Skills-based volunteering is business’s way of giving back. Yet just as the pandemic has driven up the need for community and nonprofit services, volunteering in general has dropped off. This year’s observance of Martin Luther King Day and its designation as a national day of service comes at a time when the country needs it most, reminding us of the rewards for everyone when we lend each other a hand.

Half of all volunteer activities require training or involve the contribution of professional know-how, according to new research from Fidelity Charitable. Skills-based volunteers donate their expertise in everything from marketing and operations to technology and finance. For most companies, these efforts represent the majority of their volunteerism, with employees donating an average of 72,000 hours to skills-based programs vs. 20,000 for non-skills-based service.

Skills-based volunteering is especially impactful in the tech world, where it often provides the path to an economic reality that people might not otherwise be able to access. Through programs and mentoring, it often helps open doors that people might not even know exist.

Firsthand Learning

I learned the rewards of skills-based giving several years ago, when Smith College invited me to speak to students about careers in engineering. Smith is one of the Seven Sisters women’s colleges, and the only one with an engineering school. Six years as an engineer in the aerospace industry and another 10 in product development enabled me to share not just what an engineer does every day but also what it’s like to be a woman in a largely male profession. As a woman of color, my perspective was even more rare.

It was a thrill to share my insights and experiences with these young women. I felt as though I was contributing real value. I’ve spent many a Saturday morning volunteering with my family for community activities like park cleanups, and the importance of giving back to the community is a lesson I hope to instill in my daughter. Yet my skills-based contributions gave me an even greater sense of connection to the causes for which I volunteered.

It’s a connection we all need – and one many are looking for. When we launched the Cognizant U.S. Foundation in 2018 and committed $100 million to equip people with skills to succeed in a digital economy, our office was inundated with requests from associates asking for volunteer opportunities. Of the hundreds who offered to help, many said they’d never volunteered before.

Because of COVID-19 we’ve had to shift our programming strategy, and we’ve responded in 2020 with a host of volunteer offerings for the virtual world. Panel discussions provide career insights for young women in technology. Career advisors offer one-on-one coaching and conduct mock job interviews. Associates in India partnered with teachers to convert content for online use. Our associates tell us they receive much more from the experiences than they give.

Greater Need in the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has stoked an even greater need for skills-based volunteers. Nonprofit organizations lose as much as 60% of their workforces when in-person volunteering isn’t possible. Skills-based programs not only fill that gap but also give companies the opportunity to develop programming and partnerships that make them more competitive. They also enable employers to move past philanthropy and embrace the social responsibility that today’s talent expects. According to the Fidelity study, millennials have a greater preference for skills-based volunteering than employees of previous generations. Too many leaders miss the point that volunteering is good for business.

As I discovered firsthand, the payoffs for employees are plentiful. By lending their expertise to nonprofits, employees can both hone their skills and learn new ones, such as leadership. In addition to making a tangible impact, they gain a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and pride. These programs can generate a feeling of belonging that encourages more engagement.

Perhaps most important, skills-based volunteering is about social justice, a concept that the corporate workplace is slowly starting to embrace more fully. This year, let’s use MLK day to remember a leader who dedicated his life to this cause and, perhaps more important, to carry his commitment to community service forward.

Sheila Narayanan

Sheila Narayanan

Sheila Narayanan is Head of Employee Volunteering and Community Development for The Americas and Cognizant U.S. Foundation, focusing her efforts on inclusion... Read more