By Alexandra McArthur, Associate Consultant, Advisory Services, Taproot Foundation
The anticipation was mounting as American Express President, Ed Gilligan took the stage. The American Express employees in attendance held their breath and then cheers erupted as he announced the 10 teams whose strategy recommendations had been selected for funding from American Express.
Contrary to what you might expect, American Express was not announcing the winners of a business planning competition.
This energizing event was the closing ceremony for the 2013 Serve2Gether Consulting Challenge, an innovative pro bono program that connected teams of over 100 American Express employees with Tri-State area nonprofits for ten weeks of pro bono support focused on a specific client need. In addition to receiving nearly $40,000 worth of pro bono services, each of the 20 participating nonprofits walked away with sustainable and executable strategy ideas such as a business plan for the launch of a community supported agriculture initiative in Newark, a data segmentation tool to drive repeat ticket sales, and an email targeting recommendation designed to drive online donations, just to name a few. Add to this $250,000 of seed funding awarded, this short-term program is estimated to have delivered $1,000,000 in value to its partner organizations which included Big Brothers Big Sisters, BAM, Help USA and the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum.
The Serve2Gether Consulting Challenge was designed to encourage volunteer consultants to take their recommendations a step further and identify how the nonprofit could leverage financial support to bring these strategies to life. All 20 teams participated in a “speed pitching” session giving them 15 minutes each to sell their idea to a team of internal judges. Through these pitch sessions, the emotional connection that the American Express employees felt for their nonprofit partners was palpable. In addition, professional development achievements that occurred as a result of the projects were also showcased. Finance experts were speaking fluently about community-based mentoring and data-crunchers gave compelling marketing advice. American Express employees were pleasantly surprised to find that they had used their existing skills and had developed new ones.
The closing celebration was the culmination of ten weeks of hard work, skill-building and nonprofit impact: Everything pro bono should be. For American Express, providing additional funding for the nonprofits to which their employees provided capacity-building support was a way to double-down on their community impact. This formula for pro bono plus grant funding is a powerful model that may just be the next big thing in philanthropy.