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Originally published May 13, 2009 at 11:41 AM | Page modified May 13, 2009 at 2:27 PM

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Companies can contribute skills, if not cash, to nonprofits in recession

When companies find themselves having to reconfigure their charitable contributions because of the recession, guest columnist Pete Shimer suggests stepping up with volunteering skills, such as fundraising or executive search.

Special to The Times

IN the world of corporate philanthropy, cash has long been king. However, at a time when charitable cash contributions are being squeezed, when 76 percent of corporate donors acknowledge they must adjust their giving strategies, and when there is renewed emphasis on volunteerism, this one-track "show me the money" approach is untenable.

The survival of many of King County's 12,663 nonprofit organizations hangs in the balance. Yet, few corporate donors and nonprofits are thinking of skilled volunteerism as a valuable currency to complement existing philanthropy and help offset declines in giving.

It's time to expand the traditional definition of corporate giving, to encompass what many business leaders consider their most valuable asset: the skills of their employees.

According to the 2009 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey, 95 percent of nonprofits need more skilled volunteer support. And while 78 percent of corporations agree their employees' skills would be valuable to nonprofit organizations, only 50 percent offer skilled support.

The need for cash, of course, is legitimate and undeniable. However, with corporate donations on the decline, the need to hasten the adoption of skilled volunteering as a complementary giving strategy has never been more urgent. Consider this: Nearly 40 percent of nonprofits will spend upward of $50,000 for outside business consultants in 2009. If they secured skilled volunteering support instead, they could free up those funds for other uses. That's the beauty of skilled services; the money goes further.

Examples of the positive impact skilled volunteers can have is the work Deloitte Seattle has done to provide pro bono services around business case development to two local arts organizations that were considering a merger. Deloitte's professionals also lend their governance and strategic planning skills to local nonprofit boards, such as the work currently being done with the Seattle Foundation to help it identify and select a new CEO. And, skilled volunteers can also have a big impact on individuals in need.

For the past few years Deloitte Seattle has sent audit, tax and enterprise-risk-services professionals to volunteer as advisers to high-school students and help them learn more about business and the accounting profession during Washington Business Week (www.wbw.org), a weeklong "camp" that helps prepare high-school students to successfully enter the work force by giving them the skills, confidence and values to succeed in life.

So why the slow adoption of this type of volunteering? One likely reason is that both sides cite significant barriers to the effective giving and getting of skilled support, given its inherently sophisticated nature. But these barriers are not insurmountable.

Corporate donors can talk with grantees about what skills their employees can offer. Nonprofits need the most help in marketing, legal and strategic planning but, according to the Deloitte survey, 95 percent don't know which companies to approach for help. Those are areas in which almost any large company has experience.

Nonprofits can also take important steps to increase skilled support.

First, they must be ready to accept skilled support. The survey found that nonprofits are better equipped to cultivate cash, versus volunteers. So, nonprofits should have qualified staff or board members solicit and oversee engagements in their areas of expertise.

And second, when negotiating sponsorship contracts, think beyond the cash mentality. Recognize skilled volunteering as an asset that should garner benefits. Treat it as the valuable currency it is.

Given the unlikelihood of increased cash giving, make skilled volunteering the new currency. If our work force is one of corporate America's most important assets, let's make it the community's too.

Pete Shimer is the managing partner of Deloitte in Seattle. He is on the boards of the Seattle Foundation, University of Washington Foundation, University of Washington Foster School of Business, Seattle Children's Hospital Foundation, Seattle Sports Commission, YMCA of Greater Seattle, and the Rainier Club.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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