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Making Volunteering More Popular By Making It More Relevant

Most opportunities for service involve painting schools or serving food. But many Americans have skills—accounting, design, communications—that would be incredibly valuable for nonprofits and would make their volunteering more rewarding.

Michelle Obama makes a case for service by painting--but couldn’t the former hospital executive donate more helpful skills?

The White House

Service is a fundamental pillar of American society, and its roots go back to the origins of the nation. In the mid-1800’s Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans help each other in times of need and wrote, "I must say that I have seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare, and I have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another."

This is the first post in a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

From the highest levels of government, we are encouraged to serve. In April 2009, Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, a $5.7 billion measure to expand 16-year-old AmeriCorps, a program created under President H. W. Bush in 1990. AmeriCorps was a revamp of the longstanding VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and the Civilian Conservation Corps established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. The first volunteer center was established in Minneapolis in 1919, and, way back when, Benjamin Franklin began the first volunteer firefighting company in 1736. America’s history in service is deep and continues to evolve.

This past year, the President spent a day painting a school during MLK Day, the nation’s official National Day of Service. It’s pretty cool that the President would leave the Oval Office, roll up his sleeves, and pick up a paint brush. But the president is not a painter. Wouldn’t it be better if he applied the skills he actually uses as the president (negotiation, public speaking, leadership, management, etc.) to any of our neediest nonprofits? It would probably be more impactful, too. Why, then, do we equate service to picking up a paint brush?

Last year, 26.3% of Americans volunteered, but only 1.8% of Americans volunteered their professional skills (PDF). Giving back to the community has been core to America ever since this nation was founded. But the way we serve hasn’t shifted with the way we work. While most service opportunities involve things like building houses, painting schools, or picking up trash, these activities don’t play to the strengths of the majority of Americans.

What are the consequences of this? Well, for one, there’s a huge opportunity cost. Let’s take a web developer. If a web developer decided to use the 20 hours of time he had available to volunteer this year to dish out food at the local soup kitchen, he would be counted as serving (and also literally be serving). However, if he decided instead to use the 20 hours of time he had available this year to build the local soup kitchen a basic website so that they could have an online presence and finally be able to accept web-based donations, he would not only be putting food on people’s plates today but would also be creating a stream of funding for the soup kitchen to feed even more people for years to come.

A second consequence is that many people don’t find the same satisfaction that comes from volunteering as they would if they were able to give what they are good at. Sure, not everyone wants to spend more time using their on-the-job skills on something that’s supposed to provide them with a release from work; but there is great satisfaction to be derived from seeing on-the-job skills truly impact a cause.

But it’s more fundamental than that—when people don’t have the option to volunteer in a way that draws on their strengths or their skills, when people don’t have the option to volunteer in a way that make sense to them, and when volunteering doesn’t result in an impactful outcome, people volunteer halfheartedly or they don’t volunteer at all. This is a pretty serious consequence. In fact, the volunteer rate in America over the past 10 years has dropped nearly 3%.

How do we change this? We’ve created the first scalable online pro bono service provider called Catchafire. In one year we’ve registered nearly 2,000 organizations and 10,000 professionals, but we’re nowhere near our goal, which is to make it commonplace for everyone to give what they are good at.

We need to give volunteering a make over. We need to make volunteering relevant again. Nearly 40% of Americans have white collar jobs, we make it easy for that percent of the population to volunteer their skills. There is certainly a need. The majority of nonprofits struggle to pay for basic professional services like accounting, marketing, communications, design, and technology, to name a few. In fact, 95% of nonprofits say they would like these services pro bono, but don’t know where to go to get them. If so much of the population has these skills to give away, and we’re able to convince these people to volunteer their skills, we have supply to meet this demand. I am confident that more than 1.8% of people want to volunteer their skills. We just need to give them the right opportunities.