Written by Josh Groll, Taproot Nonprofit Success Coach
Working with skilled volunteers on Taproot Projects isn’t your typical volunteer engagement. Projects require advance planning and careful selection of the right volunteer. Over Taproot’s 20+ years of facilitating partnerships between skilled volunteers and nonprofits, we’ve established 5 tips to help create an impactful experience for you and your volunteer!
1. Act like a paying client
Let’s dig into Taproot’s Golden Rule of Skills-Based Volunteering: approach Taproot Projects like you would a paid partnership with a vendor or contractor. Both parties should commit to deadlines, give direct and honest feedback, and hold each other accountable for Project goals. You, as the project leader, must hold your internal team accountable for setting up your volunteer for success. Take the prep work seriously; invest time internally before the Project to gather necessary feedback, materials, and buy-in.
Some nonprofits believe they should just accept whatever their skilled volunteer gives them. However, we’ve found that if you push for high-quality work, the volunteer rises to the occasion! The Project will affect your nonprofit’s bottom line (i.e., your mission) whether it is paid or donated.
Similarly, this Project will be part of the skilled volunteer’s work history and resume. They want to provide you with the best service possible and will appreciate actionable feedback to improve the final product. At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel as if they did great work. Holding yourself, your team, and your skilled volunteer accountable for developing a high-quality deliverable helps everyone feel motivated throughout the Project and proud of the outcome.
2. Know and define your needs
This sounds simple but can actually be more difficult than you think. Don’t rush. Take time to assess your challenges with your team. Try to look for root causes rather than just symptoms. Define the problem and then develop a proposed solution.
Your proposed Project should center around a core skill set. Sometimes, bigger initiatives require multiple skill sets, which might mean partnering with more than one skilled volunteer and multiple Projects. For example, if your organization is creating your first annual report, you might tap one volunteer to handle the graphic design and formatting and another volunteer to create the copy and key messages.
When initially designing your Project, work with your internal team to create an implementation plan for whatever end product your skilled volunteer delivers. Setting expectations on how staff members can use this product or deliverable will get people across your nonprofit excited about the Project.
Map these solutions back to your organization’s priorities. This will set you up to make a compelling and substantive pitch to a volunteer applicant. This is the cornerstone of your Project—make sure that your premise is strong!
3. Get the right resource for the right job
Vet prospective skilled volunteers like you would anyone applying to work at your organization. Ask for a resume/CV, references, and examples of prior work (if applicable). Have the volunteer sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or volunteer agreement. Some projects might require the provider to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or confidentiality agreement.
Make sure they not only have the requisite skill set but that they are a good culture fit for your organization. Do they understand your organization’s mission, vision, and programs? Are they open to co-managing this project with you? Are they open to giving and receiving direct and honest feedback? Will they be able to contribute successfully in a virtual environment?
Remember, a skilled volunteering Project is not a giveaway, it’s a partnership. You’re working on the Project together, so take the time to find the right partner.
4. Be realistic about deadlines
Be thoughtful about which Projects you choose – even small tasks can take longer than expected when working with an external party. Your volunteer will need time to learn about your organization, share updates, and receive feedback. Active communication lines between your nonprofit and the volunteer are key to success.
Skilled volunteering is rarely a good solution for urgent needs. Volunteers often have their own full-time jobs and volunteer for you after hours or on the weekends. This can lengthen rounds of review, feedback, and communication. One of the trade-offs of free support is that these partnerships usually have longer timelines.
If you have a critical need that has a hard deadline coming up or is ‘make-or-break’ for your organization, consider cultivating other avenues of support outside of skilled volunteers.
5. Learning goes both ways
You and your volunteer are experts in your own fields—embrace that! Your volunteer partner will need to learn a lot about your organization and cause area to make the project a success. Be prepared to get them up to speed! Background knowledge or issue area education that you take for granted might be new information for them.
You should also enter volunteer partnerships ready to learn. You may find that after input from a volunteer, the Project’s final product might change from what you originally envisioned. Try not to be overly prescriptive when pitching your organization’s need to a prospective volunteer. Leave room for their perspective to inform the final Project scope as there could be important details you might not know about or overlooked.
Schedule regular check-ins and create a space to both give and receive feedback. Both the nonprofit beneficiary and skilled volunteer should aim to be students and teachers!
“I have completed 2 projects with Taproot and the volunteers were exceptional! Each took the time to understand what was needed and how they could best assist us. We were able to reach more people online and discover the best way to showcase our brand. It did not hurt that they were experts in their fields. I will continue using Taproot in order to get first class free help for our small nonprofit. The value is immeasurable.” – James Richardson Jr., Executive Director, 4 Horsemen Rehabilitation Services Inc.
While every nonprofit-volunteer partnership is unique, following these 5 key principles will help you and your volunteer complete a successful Project together. And remember, if you run into any hiccups along the way, Taproot staff are here to help.