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April 09, 2018

How to volunteer your skills and make a difference

Whatever your professional superpower, you can use it to help a non-profit organization through skill-based volunteering.

Whether you’re a photographer, engineer, copywriter or chef, your unique skills can help others as well as earn your own living.

For example, suppose you work in marketing, advertising or communications. Imagine sitting in a room with other professionals in your field and collaborating to help a charity. That’s the concept behind The Give Agency. It’s a skill-based volunteer program that connects advertising, communications and marketing professionals with charities. For one day, these volunteers form a pop-up agency that helps charities solve their business challenges and generate fresh solutions.

“Everyone has their superpower, and if you give people a chance to use theirs, they really respond to it,” says Mike Maloney, one of the co-founders of The Give Agency.

Sun Life Financial has been a sponsor of The Give Agency since 2017. “At Sun Life, we're focused on building sustainable and healthier communities for life, and what better way to do that than to lend our expertise to local charities,” says Paul Joliat, Assistant-Vice President, Philanthropy and Sponsorships at Sun Life.

A new kind of fundraising dinner

Since 2016, The Give Agency has helped charities such as Feed Nova Scotia, United Way and War Child launch new programs and campaigns. For Feed Nova Scotia, an umbrella group for food banks in the province, the Give Agency suggested a novel approach to the traditional fundraising dinner: a province-wide potluck. In 2016, rather than host a gala, Feed Nova Scotia organized Nova Scotians to hold potlucks in their homes and invite their guests to donate online. The event, called Nova Scotia’s Biggest Potluck, generated media interest and raised more than $30,000 in its first year.

“In just 2 years, our volunteers have delivered over $1 million in time, expertise and fundraising revenues for organizations like United Way, Second Harvest and Feed Nova Scotia,” says Maloney.

“[Volunteering with The Give Agency] is very stimulating,” says Nick Palmer, a creative director who has done so twice. “It gets you out of your comfort zone, and you get to network.”

In March 2018, The Give Agency met in Toronto for four days to assist four not-for-profit organizations, including JDRF Canada and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada. On the first day, volunteers generated ideas to help JDRF, an organization dedicated to raising funds for type 1 diabetes research.

By the end of the day, the volunteers had brainstormed more than 20 ideas to help the charity revamp its annual fundraising walk and leverage its partnership with spokesperson Max Domi, a National Hockey League player who lives with type 1 diabetes, a life-threatening, autoimmune disease that affects 300,000 Canadians annually.

JDRF wasn’t alone in benefiting from the event. While they were sharing their expertise, the volunteers also learned about diabetes. “For one day, we all got to become educated about an important cause like type 1 diabetes and learn more about the charity landscape in Canada,” says Palmer.

The March Give session was a particularly good fit for Sun Life, as the company is committed to helping Canadian live healthier lives, and is a proud sponsor of JDRF Canada as well as the Boys and Girls Club of Canada.

The value of skill-based volunteering

Most charities rely on communications materials and campaigns to raise money and awareness of their causes. But many don’t have the budget for a robust marketing department, and hiring external creative agencies can be pricey. That’s why skill-based volunteer programs like The Give Agency are so valuable, says Elizabeth Dove, the director of corporate citizenship at Volunteer Canada. “Skill-based volunteer programs help reduce costs, and allow staff to focus on their core roles, so they don’t get stretched thin,” says Dove.

Non-profits commonly use volunteers with skills such as:

  • marketing
  • public relations/communications
  • fundraising
  • technology
  • strategic planning/management
  • HR and leadership development

If your skills aren’t on this list, you can still help a charity make a difference in your community. Different organizations have different needs, so there’s a charity out there that you could help shine using your unique talents — whether that’s teaching art classes for seniors or whipping up something decadent in the kitchen.

“I would also encourage those looking to develop their skill to volunteer,” says Dove. For example, if you’re taking photography classes, reach out to a local charity about taking photos at its next event.

3 ways to volunteer your skills

  1. Volunteer online. Virtual volunteering lets you volunteer all over the world from wherever you live. The United Nations (UN) has a comprehensive database of virtual volunteer opportunities with UN agencies and other non-governmental organizations. Many are looking for virtual writers, translators, graphic designers and tutors.
  2. Join a skill-based volunteer program. One such is Endeavour — a Canadian charity that matches volunteer consultants with non-profits that need consultant services.
  3. Just ask. Just as not every paying job is listed online, not every volunteer opportunity is posted. If you have an idea, reach out to a charity you’re interested in and propose a plan.

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