A look at skilled project based volunteering

New Zealand has a proud reputation as a society where volunteering, for many, has become part and parcel of life. According to Statistics New Zealand, around one third of New Zealanders undertake voluntary work for an organisation and about two thirds undertake unpaid work outside their home. That’s seriously impressive and something we should all be proud of.

Volunteering is the life blood of so many of our community and charitable organisations, but it can be difficult to find, retain and recruit volunteers. The overall number of volunteer hours are declining. The reasons, explored in Volunteering NZ’s recent ‘State of Volunteering’ report, include a time-poor population and aging volunteers. Busy lives don’t always balance when it comes to commitments of working, family and volunteering, and we seem to be busier than ever.

The landscape of volunteering is beginning to change to adapt to this new reality. The not-for-profit or charitable sector has started to think differently about how it might connect and utilise volunteers in more agile and innovative ways. This includes creating more opportunities that offer volunteers flexibility in how, when and where they volunteer.

An emerging solution to the challenge of giving volunteers the opportunity to make a difference in their communities that fits with busy modern lives, has been the evolution of project-based, episodic or micro- volunteering.

The focus of project-based volunteering is on the skills that people have to offer, rather than the time they have to give. It is focussed on delivering a specific task or project within a defined timeframe, and tends to be a ‘one-off’ commitment rather than something that is ongoing. It enables not-for-profit or community organisations to get things done, while providing a sustainable and impactful way for people to volunteer.

The challenges for many not-for-profit organisations are growing. There is greater complexity relating to financial, governance and workforce related compliance, rapidly changing ways of communicating and engaging with their target audiences for support or to offer their services, and a highly competitive landscape for funding. Often community organisations have limited resources to meet these challenges while continuing to deliver the support and services to the community that are their reason for being. Increasingly their staff are expected to be expert across many disciplines that, in a business context, would have teams of specialists to manage.

Project-based volunteering is a way of enabling not-for-profits to tap into the skill and talent of working professionals with the knowledge and expertise that they need, but who may not otherwise be able to commit to regular or long term volunteering. It provides a new way to benefit from volunteers that is focussed on gaining knowledge and building capacity to support organisations to enhance and grow their impact.

New Zealand has a huge wealth of experienced, talented and skilled professionals working in the business and corporate sector who want to be more connected to their communities or make a difference outside of their daily job. At the same time more companies are actively supporting their employees to volunteer, for example by providing staff with one or two days of paid volunteering leave. This may be a way of attracting people to work for them, building staff engagement at work or enhancing their social responsibility. Companies are also increasingly seeing the value of employees sharing skills rather than just their time, to create a bigger impact for the community.

There has been a growing trend toward ‘team volunteering days’, where a workplace team takes a day out of the office to volunteer in the community, as a way of building their team engagement while doing something positive for the environment or another area of interest to them. When the help offered is aligned to the need of a not-for-profit who has the resources to utilise the team’s contribution, this type of volunteering can provide mutual benefit to both the recipient organisation and the volunteers.

However there is a great need by not-for-profits for timely and tailored support in areas of capability that may otherwise be difficult for them to access or simply unaffordable. And even with greater encouragement and support for volunteering from employers, many paid volunteer days are going un-used.

It may be that people lack the knowledge or connections to help find a suitable opportunity, or may not feel confident about volunteering their skills. There is still work to be done to raise awareness of the benefits of skilled, project-based volunteering, to grow the opportunities available and make them easier and more efficient for both volunteers and not-for-profits to fully utilise.

Technology is one of the primary forces shaping volunteering infrastructure globally, by creating new and innovative ways for organisations and volunteers to connect. A growing number of digital platforms are using technology to reach a new generation of volunteers and make it easier and quicker to find volunteer opportunities.

Technology has also expanded the ways in which volunteers can work with organisations, such as ‘virtual’ volunteering, complimenting existing ways of sourcing volunteers locally. Digital platforms build on opportunities to work remotely and connect online, to help break down some of the barriers to volunteering such as distance, lack of information or difficulty finding volunteer opportunities. They enable not-for-profit organisations to expand their networks and find the right volunteers to fit their needs.

New Zealand has also seen a growing number of different digital platforms being developed to facilitate and grow volunteering. These have the capacity to grow the pool of potential volunteers by introducing a new generation of people to volunteering, and making it easier for community organisations to find and connect with volunteers, including meeting specific needs for professional skills and knowledge.

The founders of the Who Did You Help Today Charitable Trust identified the potential to help the community sector in New Zealand to thrive with more expertise and support from skilled and professional volunteers. They founded HelpTank in 2017 to grow project-based skilled volunteering through a digital matching service. Community organisations can get support to list and clarify their project requirements, while potential volunteers can register and be notified of opportunities meeting their skills and interests.

HelpTank provides a unique insight into the needs of the community sector, including gaining expertise to fully utilise technology, find sustainable funding, develop their strategies and build their brand and engagement through more effective use of social media and online marketing.

Project based skilled volunteering is still a new concept for many not for profits, with huge potential to continue to grow and provide transformational change for the community sector and the volunteers themselves.

Not for profits including community groups and social enterprises wanting to know more about HelpTank, can contact the team by emailing:team@helptank.nz or visiting the website www.helptank.nz.

As published in Tonic Magazine, November 2019 and written by Sarah Paterson, WDYHT Trustee and Vashi Wood, HelpTank Manager