The following is a conversation between Lindsay Firestone Gruber, President and CEO of Taproot Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Pro bono is a Latin phrase that means “for the public good.” Leading the way to help provide critical pro bono services to the nonprofit community is the Taproot Foundation. And here to discuss what they do and how they do it, it’s a pleasure to have with us Lindsay Firestone Gruber, the President and CEO of the Taproot Foundation.
Good evening, Lindsay, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Lindsay: Thank you. I am thrilled to be here with you.
Denver: Let me start by asking you: How and where did pro bono work get started?
Lindsay: The origin of pro bono is interesting because first, as you mentioned, it’s a legal term; though as I often joke, people seem to think it’s Latin for free legal services, and in reality, it’s for the public good. We think of pro bono as most commonly associated with legal work, largely because of how much of that movement was able to be created in the ‘60s with this charge to the legal community that the only way to really bring a lot of our – at the time – new civil rights policies to life was in ensuring that we were able to take it through the courts and through the court system, which really required that type of support.
But in reality, individuals, communities, organizations need all kinds of professional services, not just in the legal realm: HR, marketing, IT, analysis, strategic planning. All these pieces are critical and yet, unlike the legal profession, up until a decade or two ago, there really weren’t the same types of channels to get access. So, in reality, a lot of it either came through the sister-in-law of a board member, who happened to be a graphic designer, or for the handful of organizations that were lucky enough to have a direct connection to a professional services firm.
Denver: So what would the difference be between volunteering – voluntary services – and pro bono work?
Lindsay: We like to describe it as being a part of a spectrum where across every type of volunteering, there’s a range of needs on the nonprofit side they’re helping to address. So, with traditional hands-on volunteering, you are lending extra hands to the organization. You are helping that organization deliver their services directly to the community, whether that’s ladling soup in the soup kitchen, or stuffing backpacks with school supplies that are needed – critical work to help those organizations bring their programs to life.
But as you move across the spectrum, you’re getting more focused on the types of skills being used to deliver that support and then, ultimately, who you’re supporting. So, there’s a category then of skills-based volunteering. This includes the continued sort of extra hand support, being able to use skills in resume review, being able to help do mentoring and tutoring, still helping directly deliver services for the organization.
But the other way to use your skills in a volunteer capacity is serving the organization itself, helping the organization’s infrastructure and leadership, and that for us, is where we get into the category we describe as pro bono professional services. It’s taking advantage of those professional skills – the expertise you would otherwise be paid for – and providing that on a voluntary basis to support organizations.
Denver: Well, let’s talk about paying for it. Is there an estimated value or average for what an hour of pro bono work is worth?
Lindsay: There is, and we’ve actually just come out with an update recently as we like to do every few years. So as of early October, the new hourly value for pro bono work on average is $195 an hour –
Denver: That’s a lot!
Lindsay: It is. And even then, it’s still a sort of low-balled average because it’s meant to be used only when you don’t otherwise have access to a market rate. So if you’re working directly with a professional services firm that otherwise is able, on a regular basis, to provide some kind of valuation for that service, use that. But in the absence of that, which is really how most pro bono exists, it’s incredibly valuable, both for the nonprofit beneficiary and for the volunteers or the company behind that work, to really be able to put a dollar value equivalent against that valuable time and expertise.
Denver: That certainly is significant because if I remember correctly, I think the value of a volunteer hour, like in a soup kitchen, is about $25 or somewhere in that neck of the woods.
Lindsay: That’s right. There’s a really marked difference, and as I mentioned, both have their place and provide incredible value to the organization, but they’re serving different needs. And frankly, both also take different resources on the side of the organization as well to bring them to life. So, it can be really helpful on both ends to have that distinction, be able to report on it in a valuable way, and use that also to make the case for how important it is both to receive those pro bono services and to make sure they keep getting provided to the field.
The taproot itself is that core root of a plant that helps bring the nutrients from the soil up into the plant in order to allow it to thrive. So, similarly, we ourselves as an organization look to play that role for the nonprofit sector, bringing all of the resources we can together in order to then feed these organizations, provide these organizations with that support so that they, too, can thrive in achieving their mission.
Denver: Got you. Well, the Taproot Foundation was founded in 2001. Tell us the significance of “Taproot.”
Lindsay: Well, the name “Taproot” itself was actually brought about through a pro bono project, leveraging marketing and branding professionals, to help ensure we had the right branding for the organization, which was founded by Aaron Hurst.
