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

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.

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.

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  • Sandra Foster

    I am not sure who made the unfortunate ignorant comment about the use of the First Lady's skills when it comes to service. It was indeed an uninformed comment. She and Dr. Jill Biden have used their education, intellect, skills and access to resources to place an unprecedented infrastructure of support for military families. (the United We Serve Program) Some of its offerings were shared with the American people during the President's State of the Union speech.

    It is time for us all to grow up! Regardless of our political party  alignments. Let's be proud of what is being done well! Enough cynicism! 

    God please continue bless America! We need you!

  • sydbarrett74


    The article contains a factual inaccuracy re: AmeriCorps. According to Wikipedia, 'AmeriCorps is a U.S. federal government program that was created under President Bill Clinton by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993[1] and later expanded by 50 percent under President George W. Bush.' Wikipedia isn't 100% authoritative, but other sources back up the Wikipedia article's information.

  • Rachael Chong

    Hi Victor,

    I stand corrected. You are right -- the facts according to AmeriCorps website itself says, "The 1990s saw a resurgence of national service. In 1990, President
    George H. Bush developed the Commission on National and Community
    Service. With the signing of the National Community Service Trust Act in
    1993, President William Clinton expanded national service to create
    AmeriCorps. The programs merged to create AmeriCorps VISTA." Source: http://www.americorps.gov/abou...


  • Vuyelwa Mantyi

    This resonates so deeply with me. I sought out an NGO last year to provide my digital marketing skills and while watching the Social Good Summit thought of facilitating the same thing for other professionals, the thought had barely left my mind when you came on. I felt an affirmation of that idea and 2012 is the year for it. Cathafire does great work!  

  • Vantage Point

    Great post Rachel. We at Vantage Point have long been
    talking about this disconnect between the volunteer roles people want to engage
    in (heads-based) and the roles that organizations create for volunteers
    (hands-based). Not-for-profits that are able to provide meaningful
    opportunities, and demonstrate how investment of skill makes an impact, will find
    they have access to an unlimited pool of talent.  We’ve been working at this paradigm shift for
    so long now that we’ve actually stopped using the word volunteer (because it
    remains a traditional concept for most people). Instead we use the term
    “knowledge philanthropist” or “external talent”.

    One thing I’d like to add to the conversation is that it’s
    important to distinguish between asking people to contribute their skills vs.
    asking them to do exactly what they do in their day job. In response to
    Anthony’s comment below, I always ask people: “what do you love to do?” before
    I ask “what are you good at?”. The key to engaging and motivating external
    talent is to match people with projects and opportunities that combine their
    skills AND elements that are interesting, challenging or a learning opportunity. 

  • Anthonywestenberg

    When I heard Michael Porter pitch this notion of lending ones core competencies to a room full of Europeans accountants, the guy next to me said: "I'm a bean counter all day long. I'd much rather donate my free time picking up litter on a beach. This is way less teadious and more interactive." 
    For so many reasons, from health to socialization, I don't think we always need to be lending our core skills. Maybe sometimes we just want to plant a tree.  

  • Janice Flahiff

    On a related note...

    a great way for those with computer/social media skills to volunteeer...in connecting folks before crises occur

    TEDxRC2 (Yes, a "TED" video) - Heather Blanchard - Meet the Digital Humanitarians***
    .Heather Blanchard is a social entrepreneur, who works on the front lines of the online crisis crowd by connecting people, tools and resources via the virtual technology network she helped create, called Crisis Commons

     Based on the idea that "everyone has something to give," whether it's a skill, an idea or language, Blanchard explores the growing role of the digital humanitarian community and how they connect to traditional response systems in preparing for, responding to and preventing crises and disasters. At the end of her talk, Heather highlights partners, including the National Library of Medicine, who are working together on projects that connect people and tools.


    The National Library of Medicine has a Disaster Outreach page 
    where one can look up current projects,collaborations, and parternships;  download free emergency response tools; link to training resources; and more

    (From a an email I rec'd today from the Disaster Outreach Listserv (US National Library of Medicine)

  • Janice Flahiff

    Thank you! this really resonates with me. As a medical librarian of 11+ years it is not easy to find a place to volunteer utilizing many of my skills. Will be starting  volunteering this month at the local Area Office on Aging office, working with clients in areas of information and referral and advocacy...much in line with my skills. I lucked out...the director told me in the interview that she makes sure volunteers are matched with their skills and with what they want to do.She says seniors are capable of doing much more than stuffing envelopes.