By Melissa J. Anderson

Yesterday hundreds of business leaders came together on International Corporate Philanthropy Day at Morgan Stanley’s New York Headquarters to celebrate the commitment of over $1.6 billion in skills based volunteer services by 78 top companies, as part of a new campaign called A Billion + Change. In addition to Morgan Stanley, the group includes companies like American Express, Ernst & Young, GE, JP Morgan Chase, PIMCO, UPS, and more, which will provide pro bono services to non-profit organizations that need it – in the spirit of “professionals helping professionals.”

US Senator Mark Warner opened the conference by explaining the need non-profit organizations currently face. Even while so many individuals are hurting because of the recession, he said, today, the government spends a smaller percentage of GDP on safety net programs than it did in the 1960s. Non-profits are increasingly relied upon to fill in those services.

He proposed that a stronger partnership between business and charities could bridge the gap between what non-profits can do now and what they’ll be called upon to do tomorrow. “I urge companies not simply to write checks, but to give up their most important assets – their employees’ time and expertise,” he said.

Warner explained that non-profits are often fueled by passionate people who truly believe in the good work they are doing. “But that doesn’t necessarily turn them into efficient, well-run, metric driven organizations,” he explained. Skilled volunteering doesn’t mean simply putting in man hours as much as it means helping an organization build the capacity to get to the next level.

He added, “There’s a real value-add for an employer if their skills are being used in the non-profit sector.”

Value Add for Employers

Audrey Choi, Managing Director and Global Sustainable Finance Head at Morgan Stanley, said the firm’s increasing dedication to skills based volunteering is based on the interests of the people it is trying to recruit and retain.

“We just noticed a growing hunger of our people to not just give financial resources but also time and skills,” she said.

And it’s not just a feel-good activity. “We get at least as much as we give. This is a huge tool for employee recruitment, employee retention, employee engagement, and leadership development.”

That’s particularly true when it comes to recruiting and retaining Gen Y talent, she continued. Morgan Stanley dedicates thousands of hours of pro bono service to growing non-profits as part of its annual Strategy Challenge – but also uses the program as a skills and leadership development tool for up and coming talent at the firm.

Robert Velasco, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said skills based volunteering is a win for companies that are trying to attract the best and brightest talent.

“Today’s generation is a service generation,” he explained. For example, he said his organization saw a 38% increase in AmeriCorps applications last year. And the same drive goes for young individuals entering the private sector as well. They are looking for companies where they can also serve.

“Right now, back in Washington, we’re all thinking about what we can do to rebuild this country and rebuild it to last. A Billion + Change takes the two distinct threads of the fabric of America and weaves them together – American companies and American volunteers,” he said.

Gary Bagley, Executive Director of New York Cares, says he’s seen first hand how skills based volunteering can boost a non-profit’s performance. New York Cares was a participant in the Morgan Stanley Strategy Challenge, and he said the organization was able to learn to cut costs and be more strategic with its budget and staff going forward. “One key element was the spirit of strategy as one of bolstering non-profit partners – not one of a ‘helping the helpless’ approach.”

A Billion + Change is run by the Points of Light Institute. Having reached its goal of $1 billion in service hours pledged by partner companies, the institute is looking to raise $2 billion and grow its network to 500 partner companies.

Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation, said she hoped that in a few years corporate pro bono commitments will be just as common as corporate sustainability initiatives – that pro bono and skills based volunteering simply becomes part of corporate culture.

That will require pioneering companies to collaborate, she explained, “sharing our victories and failures so this thing moves along as smoothly as possible.”