Meredith Hahn is Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility at American Express, pro bono enthusiast, and newest member of the Taproot Foundation Board of Directors. I recently had the chance to speak with Meredith Hahn about her experiences and the decision to bring her skills to the pro bono movement.
Getting to know Meredith Hahn
What drew you to Taproot?
MEREDITH HAHN: When I left the tech sector I really wanted to reinvent myself, and the first thing I did was look for pro bono opportunities. It really wasn’t easy to find them. When I finally did find a connection to a very reputable nonprofit – I found myself sitting around a lot. I think they were happy to have me, but didn’t know how to best utilize me. I was finally staffed with someone from the organization with a consulting background, who realized “OK. I’ve got someone bringing business skills to the table; let me craft a project that will utilize them.” Years later when I was introduced to Taproot it was the “Aha” moment; here’s the organization I was looking for. Then when I took a job in Corporate Social Responsibility and wanted a partner to help us craft a program for AmEx, I knew exactly where to go.
What do you hope you’ll help accomplish as a member of the Taproot Board?
Well there are two things that immediately excite me. One is the idea of working with the team to expand how we engage the community of pro bono consultants as advocates for growing the sector – especially those that have not had the chance to be staffed on a project but are looking for ways to get involved. I think there’s an opportunity there to create community of pro bono advocates who don’t just do pro bono, they become Taproot’s ‘foot soldiers’ and help build its brand.
This ties to the second area, which is to up the game on the organization’s marketing. Getting more pro bono volunteers out there telling their story has lot of marketing potential both to engage more volunteers, but to attract more funders for the work. Taproot is well known in the corporate and overall volunteer ‘biz’ but I think we have opportunity to raise pro bono into a ’cause’ in and of itself. It would be great to see pro bono at a level of credibility where all nonprofit’s have a strategy for using pro bono as part of their strategic plan and recognize it as one of their best tools to solve problems.
What advice would you give a 21-year-old that is interested in social impact?
I’ve talked to a lot of young people who want to be in the business of philanthropy/social impact but don’t immediately see the opportunity to implement social change using a business lens. Don’t get me wrong, there is huge potential in the fact that so many of our young people are driven by a passion to do good. But I think it’s easy to believe that good cause = good business model/organizational structure. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. As someone who grew up in the business world, I think we need to approach social problems with the same rigor as we do business problems – and that takes professional expertise in areas that might not be traditionally prioritized in the nonprofit sector. I’d love to see more young people approaching their interest in social impact by saying, “what skills do I have that I could bring to that cause?” Or “How can I develop business skills/experience that would better equip me to tackle social problems?”
What skills do you think are the most valuable for a twenty-something to develop to make the biggest possible impact?
In a word – communication. We live in a world where your success is largely based on how well you communicate your ideas – quickly and effectively. There is so much that’s been said about how social media is changing the way we communicate – and that’s true for individuals, businesses and nonprofits. If you aren’t good at positioning an issue, explaining it in plain – but compelling terms – you won’t be able to capitalize on the hunger for information and the expectation of transparency that the internet and social media has created. We used to call it your ‘elevator pitch’ now it’s – how can you say it in 140 characters or less.
Switching gears, what’s one thing, not on your resume, that’s really interesting about you?
I’ve been tempted to list the places I’ve traveled, as they’ve really had a huge impact on me and the way I see the world. The older I get the more I enjoy being taken out of my comfort zone. I used to feel awkward fumbling with foreign currency or trying to use hand gestures when seeking directions from a local. Now I see that as a huge opportunity for me to flex my own adaptation muscle. The more I don’t know the more potential I have to learn. And having a broader worldview can’t help but change how you view and address social or business problems. When I’m working on a global program or communicating outside of the US I often ask myself am I coming at this from ‘the American way’ of doing things. Inserting myself into different cultures has helped me pay more attention to the way I’m relating to others, and whether I’m approaching them from a common place of understanding, or just the way it’s done where I’m from.
If you could live abroad for one year, where would it be?
I actually almost moved to Australia when I was first exploring career opportunities outside the tech sector. I was looking for a job in the nonprofit sector but not finding many open doors, so I applied for a position in Australia with my former employer DoubleClick (now Google), and they offered me the job. I was literally just about to move when I got a call from the Museum of Natural History with an offer for a job on their corporate fundraising team.
In the end, I didn’t move there but it remains a place that interests me, partly because I’m a scuba diver. I haven’t written it off though. Maybe one day I’ll help open the Taproot Sydney office. Wink.
Thanks, Meredith! We’re so excited to welcome Meredith Hahn to our board.