Capacity Commons: A New Tool for Pro Bono Support | npENGAGE

Capacity Commons: A New Tool for Pro Bono Support

By on Jun 28, 2019


Those of us who work in the nonprofit sector know that the capacity gap is real. While more than 1.5 million nonprofits across the U.S. make up 10% of the national workforce and 5.5% of GDP, these organizations are often faced with investment shortfalls for their infrastructure. Unlike the private and public sectors, the social sector does not have a specific revenue stream attached to capacity building, limiting an organization’s ability to invest in critical functions like IT, HR, marketing or strategic planning.

Skills-based volunteerism can help to address this gap and is quickly becoming a volunteer trend. More than 4 million professionals have virtually raised their hand to become skilled volunteers via LinkedIn, and the New York Times reports that volunteer platforms are showing double to triple digit increases in engaged citizens. This is great news for nonprofits as effective skills-based volunteerism can amplify investments in key nonprofit infrastructure needs 7:1, based on the Independent Sector’s value of a skilled volunteer hour compared to traditional direct service volunteering.

Common Impact research indicates that 90% of nonprofits report needing more volunteer support and more than 72% believe that they could increase their impact through skills-based volunteers. However, many nonprofits still struggle to access effective pro bono resources and integrate skills-based volunteerism as a strategic, sustainable resource for their organization. When asked why, most nonprofits report that they find it difficult to access or quantify the value of pro bono resources and that this work is often deprioritized by their board and staff. So, capacity building at nonprofits suffers not only from a funding gap, but also a knowledge gap.

It was addressing this lack of access to pro bono resources and know-how that inspired Common Impact to draw on our own experience creating and implementing skills-based volunteer programs to develop Capacity Commons, a one-stop shop for skills-based volunteerism. This new, free online platform provides organizations with resources, interactive tools and a network to help them understand how pro bono service can best support their work, design and implement a skilled volunteer project, and measure the immediate and long-term impact of this work.

Capacity Commons makes learning about and engaging in pro bono projects easier for organizations of all shapes and sizes. The platform allows nonprofits at any level of experience with pro bono support to plug into tools and resources that can help them connect to volunteers, measure the impact of a past project or work step-by-step through our recommended process to scope, implement and evaluate a successful volunteer engagement.

Capacity Commons helps users:

  • Learn about skills-based volunteering and how to apply a volunteer’s business talents to capacity challenges within a social sector organization. As interest in skilled volunteerism grows, this important step in the pro bono process can help an organization find the best ways to engage business volunteers in their work.

Tip: Pro bono enables you to tap into external specialist knowledge without hiring a new employee or contracting out. 

  • Prepare the organization for pro bono support by understanding how to engage the board, leadership and staff in this work. Organizational preparedness is a critical component to a successful skills-based volunteer project. The online tool will walk an organization through questions about strategy, leadership and funding to help staff determine the right time to engage in pro bono work, as well as provide resources to help prepare for skilled volunteers – immediately or to support future work.

Tip: The most successful organizations have strong executive leadership, a proven theory of change, established relationship-building practices, and a commitment to building their capacity to serve.

Read more on this topic: 6 Tips to Know Your Nonprofit Is Ready for Skilled Volunteers

  • Scope a skilled volunteer project that will produce the results the organization needs and help recruit the best volunteer for the job. Carefully scoping a pro bono project is important for both the volunteer and the organization. Scope creep and shifting priorities can easily derail a skills-based volunteer engagement. Project scoping templates and resources available on Capacity Commons can help avoid frustration and guide an organization to a right-sized project and just the right volunteer.

Tip: Even when services are provided pro bono and free of charge, they still require a significant investment of staff time and effort. For this investment to pay off, it is important to identify a project that will effectively further your top organizational priorities.

  • Source volunteers through a variety of channels like LinkedIn or TapRoot Plus, all online resources that can help organizations find individual volunteers interested in sharing their expertise. This is especially important for rural organizations, which often have trouble finding skilled volunteers outside of business hubs.

