Hands On Nashville Shows Nonprofits How to Volunteer Smarter

Middle Tennessee’s volunteer community exists to enhance the quality of life for the region. Problems such as homelessness, lack of veteran support, and the need for youth education can present severe burdens for many Nashvillians. Their only salvation may come through the heroic action of neighborhood charity or nonprofit organizations. 

But solving these problematic issues requires more than just willpower and teamwork. It requires taking advantage of the resources in the Nashville tech scene. Enter Hands On Nashville (HON). HON, a nonprofit that interfaces with other nonprofits, is a conduit connecting the needs of organizations and the passionate people who are willing to lend time and talent. By harnessing innovation and expertise, HON’s network can plug in people with the right skills and experience for nonprofits in need of human capital.

Pictured: Monica Weiss-Sharp

Though HON’s network has played matchmaker for nonprofits and volunteers for almost three decades, the idea of enacting smarter tech solutions and requesting certain skills is something that they’ve only been doing for the last few years. HON’s former Director of Programs, Monica Weiss-Sharp spoke to Launch Engine before her departure, reflecting on how innovation has led to better volunteerism.

Monica says that this search for volunteers with certain specific skills came after her ten-month internship with HON. As part of the requirements for her Masters of Social Work, Monica began researching if there was such a need for specific skills with their volunteers. Monica explains that this “was not an area that the organization had really explored, but knew that there was absolutely a need, an interest from our partner organizations.”

“A few months after I finished my internship,” Weiss-Sharp continues, “they actually were able to identify a way to start moving in that direction. And so I came on board in the fall of 2018… as a Project Manager to oversee that first kind of foray into skilled volunteerism, which specifically was focused in the technology realm.”

The search for skilled volunteers came at the direction of HON President and CEO, Lori Shinton. Shinton had received ample feedback from partnering organizations about the need for particular talents.

With this mandate, Monica began researching the pool of requirements. She explains her process, “So, looking for folks with kind of a broad base of technology skills, anything from website design to digital marketing to database set up to just general consulting… anybody with skills anywhere in there. And then pairing them with nonprofits that… had needs, which we had scoped out and defined on a project basis… Then, also, offering the nonprofit some support… if a volunteer ended up having a conflict and needed to step away from the project that we were available to help find somebody to take that place.”

That was a major turning point for how HON dealt with both volunteers and nonprofits, and it changed the course of their operations. Rather than live by the adage, “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Hands On Nashville began asking for specific skill sets in their volunteers. HON had been using the customer relationship management (CRM) tool Salesforce since 2011, and their familiarity with the CRM allowed them to look for specific projects. By opening their CRM up to other parties as their Hands-On Connect portal, HON community partners can access parts of the Hands On Nashville system. This allows them to post their volunteer needs and manage volunteers that register for the project through HON’s site. Corporate (and similar) organizations looking for volunteer opportunities for their teams connect via the Corporate Partner Program, who in turn may either craft a custom service event or get them started with community partners.

“So other organizations come to us and use our technology platform and sort of benefit from our expertise to engage volunteers…” says Monica. “An organization can say, ‘Hey, we have a team of a hundred people, we’d like them to have a day of service and in the realm of homelessness.’ And then we can put together kind of a customized project to their exact needs in the area that they want and project-manage the whole thing.”

Monica says that the CRM organizes front end information, which makes volunteer projects easier to find and track. On the back end of things, communication through the portal to HON members and partner organizations with limited access handle the clerical elements. This frees up members to do other tasks. She believes that many nonprofits should find room for technological solutions in their budgets. Without such provisions, those groups won’t be able to do their best work.

Spring 2020 has put the system to the test, as HON’s ongoing cleanup campaign for the March 3 tornadoes has to be planned around COVID-19.

“It really was a literal ‘all hands on deck,’” Monica says. “We also have an AmeriCorps program that we oversee… we can immediately divert them to focus on disaster activities. So, they were very valuable members out in the community, serving as volunteer leaders, essentially, at a lot of these different sites… It’s part of a national organization and we, through Volunteer Tennessee, receive a grant to oversee 19 members. Most of whom are placed out and other organizations with whom we are partners.”

There are still months of work to be done for the tornado relief work. But by using technology to make a better system, Hands On Nashville can mobilize personnel and focus their efforts and expertise on certain tasks. Monica tells readers,Of course, there’s all manner of other needs. But wherever there’s an opportunity for volunteers to be beneficial, whether, again, it’s some of these huge projects where hundreds of people are present… or it’s, you know, folks reaching out and saying, ‘You know, I’m a roofer and I’m happy to help with folks that have an urgent need to get a tarp on their house,’ at a very individual level, serving as matchmakers there… Just wherever people have the knowledge and ability, there is a real drive to show up and offer support to those that have been impacted.”

Even though the fruits of innovation are enjoyed by consumers every day, the nonprofit sector may still have some catching up to do. “It’s really only recently that you’re starting to see funders recognize the value of technology and, therefore, see the value in helping to fund some larger-scale technology projects,” Monica says. “I’ll reference The Frist Foundation specifically. They have technology-specific grants, looking for opportunities to transform organizations’ operations through better use of technology. I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see more of that moving forward.”

In addition to finding funds, Monica says that there are a few tech-forward paths for nonprofits. For instance, HON has a relationship with Geek Cause, an entity for skilled volunteers founded by tech company Atiba as a way for its employees to give back. Atiba’s Founder, JJ Rosen is a current HON board member and was HON’s first very first intern. Therefore, it made sense that Geek Cause would be transitioned over to HON in fall 2018. “It was then one of those wonderful moments of serendipity,” Monica says.

The right mix of skills, tools, and planning can pole-vault nonprofits past their obstacles. Even minor improvements in an organization’s processes may boost overall efficiency. “In a small nonprofit that has four or five people, if you’re able to take a task that’s taking somebody four hours a week to do and automate it, so it takes 15 minutes, that has a huge impact over the course of a year, this four hours every week… The opportunity to leverage technology is tremendous,” Monica explains.

Hands On Nashville is happy to accept any 501(c) organization that would like to be part of their efforts. For more information, including items on their Volunteer Opportunity Calendar, be sure to visit HON’s website.