By Robert B. Acton, Executive Director NY, Taproot Foundation
Tomorrow I have the privilege of serving as the keynote speaker at the Youth, I.N.C. 2013 Venture Forward Conference in New York City. In preparing my remarks, I’ve been thinking about how pro bono is ultimately not about getting a wish-list-deliverable, but rather, solving an underlying organizational need.
Digging into organizational need
I remember well the first time I went to Taproot Foundation for help when I was serving as the Executive Director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) in Chicago. My first request was not unlike that which we so often hear from nonprofits: “We need a website.”
A key role Taproot plays in the pro bono process lies in helping diagnose the real need an organization faces, rather than the deliverable that seems most pressing. Effective pro bono always starts with an organization’s underlying need.
The power of the one word question, “why?”
That simple query repeated a number of times can help unlock the right pro bono project to address the underlying need. Here’s a good example.
Executive Director (ED): We need a website.
Taproot Foundation (TF): Why?
ED: Because we need to increase our online presence and our current website stinks.
TF: We agree that your website has challenges, but why do you need to increase your web visibility?
ED: Because more people need to know about us!
ED: Because we have great programming, but we’ve struggling to get youth to sign up. Our numbers are way down.
TF: Why are your numbers down?
ED: I think it’s because our value proposition for participation in the program isn’t clear. Parents don’t seem to see value in enrolling their kids in our work.
TF: Ah ha! So it’s not really a website you need. That won’t solve your problem. But there are a number of pro bono projects that will help you begin to resolve your need to make it more compelling for parents to sign their kids up for your program.
During law school, my professors favorite question was always, “why?” The Socratic approach helps get to the heart of the matter. It requires a deeper analytical analysis. In short, it leads to better answers.
In our view, the same can be said for figuring out the best pro bono solution to build nonprofit capacity.