Five years ago corporate pro bono programs were few and far between.
Today more than 500 companies provide skills-based support to the nonprofit sector. With pro bono programs becoming an industry standard for employee engagement and social impact, more and more companies are looking for creative ways to stand out.
Signature pro bono program
For many companies, the next step is what you might call a “signature” pro bono program – a program that connects a company’s best-in-class expertise with a clearly defined need in the social sector. Instead of providing a wide range of support from HR to finance to IT, these programs focus on providing unique expertise that the social sector can’t access any other way. Companies that specialize in marketing help nonprofits tell compelling stories, companies that specialize in design help social enterprises develop innovative new products, and companies with top process experts help refine their grantees’s strategic planning.
At the most basic level, a signature program fills in these blanks, “Because our employees are the best in the world at _________, they can help social sector organizations achieve _________.”
Employees’ skills or nonprofits’ needs?
Our clients often ask us whether they should start with employees’ skills or nonprofits’ needs. This is a false choice. In a signature program the goal is to identify a unique overlap between skills and needs, so both are equally important. Finding that overlap takes a little time, a dose of creativity, and a willingness to experiment, but the results are well worth it.
These programs can lead to new products, services, and programs that are life-changing for nonprofits’ clients. Signature initiatives don’t just build nonprofits’ capacity. They empower these organizations to achieve goals that couldn’t be reached through grant funding alone. At the same time, companies showcase industry-leading expertise, increase employee engagement, and meet CSR goals. Employees stretch their abilities, network with other experts within their companies, and develop their leadership skills. Everyone wins.
Key to creating program? Smart evaluation.
The key to creating a compelling signature program is smart evaluation. Many pro bono programs use performance metrics to evaluate impact, but those metrics are unlikely to help identify a signature focus. Pro bono program managers need to build in qualitative evaluation–especially interviews–to identify the strongest areas of overlap between employees’ skills and nonprofits’ needs. There is almost always an opportunity to add tremendous value if you look and listen carefully, but those opportunities might look different than you expect. For example:
- A major healthcare provider that excels in performance measurement can help community health organizations measure their programs to improve case management practices
- A software company with a deep bench of design thinkers and product managers can help education organizations rethink and redesign their services
- A national bank with an HR team that brings in the best talent in the industry can help workforce development organizations develop new training programs and curricula that improve job placement rates
Identifying your focus
This is why it’s important to identify a signature focus by evaluating an ongoing or pilot program–it ensures that the signature program will be built around real skills and real needs instead of abstract strategy. Here’s a simple four-step process for honing in on a signature focus for a pro bono program:
- First, launch a pro bono program that provides skills-based support to your community partners; if you already have a pro bono program, select a cohort within that program as your pilot group.
- Second, plan your qualitative evaluation by deciding who you will interview, how you will capture insights, and how often you will check-in throughout the program.
- Third, run a round of your program and capture insights.
- Finally, take a strategic pause and reflect on the insights you’ve gathered; which projects were the most compelling? Which were the most impactful? Which volunteers were the most engaged?
The answers to these questions can help identify a signature focus that will set your pro bono program apart. Once you’ve identified that focus, start back at step one with another cohort. It may take a few cycles to hone in on the perfect overlap between employee skills and nonprofit needs, but over time the program will be more and more focused, strategic, and impactful.
What’s next for corporate pro bono?
If you’re wondering what’s next for corporate pro bono, keep an eye on the signature program concept. In less than a decade we’ve gone from a world where a nonprofit looking for pro bono support might be able to turn to one or two local providers, to one where that same nonprofit can log onto an online platform and find a pro bono consultant in minutes. As pro bono becomes commonplace in the private sector, leading companies will increasingly turn to signature programs to stay ahead of the curve in the eyes of their employees, customers, and the communities they serve.
In the process, they might just revolutionize what it means to volunteer all over again.