The Citi Foundation recently partnered with Taproot Foundation, The Centre for Social Innovation and desigNYC to hold the first-ever gathering of the pro bono marketplace in New York City. Set within the historic walls of a renovated industrial loft in Chelsea, Pro Bono Day NYC: Connecting Passion to Purpose brought together nearly 200 pro bono provider organizations, corporate social responsibility (CSR) leaders, nonprofit professionals & pro bono consultants/volunteers to make connections, share best practices and learn how companies are helping social good organizations accomplish their mission.
The legal profession has provided pro bono legal support for generations, and based on the success of this model in recent years other professionals—accountants, designers, HR professionals, data scientists, technologists, strategists and the like—have begun to demonstrate their commitment to skilled volunteerism, as well. I was pleased to serve on a panel entitled, “How Fortune 500 Companies are Changing the Pro Bono Landscape in NYC,” alongside Meredith Hahn, VP of CSR at American Express and Monica Chaves, VP of Corporate Philanthropy & Citizenship at MasterCard. We all touched on a range of topics that explored key ways to effectively leverage the pro bono resources, specifically those outside the legal profession that corporations bring to the marketplace.
At one point, moderator Rob Acton, Executive Director of Taproot Foundation in NYC, asked what he framed as a “hardball” question, giving the panelists the opportunity to reflect on two special challenges in corporate pro bono. The question went something like this:
In Taproot Foundation’s book, Powered by Pro Bono, we identify two key risks in corporate pro bono:
- First, employees can have a sudden increase in their work requirements and find it difficult to prioritize a pro bono engagement or complete the work in a timely way.
- Second, many corporate employees don’t typically serve as consultants in their everyday work. Because they are not trained as consultants, working with external clients is often new to them.
The panelists’ collective responses provided the 100+ attendees with an inside look into the corporate pro bono world, touching on these and other considerations. The following are the top tips that came out of the discussion.
Six Keys to Effective Corporate Pro Bono Programs
- Appoint an executive champion. While it is true that work requirements will ebb and flow, having a bold-faced name from within the company prominently linked to the success of the program will ensure it remains a priority to the employees who’ve signed up.
- Ensure back-up. Team-based pro bono assignments make sense in the corporate setting. If the pro bono is being delivered by an individual, he or she becomes the sole driver of the initiative. With a team-based model, if one member falls off the project, other employees can keep the engagement moving forward.
- Be clear with nonprofit partners that pro bono is a two-way street. Our executives and employees have a lot to offer, but it can’t be received in a vacuum. Proper preparation by nonprofit organizations includes a careful detailing of what will be expected from their team members, as well as the team members on the company’s side.
- Align the nonprofit organizations with areas of philanthropic focus. When the pro bono program is aligned with a significant strategic focus, there will be even greater investment from the company’s employees. For example, the Citi Foundation has a deep commitment to women economic empowerment and we have hosted our Citi Skills Marathon (our done-in-a-day skill based model) during International Women’s Day, which is viewed as an important day across the company. This alignment helps ensure that our employees’ work responsibility won’t suddenly get in the way.
- Use pro bono programming as a “dating” opportunity. Corporate foundations are regularly asked for financial support from nonprofits that we haven’t worked with before. Sometimes there are questions about the organization’s leadership, team, effectiveness or programmatic impact. Pro bono service is a great way to “pick the wheels” of a new nonprofit partner to explore whether, in fact, there is a good fit, on both ends, for deeper involvement.
- Ensure project scope is clearly understood. One of the fears executives and employees experience in raising their hand to provide pro bono service is based in the concern mentioned above “that they aren’t consultants in their day job. By carefully scoping out the project identifying timelines, indicating necessary skills, clearly explaining what the deliverable is and what it is not, we reduce the risks associated with mismatching employee skills to project need.
Pro Bono Day highlighted how we can make an impact in our communities when we harness the energy, interest, and excitement around serving and volunteerism.
To learn more about how you can be part of this growing movement and for help on building an effective corporate pro bono program, check out the wealth of resources on the Pro Bono in Corporations page.
Florencia Spangaro is Director of Stakeholder Engagement and Strategy at Citi Foundation.