The taproot itself is that core root of a plant that helps bring the nutrients from the soil up into the plant in order to allow it to thrive. So, similarly, we ourselves as an organization look to play that role for the nonprofit sector, bringing all of the resources we can together in order to then feed these organizations, provide these organizations with that support so that they, too, can thrive in achieving their missions.
Denver: Would you know offhand the number of pro bono hours that Taproot has been able to help access and provide to nonprofit organizations, and what that total value would be since inception?
Lindsay: Yes. Actually, it’s pretty exciting because we’ve recently had an update as we’ve had the chance to go through where we are currently as an organization. So coming up now on being around for the number of years we have, we have served over 1.6 million volunteer hours through pro bono service, valued at just under $200 million.
Denver: That’s fantastic.
Lindsay: Yes. It’s incredibly exciting, and it’s through a lot of work from 2001 all the way until now.
Denver: How difficult is it to match supply and demand – the services the nonprofit organizations really need, and then the supply of qualified and interested professionals out there to provide them?
Lindsay: It’s a great question, in particular because for folks who are outside of this field, who aren’t living and breathing pro bono service on a daily basis in the way we do, it is often a counterintuitive answer. Because in reality, with that supply-demand challenge, the real challenge tends to be on the side of not having enough nonprofit organizations that are ready and available to engage in receiving these services.
The need is pervasive; there’s no question there. But it takes a lot for an organization, who is almost always understaffed and under-resourced, to be able to pause, do some diagnostic work to understand what their core challenges are that they’re facing in the first place, be able to actually have the right subject matter expertise on tap to get more specific about the nature of what the cause of that challenge might be, and then have the time and staff availability to participate in receiving pro bono service. Whereas on the flip side, we thankfully over all these years, have been able to engage tens of thousands of professionals in providing their skills through these pro bono arrangements.
So, across the field, it really is actually more of an issue from a supply-demand standpoint in having enough ready and prepared organizations that are in the right time and place to receive these services.
Denver: Well, as someone who has spent their entire life in the nonprofit sector, that answer does not surprise me at all. They just don’t have the bandwidth. And I always feel, too, that these organizations are going to become more dependent on volunteer or pro bono labor because we were talking about philanthropy with one of my guests a while ago, and we were saying that the millennials can’t pay off their student loan, can’t buy a house and don’t have a lot of money, and the older population hasn’t saved for retirement. So, I begin to see this volunteerism, in both the volunteer sense and the pro bono sense, becoming more paramount, and nonprofits would really stand to benefit if they allowed that bandwidth in their organization to provide for this kind of help.
Lindsay: Absolutely – allowed, and were enabled to. I think we’re actually at an incredible moment right now… Incredibly challenging? Yes, but an incredible moment right now where for the first time in a long time, we’re seeing things come together across sectors that all address that particular challenge.
So just a few weeks ago, there was an incredibly important announcement that was made, courtesy of a number of foundation leaders – from the Ford Foundation, from Hewlett Foundation, from Packard, MacArthur – truly identifying and recognizing and putting a stake in the ground for their peers– the idea that the true costs of nonprofit service delivery is far higher than the cost these organizations are often allowed to share, frankly, in their grant proposals, and identifying how critical it is that funders, as well as other parties across this whole ecosystem that support these organizations, recognize that; and recognize the fact that having the right kind of IT better enables an organization to fulfill their mission, that being able to invest to some degree in the professional development and performance management of their staff allows an organization to better fulfill the project and program that a foundation wants to fund. That’s a big deal.
Denver: It really is. This overhead myth – everybody has identified and talked about for 10- to 20 years, and this was one of the first concrete actions that really addressed it… because these foundations knew… and they’ve told me that this conversation was not an honest conversation… Everybody was playing a game in terms of what that was, and everybody knew that wasn’t the case.
Lindsay: I think it was Darren Walker who said in the article that we’re kidding ourselves.
Denver: Yes. We’re kidding ourselves. That’s exactly right.
Well, for somebody who is going to do some pro bono work, what are the different kinds of engagements in terms of working with a nonprofit organization? The duration, whether it’s on-site or virtual… Give us an idea of what that menu looks like.
Lindsay: One thing that I think is very important to bear in mind, both for the nonprofit’s themselves and for any potential volunteer in this arena, is that it doesn’t have to look one way… which is the same in any other sector– When you think about consulting or professional services projects, you really want to start with the need first and then identify the approach to addressing that need that’s going to make the most sense.
