A Pro Bono Revolutionary: Taproot’s Aaron Hurst
This blog originally appeared in Forbes.com.
A taproot is the core root of a plant that gathers nutrients from lateral roots and delivers them to the plant so it can flourish. Which makes it the perfect name for an organization that sees itself as a taproot for the nonprofit sector, drawing nutrients from the business community and delivering them to nonprofits so they can thrive.
Aaron Hurst launched Taproot in 2001 as a way to make pro-bono service a part of every business. The company divides its focus amongst three programs: the Service Grant Program, which operates in five cities and engages professionals in pro-bono services; advisory services, which support companies in developing their own customized pro-bono programs; and advocacy, in which Taproot partners with leading foundations, universities and other organizations to innovate new solutions for pro-bono services. In 2008, Taproot became the leading national advocate for pro-bono service and partnered with the White House to launch A Billion Plus Change, a national campaign to mobilize billions of dollars of pro-bono and skills-based volunteering by 2013 to address core issues our communities face across the country and around the world.
Taproot is reinventing corporate philanthropy by changing the way businesses impact their communities through skills-based volunteering. I had the chance to sit down with Aaron Hurst to learn more about his remarkable organization.
Ryan: You describe Taproot as leading a global service movement. What exactly is that movement and how are you moving it forward?
Aaron: The movement is fundamentally to have professionals recognize the honor and privilege to be able to work in their field, realizing that many can’t afford their services and changing what it means to be a professional to include doing good work, pro-bono work, which is the literal translation. So to think about it as a movement, it’s really about changing what it means to be a graphic designer, or a marketer, an IT professional, etc. It’s about realizing that 300 years ago, there were doctors and lawyers, and they recognized early on that these professionals were critical to the survival of individuals and society, and therefore they helped those who couldn’t afford their services. I think that in today’s society, pro-bono legal and medical services remain critical, but other professions have emerged that are absolutely critical to organizational survival, and that same method must become ingrained in these other professions.
Ryan: What inspired you to create Taproot?
Aaron: The inspiration came from starting my career in the nonprofit sector. I saw the barriers that nonprofits face and wanted to scale the impact they’re reaching for in society. I realized that yes, money’s an issue, but a huge part of the problem is the lack of access to talent, the functional talent that is really needed to scale an organization. And so Taproot came out of that entrepreneurial “ah ha!” moment, from seeing that we could create a parallel philanthropic marketplace, a consulting marketplace of talent.
Ryan: A few years ago, your groundbreaking Service Grants Program was noted as the country’s largest nonprofit consulting firm. Can that program scale up to the size that you’re anticipating we need in order to solve the problems that we face?
Aaron: Absolutely not. I think that there are so many nonprofits in this country and around the world that no one program can scale to the point to address the consulting needs of the nonprofit sector. You can’t have one company that solves all the consulting needs of every other company. The service grant was the lab that we used to figure out how to make pro-bono reliable and high-impact. And as we get to our second act now, the role of the program is shifting to proving that pro-bono can actually have that impact, switching a lot of the services that we offer and trying to understand which types of consulting services really make a difference for nonprofits.
Ryan: What are you going to do with that information? Will you be able to scale up those programs?
Aaron: Yes. First we get to the point where we really understand how those services can work well, and then we can train companies, universities, and other organizations to implement them. We see ourselves increasingly as an advocate and a R&D organization, helping to figure out what works. But instead of us thinking about the scaling of that as something that we do, it becomes something that we enable our partners to do, because they have a much bigger network than we do.
Ryan: Who are some of those partners?
Aaron: We work with over 30 companies. For example, American Express just launched their pro-bono platform that we helped build, and we work with everyone from Linkedin to Deloitte, to Gap, Inc. to Capital One, where they’re hiring us to basically build out their pro-bono platforms programs. That’s one piece. And we’re increasingly working with universities to look at how you get professional schools to produce higher quality, higher volume pro-bono work for their local nonprofits.
Ryan: So do you see companies engaging their employees in more of a Taproot style?
Aaron: We found that it’s more and more an extension of philanthropy versus volunteerism. And certainly there is a way to become a venture philanthropist, so they’re saying, we’re giving money to these organizations that are very aligned to our strategy. We need to help them be successful and see pro-bono as a way to take more of a leadership role in the infrastructure of the sustainability of that organization. Whereas the emphasis for volunteerism tends to come more from an employee engagement driver.
Ryan: It seems to me that nonprofits have a role to play as businesses get more and more involved. How do you see this taking shape?
