Saturday, September 5, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Do a Project for a Non-Profit Organization

Not-for-profit organizations are always looking for help, and I encourage retirees to sign up to provide recurring assistance, such as delivering Meals on Wheels, tutoring students or preparing meals for the homeless. On the other hand, non-profits also have needs for one-time but substantive projects requiring a major time commitment to complete - and an opportunity for a HarvilleQuarter for you.

These projects may require specialized skills you learned in your former profession or expertise you've acquired as a hobbyist or handyman. So this is not your run-of-the-mill volunteer task that requires only a strong back or ability to enter data accurately. This is a project of total immersion. You will plan, organize, carry out, perhaps supervise others, and have a deliverable at the end. You may even have a budget.

Some examples that come to mind are:
  • Implement a new computer system. This could include leading a thorough system selection process, interviewing vendors, arranging software demos, negotiating contracts, and then planning and supervising the implementation, including setting up hardware, installing software, writing documentation and training the employees and volunteers. Depending on the size and complexity of the system and the organization, this could easily outlast a single HarvilleQuarter, but if you have skills and experience to do this, you would be providing a lot of value to the non-profit. A less time-consuming variation would be helping the agency implement a system upgrade.
  • Plan and act as the general contractor for a remodeling and reconfiguration of the agency's physical space. Again, if you have the expertise to do this, the benefits to the agency will be substantial, both in financial savings and better results than if they tried to do this themselves. If your skills run more to manual labor, help remodel their office space with fresh paint and flooring, for example. If you have specific trade certifications, you can upgrade their wiring and plumbing, or re-roof their building, or reconfigure their space with new walls, cabinetry, lighting or shelving.
  • Develop a marketing plan and materials. If your pre-retirement education and responsibilities were as a marketer, you skills will be valuable to some not-for-profit. Just like companies in the private sector, they need to develop a brand, define target markets and create awareness of their services. Smaller organizations will likely not have these skills in-house and will be reluctant to use hard-won donations to pay market rates to secure them. You may also be able to help find non-retired professionals in your network to donate services with you or provide them at reduced costs.
  • If you skills tend toward writing and editing, use them for non-profits who live or die by their success in attracting grant support. Locate funding sources whose priorities match the agency's and then develop well-written proposals that underscore that match while meeting all the funder's specific proposal requirements. If you can do that, you will find a welcome mat at any number of small non-profits. Besides writing grants, you can help develop written marketing materials or redesign their newsletter, whether paper- or Web-based.
  • Fundraising will always be a welcome skill. If your business or personal network includes well-to-do individuals with an interest in common with your not-for-profit, help just by making introductions and by acquainting your friends with the work of the agency. If you have event planning skills, take on the planning and organization of a major fundraising event or a conference. This could be a chance to try out a new fundraising activity for the agency - that will become an annual event - and attract a new set of supporters for its mission.
  • Speaking of mission, non-profits periodically revisit and redefine theirs and they usually need help in doing so. If you have a background in strategic planning or meeting facilitation, you can make the process more efficient and less painful by organizing and leading the effort. You can also help with more mundane tasks such as rewriting bylaws and charters, redesigning the committee structure and updating position descriptions.
  • And speaking of position descriptions, human resource skills in general will be valued. A small agency may not have an HR professional, so help by training staff in interviewing and supervisory skills, developing or updating the employee handbook, and ensuring the organization is in compliance with employment-related laws and regulations.
I'm sure there are many more examples that you can think of where you can take on a significant project - one that a small not-for-profit can't do for itself or hire someone else to do - where your contribution will mark a real step forward for the agency and a source of pride and satisfaction for you.

One other alternative - instead of working alone over a period of weeks or months, tap your network and put together a team. I recently worked for an afternoon with the 23 employees of a local company, Platypus Technologies, to help a food pantry deal with some growing pains. The Platypus folks divided into three teams - one painted offices and restrooms in space the pantry was expanding into, another set up used shelving and reconfigured the existing food storage area for more capacity and better flow, and a third sorted through a tremendous quantity of donated clothing, putting the clothes on hangers and arranging by size and sex. In one afternoon, the amount accomplished was inspiring. Your best contribution may be to organize a similar "swat team" for an overwhelmed non-profit director.

The photograph shows the neat and well-stocked shelves of The River Food Pantry in Madison, Wisconsin. It was reproduced from a link to Flickr on the pantry's Website,

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