An interview with our CEO, Lindsay Firestone Gruber.
Taproot’s Advisory Services team works closely with companies to help them develop strategies to engage their talent in pro bono service. Our advisory practice was founded 10 years ago by Lindsay Firestone Gruber, Taproot’s Chief Program Officer, who saw the potential for companies to be more strategic about how they engage their people to help nonprofits succeed. Back in 2008, corporate pro bono was largely nascent outside of law firms and professional services companies. A decade later, the landscape of corporate pro bono is thriving. Kim Gillman, National Director of Advisory Services, sat down with Lindsay to reflect on the decade and to explore what’s next for the field.
Kim: Why did you decide to start Advisory Services?
Lindsay: I have a personal and professional passion for helping strengthen nonprofit organizations and their ability to support our communities. For most of us in the nonprofit sector, it is simultaneously encouraging and frustrating to realize that many organizational obstacles we face are easily preventable or overcome through existing solutions – they are just often inaccessible.
When I first joined the Taproot Foundation in 2004 it was still a relatively small start-up. However, it was already abundantly clear that Taproot had taken a truly innovative, yet wonderfully simple approach to this problem: use the expertise, training, and tools that are often present in abundance in the private sector and connect them in a thoughtful and structured way to the existing, parallel needs in the nonprofit sector.
Taproot’s own flagship program was an excellent proof point of the power of pro bono services when they’re designed well, and word spread quickly. Companies were interested in having their employees participate, but I saw an opportunity for even greater impact. By working directly with companies to design their own programs, we could use the knowledge and best practices we’d honed over the years to build customized, sustainable programs. Ten years later, we’ve helped over 85 companies take advantage of their unique expertise to provide widespread impact for social sector organizations.
Kim: What is one of the most exciting changes you’ve seen in the field of pro bono over the past decade?
Lindsay: When we first started Advisory Services, most of our time went to education. We were often answering the “what” – what is pro bono service, what does it do for nonprofits, what do employees gain, and what are the benefits for a company. Now we spend less time on education and more time on innovation. We’re often answering the “how” – how do we take pro bono to the next level, how do we drive deeper impact for nonprofits, how can it be integrated into employees’ professional development, how can it strengthen our reputation, etc.
Today, I am so proud and heartened to see a field of CSR and now HR professionals at companies who deeply believe in the win-win of pro bono programs to help organizations in their communities while also providing great benefit to their employees. To me, this helps affirm that programs like this will not be treated as a fad. Instead, pro bono has become engrained as a core means of mutual impact across sectors that will only continue to grow and provide more access to these critically needed services.
Kim: Are there any nuggets of wisdom you’ve gained over the years that you wish you could share with all companies?
Lindsay: My advice is always to treat pro bono projects like projects you’re staffing at your own company. The real impact—both for the nonprofit, but also for your own employees—comes from having the right expertise matched to the need at hand and not compromising that in the name of employee development. The opportunity to stretch and grow skills comes from the unique environment in which your employees will need to operate and the different ways they need to use their skills in a new and challenging context.
Lindsay: Now I want to turn the tables! As the current leader of the Advisory Services practice, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for the field of corporate pro bono?
Kim: It’s a good question that I think about a lot. I can’t remember a time that’s felt so complex. From our political landscape, to the environmental and social issues we face, to the rapid shifts in technology, we’re presented with a lot of challenges for which solutions can seem far off – or worse, unattainable.
As I look to the future, I think there are two unique opportunities for pro bono to make a difference. First and foremost, pro bono will continue to be a critical resource for many of the nonprofits working to address the challenges our society faces. Now more than ever, we need organizations in the social sector to be effective because they support and represent the most vulnerable among us.
The other opportunity I see for pro bono service is its ability to foster authentic connections between people. There’s no better formula to increase understanding and empathy than to solve a problem across the table from someone who is different from you. My hope is that matching corporate volunteers with nonprofit organizations through pro bono service can help us practice breaking down barriers. Understanding and empathy are the most critical tools for delivering effective pro bono service – they will also be critical in helping us address the most pressing challenges facing society.
Lindsay Firestone Gruber founded the Advisory Services practice in 2008. She is currently the Chief Program Officer at Taproot Foundation, overseeing the strategic development and implementation of Taproot’s award-winning pro bono programs. Lindsay is a frequent public speaker on cross-sector collaboration, nonprofit capacity-building, CSR, and corporate employee engagement.
Kim Gillman is the National Director of the Advisory Services practice at Taproot Foundation. Along with her team, she partners with companies to design, implement, and scale high-quality pro bono initiatives that maximize each company’s unique skills and expertise.