The Knitting Factor: Making Skills-Based Volunteering Work for Your Organization | npENGAGE

The Knitting Factor: Making Skills-Based Volunteering Work for Your Organization

By on Aug 7, 2018


CSR trends point to the rise of skills-based volunteerism. The 2017 CECP Giving in Numbers reports that more than 50% of companies have developed skills-based volunteer programs to support community and business goals. As an organization focused on connecting talented business professionals to impactful nonprofits with capacity and organizational needs, Common Impact is excited to see this increased appetite for pro bono service. Our experience tells us that skills-based programs hold tremendous potential for corporate volunteers and the community nonprofits they support – when done right.

We know from our nearly twenty years of practice what makes skills-based volunteer programs work best to solve even the most persistent community challenges. It’s a concept we call “The Knitting Factor”, coined in our Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Promise of Skills-Based Volunteering”.

The Knitting Factor brings together three key conditions that enable skills-based engagements between the private and nonprofit sectors to create strengthened, sustainable solutions that don’t come undone when partners part ways.

  1. A Panoramic Perspective or taking a bird’s eye view when crafting partnerships, by looking at people and organizations beyond their titles and sectors and allowing value to transcend profit. Skills-based volunteerism is a powerful resource because its value is far greater than the sum of its parts.  The skills, expertise and experiences it brings to the table direct net new resources towards solving complex social and business challenges.  In order to truly tap into that potential, we must look beyond traditional sector roles, titles, and stereotypes and create real societal value – not just profit — and think openly and creatively about the value that each partner brings to the relationship. Taking this approach to nonprofit and corporate partnerships enables an environment of trust and learning as well. Nonprofits can come to the table as authorities on their organization but with an openness to learn from their volunteer subject matter experts, while corporate partners benefit from the depth of the nonprofit’s community experience and issue knowledge.
  1. Skill Sharing is a focus on two-way talent exchange, where pro bono professionals and their companies are learning as much from the nonprofits they work with as those nonprofits learn from them. Within any successful and sustainable partnership, there needs to be an expectation of shared value, knowledge and learning.  Cross-sector partnerships need to start by squashing the notion that corporate professionals are the “experts” and nonprofits should be grateful for whatever they might receive. We need to recognize and articulate the unique value each partner brings in order to reap the full benefits of the array of skill sets, experiences, and backgrounds that might otherwise remain unnamed.One excellent example from Common Impact’s work is the skill transfer between the Center for Transforming Lives (CTL) and Fidelity Investments. CTL embarked on a website development project with our partners at Fidelity to build a more user-friendly platform. The result? Much more than just a brand new website.“[The Fidelity team] helped us understand their project methodology which made a seemingly challenging process more fun and doable for our team,” said Carol Klocek, CEO of CTL. “We’ve now adopted this process from them, and have incorporated this methodology into our broader work.”For Fidelity, the volunteers not only strengthened their existing skills, but learned new ways to approach their work. According to one of the volunteers, “The agile methodology we used on this project fits right in with allowing us to be productive and innovative.”
  1. Sticky Relationships are a commitment to building long-lasting partnerships that drive missions and business forward. For skills-based volunteering to become truly transformative, organizations need to find the “sticky” relationships that enable companies and nonprofits to drive progress on both mission and business-related goals.  How do you make this happen in practice? By grounding those partnerships in your people and facilitating an on-going and open dialogue. Nonprofit partners should provide clear feedback and communicate current and emerging needs for their organization throughout the project as pro bono service can be a potential gateway to a longer-term relationship. Companies and nonprofits that nurture a culture of pro bono lay the foundation for deep personal and professional investment in an issue area, region or cause.

Common Impact’s partner, JPMorgan Chase is dedicated to developing long-term partnerships with their grantee organizations. One of their signature initiatives in New York is a commitment to expanding young people’s access to economic opportunity in the South Bronx by connecting technical and vocational schools to key employers in New York City. JPMorgan Chase not only supports these organizations with grants, but deepens their relationship and the effectiveness of those grants through skills-based volunteering engagements that provide strategic, targeted support.

While most companies and nonprofits easily understand the potential value of these sustainable cross-sector partnerships, embarking on them in practice can be challenging, particularly if you are going it alone. Having an expert partner with extensive experience crafting and implementing skills-based volunteer programs can help your organization demystify the partnership process, one dimension at a time, and provide you with the framework, tools and stories required to knit skills-based volunteering into everyday practice – whether you work at a large company or manage an entrepreneurial nonprofit.

