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Keeping Pro Bono Projects on Track

A Q&A with Taproot Foundation’s Eileen Yang on how professionals and corporations can maximize pro bono impact.

Eileen Yang

Eileen Yang, Taproot Foundation, Advisory Services senior consultant

Pro bono service, when executed thoughtfully, can deliver big benefits to nonprofits, professionals, and, increasingly, large corporations. But there are pitfalls that can derail the process. Taproot Foundation’s Eileen Yang knows how to help skilled professionals avoid wasting both their own time and that of the nonprofits they serve. As a senior consultant with Taproot’s Advisory Services practice, Eileen helps clients (mostly corporations) create, launch, and scale pro bono initiatives to bolster public-private partnerships and drive sustainable social change.

As Net Impact celebrates Pro Bono Week (October 20-26) by co-hosting a pro bono training session with Taproot at our upcoming conference, we asked Eileen to share her take on what makes a successful pro bono project and why pro bono is so valuable for participants.

What distinguishes pro bono from volunteerism?

Pro bono is a type of volunteerism in which volunteers donate their professional skills and services (such as marketing, legal guidance, human resources, and technology) to promote the public good.

The average value of hands-on volunteerism is approximately $20 per hour, whereas the average value of pro bono is approximately $120 per hour. As a result, when pro bono and regular volunteerism are lumped together, companies may not accurately calculate the full breadth of impact and value that they are providing the sector, nor the invaluable team-building and skills development that employees participating in pro bono are gaining.

Aside from receiving personal gratification from helping an organization, how do professionals benefit from doing pro bono?

It’s not news that our Millennial generation cares about social impact and pursuing socially responsible careers. In a recent study, MBAs from top schools reported that they would sacrifice 14 percent of their salaries to work at socially responsible companies. Out of the top 25 business schools, 20 have pro bono and nonprofit consulting programs. Numbers don’t lie: The Millennial generation wants to create social impact with their skills and talent, and not just with their checkbooks or by spending a day in a soup kitchen.

Professionals reap huge benefits from doing pro bono. They can leverage pro bono as an opportunity to hone current skills in a new context, and stretch themselves and apply new skills. Corporations reap huge benefits too—so much so that more companies are doing pro bono to directly benefit their business, such as learning about a new market, gaining customer insights, and retaining/recruiting talent. It’s a win-win-win for corporations, employees, and the social sector.

If there’s one mistake that professionals make when approaching pro bono work, what would that be?

One of the biggest mistakes we witness is when pro bono volunteers (and the nonprofit organization receiving the pro bono service) don’t treat the process with the same intent as a paid engagement. Pro bono is definitely not free; it requires time (from both the volunteers and the nonprofit staff), intent, and commitment from all parties.

Why is that so important?

When pro bono isn’t treated as such—for example, it lacks a scope of work or clear end date—projects have the potential to drag on. Or worse, the project itself isn’t as impactful as it could have been. Folks have to remember that with pro bono, time and satisfaction are the currencies of exchange for both the pro bono volunteer and the nonprofit organization. If the players feel that the project was either a waste of time or a less-than-ideal experience, they won’t do it again.

Is it common for professionals to receive training for pro bono work, the way you’re doing at the 2013 Net Impact Conference? When preparing people to do pro bono, what’s your top priority?

We want participants to walk away with concrete tips on how to find the right nonprofit partner, and to be responsible stewards of high-quality pro bono by engaging other professionals and mentors. Our top priority in trainings is to ensure that both nonprofits and volunteers understand and set clear expectations, review participants’ roles and responsibilities, and gain a firm understanding of pro bono best practices.

Many principles are intuitive and straightforward; however, in a pro bono context they may need translating. For example: To be successful, pro bono projects should be completed and delivered in a timely manner. This is very straightforward for any kind of paid engagement. However, in a pro bono context, it’s particularly important that the project has a tight scope and work plan that includes a clear end date. Otherwise, the project can drag on indefinitely without successful completion, which impacts both the volunteer’s and nonprofit’s satisfaction with the relationship.

What about group trainings? How can companies equip their employees for greater pro bono success?

Group trainings are quite effective. In addition to providing pro bono best practices, companies can equip their employees for greater pro bono success by:

  • Providing employees with clear expectations of when employees can do pro bono. Are employees free to work on their pro bono projects during work hours, or after work and on the weekends?
  • Empowering employees to discuss the value of the pro bono experience with their managers. Taproot has developed templates that empower both employees and managers to discuss how they can leverage pro bono as a talent development/professional development tool. This makes managers more comfortable with their direct reports participating in pro bono.
  • Highlighting the business value the company sees in investing their talent in pro bono. In interviews, employees tell us they want to know what value their company sees in pro bono work. This can include deepening community impact,  building strategic partnerships, encouraging team building, or offering additional professional development opportunities.

There are those out there who believe that nonprofits are better poised to do impact work than corporations. How would you address these assumptions?

I think about this question in terms of influence and impact. We exist within an ecosystem of social impact. Nonprofits and government agencies do not exist in a vacuum and do not hold the monopoly in capacity to create social change. The private sector employs over 90 percent of Americans—a wealth of talent and resources that exist in structured entities that touch (and influence) countless lives and communities. One example I often cite is Walmart’s decision to improve its sustainability efforts. When a giant like Walmart makes a decision about corporate responsibility, suppliers and customers around the world feel its actions.

Eileen will be leading a workshop, “Pro Bono Champions: Translating your Skills for Nonprofit Consulting,” at this year’s Net Impact Conference and as part of Pro Bono Week, a larger movement in the social sector that celebrates the pro bono ethic across professions.

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COMMENTS

  • Sorry, but I’ve never forgotten my (part of companywide) interview with a McKinsey pro-bono dude at the—————Ballet (now defunct.) A key finding of his (in response to my complaints) was that we needed a codified employee handbook. Unfortunately, he forgot to take into account that there were only about year-round employees (even I had only 35 weeks.) And the “HR Director” was actually the Comptroller, and the “Paymaster” and “Cash Flow Manager”. As a result of the pressures on him, like at the other performing companies I worked at, he was a borderline alcoholic. The real issues were capitalization, development, and board leadership. Sometimes the donated professional services are worthless.

    At that job, I also had to prevent a board member who ran a trucking company from donating his (... worn out) box truck to the company “to save us a lot of truck rentals.” Dance companies often do a good job of making dances. They do a lousy job of maintaining fully-depreciated assets. Would that have counted as pro-bono?!

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