The 2019 Global Pro Bono Summit, hosted by Taproot Foundation, will take place in New York City this May. Leading up to this gathering, Taproot will be releasing a series of profiles featuring movers and shakers of the pro bono movement, from companies with cutting-edge programs to individuals working towards a more engaged society to nonprofits tapping into pro bono service as a way to deepen their impact on the communities they serve.
A community of talent
Per Scholas was founded more than 20 years ago with a mission to open doors to transformative technology careers for individuals from often overlooked communities. Now, they operate out of eight cities nationwide and have helped more than 9,000 unemployed and underemployed individuals gain the skills and credentials to succeed. As Per Scholas continues to expand their reach and impact, their work with volunteers is growing too, including pro bono.
As a workforce development organization, Per Scholas is in a unique position: many of the students who graduate from their programs return to volunteer their new skills and expertise, offering insight and peer networking opportunities for current students. In fact, Per Scholas views leveraging their alumnae as volunteers as a major focus for their volunteer engagement efforts. Giselle Jaquez, Senior Manager of Corporate Engagement, describes the continued engagement of their “incredible graduates and community of alumnae” as part of the “magic” of Per Scholas. Through their technology skills training and professional development, Per Scholas is shaping the future of work—and, simultaneously, the future of volunteerism at their organization.
Making an impact together
In addition to the valuable work of their alumnae volunteers, Per Scholas has engaged in a variety of different pro bono engagements—from one-day events with Taproot, to multi-week projects with their long-standing corporate partners. Although they don’t have formal partnerships, they’ve been able to take advantage of pro bono programming regularly for the past several years, noting an increasing interest in pro bono from the corporations they partner with.
Sarah Conte Wessel, Senior Director of Employer Partnerships & Career Services at Per Scholas, summed up the power of pro bono to support their work: “My team would have never had the time, the capacity, or the bandwidth—and the fact that volunteers were doing that on top of their day job really was incredible.” Indeed, Wessel said, one of the greatest benefits of pro bono is the way volunteers can multiply organization capacity. “Having an army of individuals dedicate time to thinking through a complex challenge is not a luxury that nonprofits usually have.”
For Per Scholas employees, pro bono has offered additional benefits too, from leadership development opportunities to new perspectives. Wessel notes that “pro bono challenges offer a different way to develop leadership abilities,” citing the chance for employees to bring a big project to completion and interact with new stakeholders. And Claire Cuno, Director of Youth & Support Services, described a three-week pro bono engagement with corporate volunteers who flew in from around the world to work with Per Scholas as “an amazing, unique opportunity to learn from different people and different places.” For Per Scholas, pro bono is a piece of their larger commitment to developing diverse leaders among both their students and their staff.
Envisioning a brighter future
Skilled volunteers have played a key role in supporting Per Scholas, and their team looks forward to a future where pro bono can be even more useful for nonprofits. They’re keenly aware of the greatest challenge surrounding this type of support: “It’s a big undertaking for staff to manage pro bono projects – we have to carve out time that we don’t really have.” The challenge of limited capacity plays out beyond the close of a project, too; momentum can be lost when the nonprofit team enters the implementation stage on their own. “When the volunteers are gone and the project is done, it can be hard to see how to continue the work and make sure it has its intended impact.”
For the Per Scholas team, the future of pro bono must include truly sustainable, supportive partnerships. They would encourage pro bono practitioners to start intentionally building out time for volunteers to assist with implementation and follow-up, or to consider alternative models of volunteerism, like a corporate executive spending a sabbatical period working at a nonprofit – an experience recently completed by one of their board members. This need for “a more sustainable model” offers both a challenge and an opportunity to improve the resources available to nonprofits.
The 2019 Global Pro Bono Summit offers an exciting chance to envision and shape the future of the pro bono movement, ensuring the greatest impact for organizations like Per Scholas. With intentional, sustainable pro bono designed to meet the needs of nonprofits, the potential is endless.