Join us here over the next few months as we explore each aspect of The Knitting Factor in more detail and help you understand how to maximize your pro bono service engagements, move your partnerships from transactional to transformational and fully capture the knowledge exchange that happens during successful skills-based partnerships.


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 (35)

  • Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA says:

    Nicely said! I certainly agree that all three aspects (panoramic perspective, skills-sharing and sticky relationships) must exist. Just like a “fire tetrahedron,” there must be oxygen, fuel and heat for fire to exist. In this case the three components are like a “skills-based volunteer tetrahedron.” I do see barriers to each of these that sometimes prevent one of the three components from existing, and it’s unfortunate because I believe it’s the result of CSR and Non-profit culture not being mature enough (yet).

    For example, for the panoramic perspective to exist (allowing the exploration and understanding of society value), it requires that CSR practitioners and Non-profit professionals alike, be open to thinking beyond the standard “number of volunteers, hours served, dollar value per hour, and the sum value.” But so many (including those who engage volunteers) still measure “impact” using only measurement of output alone. This only perpetuates the wrong behavior of those who engage volunteers from both CSR and Non-profits. And that behavior reinforces the idea that “more is better” to the leadership who are even further removed from the tactical level work. So, there must first be an openness to new thought, and a deliberate reeducation done to help people understand “value” beyond dollars and cents. This is very much the case for companies that traditionally don’t understand value beyond a monetary consideration. Companies must do more to either impart that knowledge to their CSR staff, or, alternatively, hire from outside their industry and from professions that understand this (ie hiring professionals with non-profit management and impact assessment backgrounds).

    You also point out something that is important (and overlaps the panoramic view), and that’s for-profit companies recognizing that they’re not the experts in every case and I agree with this. Sure, they have a specific skills or product they can deliver, but so does the non-profit they’re supporting. And often the non-profit is a subject matter expert of the critical issue they’re working to solve for in society. But, for some reason there are still many who work at for-profit companies (and even in CSR) who harbor that “non-profits should be grateful for whatever they might receive” mentality. That alone renders the recipient (non-profit or community) as a second-class citizen and reinforces actions like single-day-volunteer events that many companies participate in. Sometimes unknowingly to the detriment of those being served.

    It also fosters this idea that non-profit organizations should continue to accept services that don’t necessarily satisfy their requirements or help propel their mission. There’s a real opportunity for employees of a company to learn something new beyond a hard or soft skill. Corporate volunteers have an opportunity to become more knowledgeable about true societal needs, how to solve for them in their everyday lives, and change their own perceptions of critical issues they may have never known to exist in their own backyard. The challenge in these cases is it requires humility where it doesn’t often exist. There’s a lot of work to be done here.

    In terms of sticky relationships, there’s a great need for both parties involved to be more vulnerable. I find that on both sides (CSR and the Non-profit), there’s a wall that exists preventing honest dialogue. What I mean by that is there are hypersensitivities that exist on both sides. Just a couple examples here, CSR practitioners are in fear of being bombarded with solicitations from organizations they’ll never support, as a result, their openness is sometimes non-existent to something new. And from the non-profit side, non-profit professionals are hesitant to say “no” or appear to be ungrateful for services that don’t work for them, out of fear that by saying “no”, they’ll never be supported again by this company. There’s already a huge barrier to bridge before some organizations want to broach the idea of skills-based volunteering, or CSR practitioners being open to something that might require a commitment. And that’s just a few examples.

    All that to say, these three points need to exist, and exist more and more for skills-based volunteerism to be done the correct way as you mention.
    The only thing I would say that’s in conflict here is that I don’t believe most companies understand the value or full potential of cross-sector partnerships when it comes to skills-based volunteerism, and the benefits for their company… if that were the case there’d be less pushback or conflict from those being asked to give their time (even when there’s a business challenge that can be solved). People write about the theoretical benefits of using volunteerism to increase employee retention, employee performance, professional development, talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion, and so on… BUT, while people read this, I don’t think they believe it, otherwise they’d be more open to it. Or, they haven’t seen it work in their experience, so they write it off as not for them. Personally, I see the nexus. But I meet many who can’t connect the dots even when there’s evidence to point to.

    Again, great article! I look forward to future posts on this subject. The more the better, because it’s through this type of writing and work that the gap between non-profit organizations and for-profit companies will be bridged.

  • Carlene Johnson says:

    Really interesting stuff. I appreciate the terminology of “sticky” relationships!

  • Tatiana says:

    Interesting connection Knitting – Volunteering

  • Ann Nischke says:

    Skill sharing is essential to managing volunteers.

