Volunteering Skills with Impact

Any motivation to give back to the community in some way is a good one, and any efforts made are noble and truly wonderful. However, I do think that some volunteer opportunities carry a higher capacity for impact than others.

Painting a homeless shelter, for instance, has definite worth for the folks both working at and living in the shelter, and connects perhaps first time volunteers to a different demographic than they are used to. Lots of benefit, but the labor is done by volunteers who are probably not painters by trade; it’s a fun opportunity with good results, but it doesn’t leverage volunteer skills. However, a program in which elementary school teachers provide free summer enrichment classes for low income children not only leverages existing skills, but it builds an intense connection between the volunteer and the target demographic. The teachers are engaged in hugely beneficial professional development, and the students are learning from folks who are already passionate about and seasoned with what they are doing. The impact here digs even deeper because of the human capital powering the volunteer hours.

Case in point: My uncle is an investment adviser (loyal readers, you’ve heard of him before!) who has lent a tremendous amount of time and expertise to financial coaching. For years, he has volunteered on Wednesdays at Jewish Family Services (JFS) helping individuals and families work through money issues. While anybody could theoretically provide basic counsel using the internet and some clearly-written flowcharts, a professional in the field can provide more efficient and intuitive advice of an unparalleled, nuanced quality. Skilled volunteerism builds trust with a nonprofit’s constituency, adds clout to the program’s offerings, and enhances the overall effectiveness of each session. Of course, skilled volunteerism often involves more of a time commitment than that professional has; it takes a high level of drive and integrity to prioritize this unpaid, often unrecognized work over going into the office. The way know-how translates to impact is clear though:

Much of the work of the money coach is focused on what Goldman calls “public enemy No. 1”: credit card debt. Sometimes his advice goes against instinct. For example, if a family has five credit cards with outstanding balances, he recommends not focusing on the one with the highest interest rate or the highest balance for the time being. Instead, he advises, pay off the one with the lowest interest rate or lowest balance, because that will begin a positive momentum.

(via The Money Coach, a profile about Uncle Jim in Connecticut Magazine)

I get excited when people are passionate about what they do and can share that energy with folks who can truly benefit from it. Some organizations, like Taproot, Catchafire, and United Way through BoardServe, make it a bit easier for an individual to connect their skill set to existing need. However, what I think it takes the most is initiative and the desire to do something more. My uncle was never told to show up on Wednesdays at JFS; he saw a need and opportunity for impact, and then pitched it to his employer despite workplace precedent. Not only was the pitch clearly successful, but the exceptional work he has done building the money coach program was recognized as valuable by the company, which continues to have impact in changing the way people think about and see volunteerism.

One of my best skills is connecting people; if you are someone who wants to be connected to a cause that needs your professional skills, let me know. Having the right people in the right places is really what starts to change things.

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