So, what that can also mean is that providing pro bono services can really be valuable, ranging from a one-hour consultation – we like to think of it as a virtual office hour with a subject matter expert to help the leader of an organization really chew on or discuss or get some professional guidance around a particular challenge – all the way through being on a long-term, in-depth, scoped-out pro bono project or, frankly, even serving on the board or operating in a sort of on-call capacity.
You see that a lot more in the legal arena where you have a particular law firm or lawyer that’s on call to provide pro bono service in that arena. You really see that in a marketing, HR, IT capacity. But then there are so many different ways in between those two poles that are incredibly valuable, whether it’s a one-day deep dive working session on a project, being able to work together over a few weeks. There’s a big range. The main thing that matters the most is that both parties upfront establish the scope that’s going to make the most sense with the challenge at hand and with the amount of time that both people can provide.
…good intentions always bring people together from a pro bono standpoint, but it’s intentionality that actually ensures that pro bono can be effective for everyone involved.
Denver: “We’ll figure it out” doesn’t work.
Lindsay: Exactly. I’d like to say that good intentions always bring people together from a pro bono standpoint, but it’s intentionality that actually ensures that pro bono can be effective for everyone involved.
Denver: Lindsay, what are the biggest advantages to a corporation to partner with Taproot, and then allow their employees or encourage their employees who may be encouraging them to do this kind of work for a nonprofit organization?
Lindsay: As you referenced, about 10 years ago, we expanded our work to also working with companies to help them strategize around and then build and run effective pro bono programs, leveraging their own employees. I begin that work within our organization in large part in response to seeing how many needs, of course, nonprofits had, and the diversity of needs and the ability to tap into those skills within the corporate arena.
Simultaneously, so many companies, particularly back in 2008 when this work in particular began, we’re seeing a dip frankly in their traditional grant-making to organizations, and we’re needing to focus on retaining their key talent. It’s the combination of those two things that can be incredibly advantageous for companies when they think about a pro bono program. You’re able to provide incredibly valuable support to the organizations and communities and issue areas you care about by providing this type of support, which can also take your grant dollars even farther by building the capacity of organizations.
Denver: I would imagine they’re kind of linked together, too.
Lindsay: They really should be.
Denver: Where their people are donating their services, the corporate dollars are going to probably be aligned with that.
Lindsay: Many companies provide pro bono services to organizations that are already their grantees, and something else we like to see is that many companies actually use pro bono programs as a chance to support organizations that are also outside of their regular grantee pool.
Then, in addition, something that has been really pronounced over the last several years, is the talent development side of what a pro bono program can do for a company,…really being transformational in the area, not just of skill development per se – because folks participating in a pro bono project should always be bringing the right level of professional expertise at the start of the project – but more around these competencies that you so often hear now described in the context of “the future of work”: really being able to make sure folks are bringing empathy to the work they’re doing; being able to navigate ambiguity; being able to work with external stakeholders and clients– particularly maybe in a business environment where folks’ roles on a day-to-day basis are all about working internally– being able to work on a team and navigate in that way. So, we’ve seen an incredible uptick from the talent development side in terms of pro bono programs now really being adopted within the HR realm of a company as well.
Denver: Are you doing anything with the nonprofit organizations to try to get them up and ready to avail themselves of these services? Because we know they need them, and they know they need them – they just can’t set aside that time to prepare themselves to do it.
Lindsay: Absolutely. It’s one of our key focuses, and there are a few ways that we invest in doing it on an ongoing basis… and then a few exciting things we’re looking to do going forward.
One is that with our online pro bono platform, which is just taprootplus.org, always free to every organization and volunteer that wants to use it. One of the things we integrated into that is the chance to have these online consultations – again, these sorts of virtual office hour sessions. That can be an outstanding way for someone at a nonprofit organization to be able to directly tap someone who has subject matter expertise in a particular area to talk through a challenge.
What I often like to say is: When you’re not feeling well, and you go to the doctor, you’re not expected to go in and say, “I have a pain in my side. It’s appendicitis. What you’re going to do is operate, give me penicillin, send me on my way.” You go in and you say, “I have a pain in my side.”
Denver: Although we’re starting to do that.
Lindsay: Well, thanks to Google. True. And I’m sure the doctors love it when that happens.
Denver: Oh, they love it.
Lindsay: But you’re expected to go in and say, “I have a pain in my side,” and you let folks who have expertise in this area work with you to understand what the diagnosis is and the treatment that might make the most sense. And yet for some reason, we expect nonprofit organizations in particular to be responsible for somehow being able to tap the right expertise to diagnose their own needs and identify the types of solutions that are needed. So, having that immediate access to have that one-hour consultation, or to come back for more, frankly, can be a really transformational way to start to get to the core root challenge that is really defining a challenge for an organization.