Aaron: I’ve been doing this work through an initiative called the CiYuan initiative, looking at the emerging philanthropic market in China. Part of what we’re working on right now is questioning what assumptions do we have about the role of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector in the U.S., that we actually think are here for the long-term and are healthy, and we never want to export to another country. Because we feel that outsourcing pro-bono is fundamentally counterproductive to the needs of our country’s nonprofits. Anytime you’ve got a society where one organization shifts, it causes shifts around them. So building off of that, the role of nonprofits will shift. I think that in the next 25 years we still need to do some really hard thinking about what the role of government is, and I think that’s actually a bigger variable than the corporation question. Are we really fundamentally okay with the sort of Reagan-inspired vision of society in which government is as small as possible, and nonprofits and companies and others are asked to step up and fill that void, or swing back to say there are certain fundamental things that we think are critical to society, and that are too important to trust to the marketplace and be owned and managed by the people. To me that’s a much bigger swing of what we might see in the next 25 years, and research tends to go in 30-year cycles, where our understanding of what government is and what matters change.
Ryan: How does Taproot work with corporations and foundations to develop their pro-bono opportunities?
Aaron: For corporations, what we do is look at the company to understand the skillset, be it manufacturing jeans or managing IT departments, that is of great need to nonprofit organizations. And then we look at what are the types of nonprofit organizations that are aligned with their philanthropic strategy, or their fundamental business strategy, and think about how can you create a consulting firm inside a company. Most companies are not consulting firms; companies like Gap produce jeans. So how do you build the processes to solicit nonprofit applications, to screen them, to help build projects, to do the project management, etc. And it’s really having them take on the infrastructure of a consulting firm. So we come in and then start to scale that within the enterprise. Our goal is that every company will match the dollars they give to corporate philanthropy with equivalent dollars of pro-bono services. So how do you scale to that point? We’ve seen professional services firms do that, but most companies still give way more cash philanthropy than they do in pro-bono. But we’re seeing some companies like Capital One, where they’re starting to get close to that point.
Ryan: A Billion Plus Change is such a fascinating enterprise model. Can you talk about it?
Aaron: Sure. One of the things that we realized when we figured out how to make pro-bono work, we came to the “ah ha” moment that we can’t do this alone, we’ve got to figure out a way to get every company to do this. We were able to partner with Jean Case, Chair of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation, to have the President put forward this challenge to impose change, to challenge companies to pledge over a billion dollars in pro-bono services, and really sort of kickstart the expectation of companies to build these programs. A Billion Plus Change was the program that we initiated based on that realization that we had come to a different place in the marketplace, from proof of concept, now to market development, and we’re really fortunate to have the President’s support in kicking it off. So far we have had pledges of $1.6 billion in pro-bono services.
Ryan: Do you ever hear objections for businesses to do pro-bono?
Aaron: Yes. The great thing about corporate volunteerism is employee engagement, and it’s a populist idea. So you look at these in terms of companies that say “what percent of our overall employee time is volunteered, we have 80% of all employees volunteering...” pro-bono doesn’t help with that, because pro-bono really only applies to a subset of the employee database. If you’re Target, the majority of your employees are out at stores and they are not in a position to do pro-bono service, typically. So for a company that has a majority of their employees on the line, they have these professional skills that are not in demand by nonprofits. They’re coming from a volunteerism point of view and they can’t take advantage of those employees.
Ryan: I see. So it just becomes too expensive per person. Are you able to describe a bottom line benefit from the pro-bono service of their employees? Is there some type of measurement tracking?
Aaron: There are different pieces to it; it’s not a completely linear process. There’s a question of impact on nonprofits and there’s a question about the business benefit. Through an organization called True Impact, what we have been able to do is look at the relative impact of pro-bono versus non-skilled corporate volunteering. Professional development outcomes in terms of marketing outcome and employee satisfaction outcome with pro-bono consistently score higher by a large margin than other forms of service, so it’s more of a relative measurement than it is an absolute measurement.
Ryan: What’s your advice to businesses about getting involved with pro-bono work?
Aaron: My broad advice is to really think about what the impact is that you want to have on the community. And think about what are the things that your company can uniquely provide to address that issue. I think you come out from that point of view, you’ll end up in the right place. At the end of the day, more employees care about the impact of your company than they care about the opportunity for them to be involved, and you need to really think about 10 years from now; what impact do you want to say you had, and how are you uniquely able to do that?
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