  • Claudia says:

    Really appreciate the skill sharing perspective, I think its something that’s often overlooked as we focus on the “traditional volunteering model” at our organizations and forget there are other ways to engage volunteers

  • Susan says:

    What volunteers bring to the table can be outside the box of their chosen career. A diverse group of people bring diverse interests and skills. Uncovering hidden talent and interest can open doors.

  • Heather says:

    I love the knitting analogy! Thanks for this article.

  • Julie Ann says:

    Looking forward to future articles, thanks!

  • Sara says:

    I have experienced several not so successful pro bono engagements so I am looking forward to the future articles.

  • Amy says:

    Louder for the people in back: Cross-sector partnerships need to start by squashing the notion that corporate professionals are the “experts” and nonprofits should be grateful for whatever they might receive.

  • Brinkley Cox says:

    I greatly believe that transparency and “sticky relationships” are what make/break a relationship with a community partner. Great article!!

  • Jenny Stephens says:

    Good article. People have a lot to share with one another and learn from each other.

  • George Buss says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. I am concerned about your bolded and underlined statement under skill sharing. “Cross-sector partnerships need to start by squashing the notion that corporate professionals are the “experts” and nonprofits should be grateful for whatever they might receive.” As a whole, you make the case that both organizations should benefit from the relationship, but I would like to hear more about what you think corporate can gain from the relationship. What value does the non-profit bring to the table? Whenever I hear the phrase “Should be grateful” it evokes a time when slaves and servants were to be thankful to their masters for the care and feeding given to them. While I would hope that Non-profit/Corporate relations could not be compared in any way, your choice of word here does echo concerns many in the field may put into words. Surely a non profit can bring something to the table more than gratitude.

  • Angie Stumpo says:

    Love this train of thought. I love volunteering at places that utilize my unique skills to better help the organization.

  • Alicia Barevich says:

    Nice! My mom teaches knitting too!

  • MK says:

    We try to do skills based assignments but it’s a work in progress.

  • Stephanie Boyce says:

    Wow this is a great article.

  • Linda Mikelson says:

    Good read – sticky relationships and knowledge sharing.

  • Barb says:

    Great information, thanks!

  • Lawrence Rush says:

    This is a good read and helpful in moving from a “traditional” volunteer program to one that incorporates skilled volunteerism.

  • Maggi says:

    Very interesting article. One of the things we have found that you might start small with a skill-sharing but end up with so much more.

  • APS says:

    I like the use of “sticky” relationships analogy. Great stuff and thanks for sharing!

  • rachel says:

    I’m interested in knowing more about how we can demonstrate to corporate partners that we have skills they could find useful. Or perhaps a list of ways the relationship goes both ways. Very useful article, thank you!

  • Jessica says:

    Sticky relationships – We have all been there. Thank you for your insight.

  • Sunshine Watson says:

    Interesting, thanks!

  • Karen Stuhlfeier says:

    I love that it’s called the Knitting Factor!That makes sense.

  • Courtney says:

    Great article and something to think about.

  • Karen says:

    I love how you knitted the three areas together!

  • Jean says:

    Interesting read. Thanks!

  • Common Impact says:

    Thank you all for your insightful comments. We are thrilled to hear that the knitting factor resonates with many of you. Some of you raised questions about skill sharing and the idea of helping nonprofits and corporate funders develop a relationship on equal footing. While all conditions in the knitting factor support this, we see the skill-sharing component as an important place to recognize the expertise from both partners and to learn from one another. Nonprofits bring tremendous knowledge around their issue area, how to best serve their clients and also what systems or processes work for their organization. Corporate partners also bring valuable skills to the table, including their passion around a community issue, functional expertise and resources. Our intent was to call out these unique perspectives and hopefully inspire nonprofits and corporate partners alike to recognize and appreciate the expertise both parties bring to a partnership. As Jerome pointed out as well, being aware of the valuable assets both groups bring to the relationships can help nonprofits feel confident in redirecting corporate support to projects where they need it most and remaining focused on their mission. Our follow-up pieces will focus on each condition of The Knitting Factor in more detail and we look forward to your feedback!

  • B.R. says:

    Excellent things to consider in planning/evaluating your volunteer programs.

  • Melissa says:

    Sticky relationships is something that I hadn’t heard of before. This is very helpful and will go a long way towards crafting our volunteer program.

  • Debra says:

    I need to find my niche for retirement

  • Christine Settles says:

    Interesting article, thanks!

  • Markella says:

    Skills-based volunteering is ESSENTIAL to our organization’s work, so this is a very valuable discussion for us!

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