Tip: If your project requires a focused set of skills (e.g. PR Strategy) it will be easily accomplished by one qualified volunteer. If you need a wider range of skills (e.g. PR Strategy, Digital Marketing, Website Development), consider working with a team of volunteers.

  • Implement a project with help from volunteer and project management tools
    and templates. Tools available in this section will help guide an organization through the project management process and support a staff member in developing or flexing their project management skills.

Tip: Before beginning a skilled volunteer engagement, we recommend formalizing your partnership with a written agreement. Treating your skilled volunteer as you would a paid consultant will bring a professionalism to the experience and clarify expectations for both parties.

  • Evaluate and measure results for both the short and long-term impact of a skilled volunteer project. Understanding and communicating the impact of a pro bono project can help to solidify partnerships and ensure on-going volunteer support for your organization.

Tip: The most effective impact stories include the market value of the project deliverable, the ways the deliverable has or will advance your mission, and the relationships built with volunteers or corporate partners.

  • Repeat the process as needed to continue to build skills-based volunteerism as an important organizational resource. When done well, pro bono can be a sustainable and effective resource to help build social sector capacity. Our hope is the Capacity Commons enables organizations to build experience with skilled volunteers, making engaging pro bono services easier and more frequent.

Tip: Organizations that view pro bono as an ongoing resource, akin to staffing or funds, build pro bono into their annual planning processes and their organizational toolbox.

We are excited about this new resource, which was developed in partnership with service leaders like Charles Schwab, Points of Light, United Way, Pyxera Global, Taproot Foundation, Createathon and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. We hope Capacity Commons will not only encourage more nonprofits to leverage skilled volunteers, but also help to institutionalize this effective model of partnership and volunteer support.

We are excited to hear about your biggest pro bono challenges and learn from your experiences with our new tools and resource. Please visit and share your comments with our team so we can continually improve the platform and, together, build capacity for the social sector.

Capacity Commons is a new one-stop shop for skills-based volunteerism. Nonprofits are encouraged to visit the site at to access tools and resources to guide them through a successful pro bono project.



Danielle Holly is CEO of Common Impact, an organization that designs programs that direct companies most strategic philanthropic asset – their people – to the seemingly intractable social challenges they’re best positioned to address. Danielle has supported hundreds of nonprofit organizations on positioning and branding strategies to more effectively scale their models of social impact.  In addition, Danielle has helped numerous corporations navigate the new era in corporate social responsibility and skills-based volunteering, including global powerhouses JPMorgan Chase, Charles Schwab, Marriott International, and Fidelity Investments. She is a contributing writer for Nonprofit Quarterly on strategic corporate engagement.  She is a member of the NationSwell Council, and has served on the Board of Directors for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and Net Impact NYC. You can reach her via email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @dholly8.

Comments (11)

  • Amy Dana says:

    Forwarding this to our volunteer manager right now!

  • Jen Donlevie says:

    Very interesting article. I will definitely go check out as we use many volunteers and are always looking for new options. Thanks for this post.

  • Sage says:

    Totally forwarding this – what an amazing resource!

  • Erica Wilkinson says:

    This was helpful for me to be able to see both sides of the volunteerism coin. With a foot in the legal world and a foot in the nonprofit world, it’s sometimes difficult to see pro bono as something other than a means to an end. This article helps to put it in perspective.

  • Susie says:

    Thank you! Prior to reading this article I didn’t know there were skilled volunteers that we available to rural\nonprofits such as my organization.

  • Alicia Barevich says:

    Skills-based volunteering is so critical, both for the volunteer and the organization! It’s in one way or another directly how I got hired at every “real” job I’ve ever had!

  • Karen says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights, Danielle. Where I work, there is not as great of a need for volunteers, but I used to work at an organization that focused on volunteers and capacity. Your input is appreciated.

  • Jeff says:

    Thank you for sharing, Danielle. As we are in education, we have built in volunteers, but I can see where this would be needed in other areas!

  • Claudia says:

    We are moving towards skills based volunteering, great article.

  • Sarah says:

    This is the ideal, would love to be able to incorporate more skills based volunteering in our org!

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