Early in the morning on March 24, I was met with a calendar alert that read “MasterCard Pro Bono Challenge.” While I was excited about what the day would bring, I also felt a slight thread of anxiety at the proposition of being away from my desk and the bottomless abyss of my inbox for one whole day. As many nonprofit leaders can attest, in one day, the world can change: you find out your largest donor’s funding priorities have shifted, program evaluations need to be completed, reports turned in, and so on. So when you decide to devote an entire day to one discreet “challenge,” it has to be for a good reason.
For the YMCA it was the impending launch of a new program called BETAgirls. YMCA BETAgirls is a STEM and entrepreneurship program which educates high school-aged young women about the many STEM career fields, teaches them how to create mobile applications and allows them to participate in a nationwide mobile application competition. Our challenge was to develop a plan to recruit the initial group of young women that would participate in the program – but we walked away with that and so much more.
The initial appeal of the MasterCard Pro Bono challenge is, to be frank, free labor – and not just any type of free labor, but highly skilled free labor. Having access to professionals at the pinnacle of their careers that most nonprofit organizations, including larger organizations like the Y, can’t always afford to engage is significant. My Y team was paired with 5 MasterCard professionals who were handpicked based on their areas of expertise and our needs. At the end of a very full day, we walked away with a detailed communications plan and distilled and powerful language that effectively conveyed the purpose and appeal of the YMCA BETAgirls program – language I was able to use less than one week later as I began recruitment for the program.
However, one of the most important takeaways for me was the experience itself, the act of dedicating time, space and minds to one discreet issue. Oftentimes, especially in the nonprofit world, one person wears many hats, which means you are consistently thinking about multiple projects and attempting to navigate the many organizational priorities. While spending the day focusing on one discreet issue felt like a luxury, it is one I’d like to somehow infuse in our organizational culture. I left the MasterCard Pro Bono Challenge asking, “What if?” What if I could find the time and space to tap the talent we have within our organization to really tackle one small issue at a time instead of juggling them all? At first I believed the work I was engaged in and our cause were too great to add a full-day meeting to my calendar, but the time spent at the MasterCard Pro Bono Challenge was so valuable, I’ve begun to rethink my approach.
For any organizations that may be on the fence about participating in this day long challenge, I say take the plunge, it is well worth it. I unequivocally recommend that nonprofit organizations apply to participate in the MasterCard ProBono Challenge – that is of course, as long as they don’t take our spot for next year.
Shakira O’Kane is the Citywide Director of College and Career Access at YMCA of Greater New York.