In addition, we have readiness trainings and workshops, and we have a model of pro bono we call the ScopeAthon which is an event specifically focused solely on helping organizations scope out what the actual challenge is at hand, and I think that’s important for folks to recognize that even just the diagnostic work, that type of support, in and of itself, is a valuable pro bono project, a valuable skills-based volunteering exercise. Companies and individual volunteers and board members would really be well-served to remember that and to offer that type of support to the nonprofits with whom they work, where all they have to say is a category of challenge they have, as opposed to being expected already to come to that core diagnosis before getting support.
Denver: I love that idea of that online virtual hour because it’s hard sometimes for a nonprofit organization to know the real value of pro bono work. Asking them to take a big leap might be too much, but to get an hour and to see the value of that hour, and then maybe get another hour, and then begin to say, “We can actually use a couple people like this. It’s a wonderful way to get them in the front door.
Lindsay: Exactly. You get your project scope, you submit your project description online on Taproot Plus, you get your project right away, or you take the results from your conversation, and you bring them back internally to have a project be done or to work in another capacity. It really is a gateway, on both sides, frankly, that can be helpful in opening that up.
Denver: Exactly right. Well, tomorrow is the start of Pro Bono Week, which runs from October 20-26. What’s the significance of that week, and what are a few of the things you have lined up?
Lindsay: So Pro Bono Week was started by the American Bar Association. We were thrilled a number of years ago when we found out about it and said, “Hey. Can we co-opt this event? …outside of just the legal profession,” because we obviously feel very strongly about the power and importance of pro bono, but it is not a topic in and of itself that will often have a lot of attention.
And so we worked a number of years ago to be able to spread this idea of what is now a global Pro Bono Week across a global network of pro bono organizations, a network that we helped found along, with the BMW Foundation, in order to have it be something that could be adopted by organizations everywhere that are a part of providing pro bono support… which means, over the course of Pro Bono Week, there will be thousands of stories told by nonprofits who have received pro bono, by intermediaries who have helped make pro bono happen, the companies that are part of it, the volunteers.
For us, in Pro Bono Week this year, we’re particularly focusing on that storytelling and being able to share some incredible stories of what it’s meant for organizations and for volunteers when they’ve been able to come together in this way.
Denver: And Giving Tuesday is just around the corner. It’s going to be December 3 this year, and you’ve developed a Giving Tuesday pro bono toolkit. Tell us about that.
Lindsay: We’ve been so excited to be able to bring this to life the last few years. Giving Tuesday is such an incredible campaign and opportunity to direct attention in that “giving spirit” after Black Friday—
Denver: And actually, I think it’s eclipsed Black Friday. Black Friday is probably starting around now. Everybody tries to preempt it, so it’s becoming bigger than Black Friday and Small Business Saturday.
Lindsay: It is very true and something that is really incredible to see. We love the fact that so many folks are now inclined to want to give on that day. The challenge is that for the nonprofit organizations to really best take advantage of it, unsurprisingly, it would mean it’s helpful for them to have some good digital marketing, to make sure that their websites and their giving platforms are as up-to-date and high-capacity as possible to really take advantage of it. And it often can be right around the time of Giving Tuesday that folks might be inclined to start offering that support, but we’ve recognized that it’s actually several months in advance that it’s most valuable for organizations to get that support.
So now in partnership with them, we began having webinars in the spring and summer, and providing a tool kit that enables organizations to get the pro bono support they need in time to have that campaign ready, to have that new web page up and launched, to really dig in on the key messages and other components that frankly often are the key ingredients to effective fundraising. That way, they’re ready to take advantage of Giving Tuesday.
Denver: I just get worried that nonprofit organizations are going to start to have their Giving Tuesday a week earlier than the real Giving Tuesday, the way Walmart and everybody else does when they have their early Black Friday sale also.
Lindsay: Fair enough. But if people want to give both times, we will not argue with that.
In addition to how incredibly important and inspiring our mission is, I think one of the things that we hear time and time again from all of the staff who’ve come through the Taproot Foundation is how amazing our fellow “roots” are – as we call our colleagues at the Taproot Foundation – and how important our core values are to us as an organization.
Denver: That sounds good for everybody.
Lindsay, what’s it like to work at the Taproot Foundation? What do you think makes the corporate culture so special?
