General operations funding and capacity-building resources from family foundations make a big difference for their grantees. Nonprofits that receive them have a much better chance of thriving, growing, and increasing their impact.
Funders like the Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation have found that integrating pro bono into their grantee offerings to subsidize capacity building has been incredibly rewarding for all involved. We met with Tarah Evans, the Executive Director of the Franklin & Catherine Johnson Foundation, to discuss their use of pro bono as a part of their venture philanthropy approach and how she recommends approaching the subject if you’d like your foundation to start offering pro bono to grantees.
What inspired the Foundation to make pro bono a resource for grantees?
Pro bono has been an additional way for the Foundation to serve their grantees beyond the $1 to 1.2 million they distribute in grants each year. “Pro bono is a second form of support we can provide even within our limited resources in terms of money, time, and expertise.” It is also a way of re-investing in their existing portfolio of funded programs. “It wasn’t like we went out and found six new organizations in our community to support through pro bono—we start with our current grantees.”
“Understanding the limitations of our resources made pro bono compelling for us. I’m really the only staff person here, and I certainly don’t have every kind of expertise our grantees are looking for. So, the idea of leveraging pro bono from the private sector to support them was very appealing.”
Having that second form of backing available not only strengthens their grantees’ operations, but it also fosters the kind of relationship they want to develop with the organizations they fund. “It’s been such a nice extension of our faith and trust in them. Essentially, we’re saying ‘okay, we’re already funding you, but we’re gonna double down with this and also leverage expertise from the private sector with pro bono.’ We hope grantees see it as an innovative and creative way of leveraging different skill sets when we wouldn’t otherwise have the capacity to do so. I hope it’s received as that extra vote of confidence in our grantees’ work and teams, because that’s definitely how we feel about it.”
Tarah Evans’ advice for getting your board on board with pro bono
Evans had some specific advice to share for getting a foundation’s board on-board for providing pro bono to grantees:
- Play off of initiatives the foundation is already invested in.
“We fund capacity building and provide unrestricted funding, so we already have an open-minded grant making approach that intentionally avoids being too prescriptive.” Evans was able to use the Foundation’s existing interests as a jumping off point to explain the value of capacity-building pro bono to the team and board.
- Point out how pro bono programming is a way to help more grantees without increasing grant funds.
“For us a pro bono program costs us about as much as average-sized grant. But it’s easy to see that when we use those resources to coordinate pro bono, instead of providing an average amount of funding to one group, we can help six of our grantees make quantum leaps forward in their work.”
- Share how nonprofits are often interested in capacity-building, but don’t have the resources to coordinate it.
“Nonprofits themselves don’t normally have the bandwidth or the connections to reach out and find people in the private sector who do this work all day every day. Pro bono from a foundation helps fill that gap.”
- Mention the pro bono work foundations like yours are funding.
“That kind of stamp of approval from peers is really critical. It can be a big help to be able to say ‘Oh, I talked to so-and-so in New York who’s doing pro bono too’ if your foundation has never funded anything like this before or if the board’s unfamiliar with it.”
- Clarify that a pro bono program is more than a day of service, it’s a true collaboration.
“It’s not just eight hours on the day—there are the pre-work calls and then the post-work implementation and follow-up. In talking to our own team, I made sure to be clear that even though it’s a pro bono day, there’s a lot of planning and preparation. That’s why these volunteers can come in and work with grantees in the areas where they really want their insight—it’s how they’re able to provide so much value on the day.”
- Explain that you don’t have to do it all on your own – groups like Taproot can help!
“One of the main things I stress whenever I talk about pro bono for grantees is just how easy, Taproot made it for me. A lot of smaller foundations think they can’t get involved in pro bono and capacity building work because they don’t have the bandwidth to take on the planning or the outreach, but the way Taproot provides structure and program guidance makes it really manageable.”
- Show your confidence in the impact pro bono can have.
“For me, that part wasn’t a hard sell. if I’m talking to someone who’s on the fence, I share what I stressed to my board: these are needs that organizations have and cannot fulfill on their own. They’re looking for external help and don’t have the resources to pay for consultants to do it. Nonprofits have these niche kinds of issues that they’ve probably been dealing with for a while. And then is someone from the private sector who’s willing to donate their time and talent to meet that need. That relationship is the matching puzzle piece that makes it all come together.”
Pro bono and the future of philanthropy
Recent trends show that more and more foundations are prioritizing behind-the-scenes capacity-building work, and Evans’ work with the Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation is a great example of how pro bono can be an effective part of a grantee toolkit. The specialties many nonprofits are looking for—marketing, finance, HR, IT, etc.—are skills that translate easily across sectors, and pro bono makes it possible for the private and public sectors to work together. “It’s important for foundations and nonprofits to always have that perspective on what’s happening in private sector,” Evans explained. “Pro bono creates a kind of overlap, informing everyone involved, and I think it’s very beneficial to the volunteers that are coming from the private sector as well as the recipients.”
Is your foundation interested in making pro bono accessible to grantees? Talk to us about how to get started.
Interested in sharing your own business expertise pro bono? Register for Taproot Plus now to get started.
The Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation funds nonprofits in the EPA/Redwood City area only and is not accepting new applications for funding at the time of publication.