Allison Howe

Volunteering, by definition, is unpaid work. But for job-seekers, it might still be a good use of time, even if it doesn’t immediately result in much needed cash, says Allison Howe, executive director of Princeton-based Volunteer Connect.

Howe will speak at an upcoming meeting of the Professional Service Group of Mercer County on Friday, July 19, from 9:45 a.m. to noon at the Princeton Library. The meeting is free. For more information, visit www.psgofmercercounty.org.

Howe’s organization exists to connect skilled volunteers with nonprofit groups in need of specialists. This presents an opportunity for job seekers to not only keep themselves busy and mentally healthy during a job search, but to make themselves look better to potential employers. Howe cites statistics from the Corporation for National Community Service showing that volunteering is associated with a 27 percent higher chance of employment. The study found that 76 percent of HR executives reported that skilled volunteering made a candidate more valuable in their eyes, a figure that jumped up to 81 percent for college graduates.

Howe says “skilled volunteering” in this context means using specialized, professional skills to help an organization. Traditional volunteering is typically unskilled labor such as serving food at a soup kitchen or handing out water at walks, something anyone can do. “People don’t find that to be as rewarding,” Howe says. “I don’t want to take away from the importance of that, but if you’re a professional who has accumulated experience and you want to make an impact, skill-based volunteering is a way to do that.”

Examples of skill-based volunteering projects include helping a group create a marketing plan, helping them with information systems, data migration, or offering other kinds of valuable services that can help them survive in an increasingly competitive world of nonprofits.

“The impact from a financial perspective can be quite significantly more than handing out food at a food bank,” she says. “It’s also ultimately hopefully more effective at serving the people you are serving as a nonprofit — or the animals you are serving, or the environment, or whatever you serve.”

Volunteer Connect has recently made an effort to measure this financial impact by surveying the nonprofits that it helps. Among the small number of respondents so far, the impact ranged from $1,000 for one group all the way up to $35,000 for a marketing professional who created a marketing plan. “If the individual had done that in professional life, that’s how much they would have charged,” Howe says.

Skilled volunteering helps nonprofits in an area in which they are often in need of assistance. The Center for Nonprofits in New Jersey released a 2018 survey showing that 30 percent of nonprofit groups were unable to afford enough staff. “This is a way of enhancing their staff,” she says. “This is a way of extending their capacity. I think nonprofits feel they are always in this situation. It is a constant struggle of insufficient staff resources. We help to bridge that gap.”

On the other side, the desire to offer volunteer services seems to be strong, especially among younger professionals. Other studies have shown that nearly two-thirds of Generation Y employees would prefer to work in an organization that provides them the opportunity to volunteer skills.

Furthermore, those who do a project for a nonprofit through Volunteer Connect tend to continue their relationship after the project is over. “It’s really positive both for our volunteers and for the nonprofits,” Howe says. Sometimes volunteers end up joining the boards of the groups they work for.

Anyone looking for an opportunity to provide skilled volunteering services can visit www.volunteerconnectnj.org to find projects. The group also offers opportunities for board training for those more interested in leadership roles.

In addition to the satisfaction of providing much needed help, along with resume building, skilled volunteering gives job seekers the chance to make valuable connections. Howe can only offer anecdotal evidence to back, but she says that some of her volunteers have landed consulting business from people they met while volunteering.

The most highly sought-after skills among nonprofits are marketing, particularly social media and the ability to create a marketing plan and think strategically. There are also many nonprofits seeking IT skills including creating websites, data analytics, and data migration.

Howe is a relative newcomer to Volunteer Connect, having been made executive director in May. She has worked in nonprofits for 20 years, previously working for the Alzheimer’s Association and Planned Parenthood. Before that she ran assisted living facilities. She has a master’s degree in healthcare administration and business administration. She grew up in Newark, Delaware, where her father was a professor at the University of Delaware.

“I can tell you personally that I was actually in between jobs and I did a skill-based project for someone. Being able to talk about that in my interview was a particularly good thing for getting this job. I still felt like I was engaging in the work world and making an impact,” she says.

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