Lindsay: I have to say I think I am a very specific example of how amazing it is to work at Taproot because I myself have actually been at the Taproot Foundation since 2004. So, clearly, I’ve wanted to stick around. In addition to how incredibly important and inspiring our mission is, I think one of the things that we hear time and time again from all of the staff who’ve come through the Taproot Foundation is how amazing our fellow “roots” are – as we call our colleagues at the Taproot Foundation – and how important our core values are to us as an organization.
We’ve been really intentional in the way we’ve articulated them. We believe strongly in having pragmatic optimism, which I think is a very apt description for really being ambitious and wanting to change the world, and making sure that we’re arming ourselves appropriately to be able to do that. We believe that everything we do has to be impact-oriented, so we keep that core beneficiary in our mind first and foremost. We believe in progress. We don’t want to just be another good nonprofit organization; we want to keep moving forward with what’s possible and seeing around the corner. And we believe in playful professionalism – we bring our full selves to work and recognize that that is part of what makes us an incredible organization.
And that is really the core list of ingredients that makes a culture at Taproot so incredible and allows us to have amazingly intelligent, diverse, creative people all together towards this common cause of making sure nonprofits have what they need to be successful.
… we know the incredible connection one can have when you see what can happen when an organization gets some support in an area that allows their own programming to take off, that helps improve their effectiveness and their efficiency and their reach.
Denver: Four wonderful pillars.
Let me close with this, and I want to pick up on what you said a moment ago about your pro bono story and that big promotion you have. Tell us why that is so important, what it can do to help advance this field; and then share a story with us.
Lindsay: I would love to, and as you can imagine, it’s always hard for me to narrow down so many incredible stories into just one, but I’m pleased to be able to do that.
One of the reasons why it is so important is that when you think of something like pro bono service, something that is incredibly valuable, but a little more indirect, you don’t necessarily have the same benefit of being able to show the picture of the adorable puppies that the shelters have in helping to support.
Denver: You’re not on the front line.
Lindsay: You don’t have that same direct connection. But we know the incredible connection one can have when you see what can happen when an organization gets some support in an area that allows their own programming to take off, that helps improve their effectiveness and their efficiency and their reach. So that’s why we’re gathering those stories to be able to showcase them as a part of Pro Bono Week.
So I have many of my own, as you can imagine, but one that actually just came back to my mind this past week was the incredible work we had to do actually here in New York with the Children’s Museum of the Arts, which is an amazing institution in and of itself, but also does incredible work for the community in having programming that is open and available to students and children coming from a variety of settings, and really having those connections with a variety of institutions to help make sure they get access to those types of programs and support.
It’s an incredible example because Barbara Hunt McLanahan, who was the executive director when we first became acquainted with the museum, participated in one of our 9/11 Day of Service Speed Consulting events, which we’re able to do, courtesy of American Express’ support. It allowed her as a non-profit executive to be able to have three rotating consultations with an expert in HR, an expert in marketing, and an expert in financial analysis. She came up to me afterward – and I remember this so clearly – and said that this was exactly what she and the organization had needed in order to then identify where they needed to prioritize their work across those three areas.
Fast -forward to me seeing her just a couple years later at another pro bono even, she let me know that they had actually created plans and strategies based on each of those different areas of advisement, and had pursued follow- up pro bono projects, including one through an incredible program we were able to do with UBS that helped redefine the way the museum was able to best take advantage of their programming, of their open hours, of their fees, in order to make sure as many children and families as possible can be served.
I did actually, unfortunately, learn just the other week that Barbara sadly passed away this summer, and I was so proud and pleased of what we were able to do together. So gutted to learn of her passing, but so honored to have had the chance to work together and be a part of the incredible legacy that she’s left in this museum.
Denver: An incredible legacy… a transformational engagement, for sure.
Well, Lindsay Firestone Gruber, the President and CEO of the Taproot Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. What action would you like listeners to take, whether they’re an individual with some skills… maybe representing the corporation, or so importantly, maybe part of a nonprofit?
Lindsay: The easy thing that can actually be relevant for everyone you just listed is to go to taprootplus.org. That’s a great way to get started as a non-profit, as a business professional, as a company in finding an easy, effective, and well-thought-out way to be able to engage in pro bono service. And from there, there are so many other resources available on the Taproot Foundation website that can help you get started to receive pro bono or to find the best ways possible to engage in providing it.
Denver: You sing that website. It’s like it’s a jingle.
Lindsay: Maybe we should have one. We’ll get a pro bono project to get one developed.
Denver: There you go. Well, thanks, Lindsay. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Lindsay: Thanks for having me here. So glad to be a part of this.
Denver: I’ll be back with more after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.