From the September 2006 issue of Entrepreneur

Walk into fluid's New York City studio, and you'll see the firm's 20 employees hard at work on music and editorial post-production projects for companies including eBay, FedEx and Sony. The firm's workload generates more than $6 million in annual sales.

But on any given day, Fluid's employees might also be doing pro bono work to help a nonprofit organization. The company's pro bono projects have included producing post-9/11 public service announcements for the New York City mayor's office and working on ads for the Alzheimer's Foundation. "Our skill set allows us to do all kinds of promotions, ads and things like that," says co-founder David Shapiro, 55.

Fluid is just one company where employees--either individually or as a team--use their specific job skills to help a nonprofit entity. "There's a lot of buzz around skills-based volunteers right now," says Jason Willett, communications director for VolunteerMatch.org, an online nonprofit in San Francisco that connects nonprofit organizations with companies.

Large companies pushing the skills-based trend want more from their employee volunteering efforts than good PR; they see volunteerism as a recruiting and retention tool and a way to groom company leaders. They're also looking for better ways to measure the impact of their philanthropic efforts. "More and more businesses are tying their philanthropy--both their charitable donations and the support for workplace volunteering--to their strategic business goals," says Robert Goodwin, CEO of the Points of Light Foundation, a Washington, DC, organization focused on volunteering nationwide. "It's not simply random philanthropy but is tied to a larger set of objectives."

Skills-based volunteering taps every level of expertise a company has to offer. "You can go to the highest level of professional skill development, and there's a volunteer need for that," Willett says. "There's especially a need for [highly specialized volunteers] because those are typically the most expensive skills to pay for professionally." The Deloitte/Points of Light "Volunteer Impact Study" done earlier this year, meanwhile, found that 40 percent of volunteers actively look for opportunities to use their workplace skills.

Well-known companies are heeding the call. Cisco Systems, Intel and Wells Fargo have started "pay to volunteer" programs, where employees work full time for nonprofit organizations. A team from Yahoo! recently updated the website of DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit organization that connects teachers with school supplies. At Dell, an in-house attorney is currently working on the charter and bylaws for the Austin Music Foundation, while Dell logistics and supply chain management employees in Tennessee are helping a local food bank run more efficiently. Skills-based volunteering "often means we bring enhanced benefit to a community organization," says Dell's Richard Binhammer, in Austin, Texas. "In some cases, where [a project is] tied to technology, it further demonstrates that we deliver innovative technologies and services to customers through our volunteer efforts."

Shapiro sees skills-based volunteer projects generating direct benefits for Fluid, such as publicity and greater artistic freedom. But he warns entrepreneurs to manage the time investment because pro bono projects have a way of expanding. "In the heat of the moment of doing something good, you can create a logjam in your company," he says. Fluid tends to take on small, local projects to keep things manageable.

Want to get in on the trend? Start thinking about in-house expertise that could transfer to a nonprofit setting and the benefits it could generate. Ask employees for their ideas, too. "They might know about needs in the community that aren't even on your radar," Willett says. Be careful how you approach nonprofit organizations, however, because it can be hard for them to create specific opportunities on the spot. "Be sensitive to what the nonprofits are actually looking for," Willett says. It could take a while to get an effective skills-based opportunity up and running. Once you do, get regular feedback from employees and the nonprofit organization so you can track results.

At larger companies, skills-based volunteering tends to be just one option on the menu. Dell employees can select from hundreds of volunteering opportunities--some skills-based, others not--using a company intranet site managed by VolunteerMatch.org. "Some of our employees want to volunteer in a way that relates to their skills, and some of them want to do something completely different," Binhammer says. "It really depends on the person."

The impact of the skills-based trend will also depend on how well nonprofit organizations attract the help they need. Only 12 percent of nonprofit organizations in the "Volunteer Impact Study" matched projects to volunteers' specific workplace skills. For employers who find the right fit, however, the payback can be compelling. "There's a good feeling," Shapiro says, "[in] doing something in your day that helps people, as opposed to just making money."