members are invested in one another, the more invested they become in working together and delivering success. Need some inspiration? Check out this volunteer appreciation guide from Apricot or this Engaging Volunteers blog from VolunteerMatch.

Measure the Impact of Pro Bono Volunteers

As True Impact Founder & CEO Farron Levy said in an episode of Common Impact’s Pro Bono Perspectives podcast, “Measurement is a means to an end, and the end is either proving value or improving value.” Communicating outputs and outcomes demonstrates the impact of the time, money, and effort you invested into your project and can even increase your ability to secure funds for future ones. How your organization evaluates pro bono projects may be unique to your goals and capabilities, but some popular methods include surveys, interviews, focus groups, and informal group debriefs. Need guidance on how to design your evaluation? Visit Capacity Commons for support in measuring your impact or simply use their sample evaluation template for insights into how your project went.

Hand drawn figures balancing on a giant ruler

Credit: Capacity Commons

Share the Results of Your Project

When you’re done evaluating your project, don’t forget to celebrate! Share the story of your pro bono success with your full team, Board of Directors, constituents, and other stakeholders. This will generate visibility for your cause, demonstrate your commitment to capacity-building, and spotlight involved volunteers and staff. Organizations that effectively and proactively spotlight their skills-based volunteering work oftentimes receive additional funding or partnership opportunities to build upon their projects!

Hand Off Pro Bono Projects to Staff to Sustain the Work

Last but certainly not least is sustainability. From the start, you should plan for a project that, once complete, can be handed over to members of your team to maintain and build upon in the future. Documenting the process, the outcomes, and the changes made along the way might sound tedious, but it’s definitely easier than trying to do it at the end from memory. Integrating the documentation process as well as follow-up training or coaching from the volunteer is encouraged. Your team’s confidence in the results will be key to the long-term success and impact of the project.

Every volunteer is a bit different – some might continue working with your organization beyond the initial scope of the project and others may not. That is why it’s important to include these final pieces of the project from the start, so the expectations are clear for the final handoff when (not if) the volunteer exits the project.

More Resources for Pro Bono Volunteer Management

This guide won’t answer every question about your pro bono project, but it will get you on the path to success. You’ve already taken the first few steps in just reading this article. Visit reliable resources like Capacity Commons, Taproot Plus, and Catchafire and call upon the countless ones we can’t list in this article: your friends and colleagues, checkout events, and more.

Here are some additional resources that might be helpful for Salesforce-related and general pro bono projects:

Salesforce Project Resources
Salesforce Pro Bono Project Submission Form
Salesforce Volunteer Screening Checklist
Template Nonprofit-Volunteer Agreement
Security Best Practices for Salesforce Pro Bono Projects
Pro Bono Organizations Around the World

General Resources
Organizational Readiness Assessment
6 Tips to Know Your Nonprofit Is Ready for Skilled Volunteers
3 Keys to Pitching Pro Bono Opportunities for Your Nonprofit
Common Impact’s Disaster Resiliency report and pro bono project portfolio
Common Impact Study: Making Long-Term Impact Through a Day of Service (case study on the Charles Schwab Pro Bono Challenge) Pro Bono LogoLearn more about the Pro Bono program and how you can apply for support. Common Impact logoLearn more about the work that Common Impact is doing with the nonprofit and corporate sectors to champion skills-based volunteering. Capacity Commons logoLearn about the Capacity Commons platform, which is a resource for nonprofits to help design and scope their next pro bono project.