Alexander Shermansong is the founding director of Civic Consulting, an organisation that focuses on urban innovation, by building partnerships across the city sector, private sector and non-profit/academic sector. Their goal is to help create a vibrant city life that is equitable and sustainable.
1. Tell us more about the national context in which your organisation operates: what might be specific to your country (culturally, socially, economically, on a legislative level etc) that might make your work as a pro bono facilitator different from other facilitators in the world.
There is quite a history around pro bono work in the US and quite a number of national volunteering organisations. Around urban innovation more specifically, the major trend in the US is the proliferation of private sector players that are interested in urban innovation. And there is an expectation on the government side that private players will be a significant part of the answer. That affects how we define projects, who’s involved in them and the kind of outcomes we can hope for.
2. Most pro bono facilitators run programmes involving one or several corporate professionals to share their skills with a non-profit. Your activity is therefore innovative compared with this “traditional” model because you use pro bono to the benefit of the public sector.
Working with the public sector is different in a few ways. Often the problems are more complex compared with an individual NGO or a specific community organisation. That means the type of services to be brought might need to be more varied and to extend over more time. When you work with the public sector, there’s a level of visibility, whether it’s the pulpit of city hall, the transparency of good government journalism, the regular disclosures that are required etc. As a result, there’s potential for greater conflicts of interests and needs for greater controls and disclosures.
You need to find the right match between the problem, the volunteer and the specific assignment: getting those things to fit together well is part of the challenge.
3. What are the different activities that you put into place within your organisation?
One thing we worked on is around the election of new executives like mayors and governors. There is no facility in this country to help them transition into office. We worked with quite a few, on how you go from running a campaign to be an executive governing role, building a team, developing a plan…
We’ve also worked on disaster response, where there are gaps in what the public sector can do and how to find private sector players help fill that.
A third is around creating new programmes where there’s clearly a need but it’s not clear exactly how to fill that need: so helping define a new programme and stand that up so that it can run in a sustainable fashion.
4. Can you share with us an inspiring example of a pro bono programme you put in place recently ?
The latest city we worked with is Baltimore. It is a fairly large city near Washington DC. It has a challenging history of poverty and violence. The city government was really a pioneering city government in the early days in the mid-90s and early 2000s and seen a number of leadership crises since then. As the city has developed, it’s become rather bifurcated between parts that are more violent with low-quality buildings in bad shape and others that are newly built, with skyscrapers.
So the programme we developed was with business leaders who were looking to find new ways to contribute to the future of the city, help it be more vibrant, attract workers and do business. We worked with the city to develop a skilled volunteering programme. The initial focus was around safety.
When you think about the safety and when you think about the skills in the private sector, there’s not a lot that a marketing executive could tell you about the proper way to patrol the neighbourhood or an IT executive could tell you the right way to respond to domestic disturbance… but what the private sector can tell you about is how you maintain your equipment, how you make sure the department has the operational needs to carry out its mission. We looked at the operational undercurrents of the public safety department to make sure it has a strong operational base.
The first phase of the project took about 9 months. The city team has since focused very heavily on Covid-19, and food access. Now with the police protests going on around the country, it’s a big question about how things are going to happen.
Developing trust with communities is not what companies are best at. So I’m not sure that it might be the best use of skilled resources. Where there is the best use is where there are techniques within the company that are clearly transferrable. In a school context for instance: what is the right way to get kids into schools, how you ensure nutritious meals at schools etc. Those are basic supply chain and transport / logistic questions.
Many people focus on the readiness at the beginning of the project, but it’s the readiness at the end which is more important : make it clear upfront what you will be able to do differently if the project works well. The client needs to be ready to take action and make sure that the work is done and implemented.
5. You work with universities, which provides volunteers for skills-based volunteering projects. How do you work with them?
In Chicago, we developed a long-running programme with professional schools, to bring on Summer interns. Those people work full time and often work with professionals on the team. In New York, we worked a lot with NYC university, which has pretty deep ties with New York City. Those projects are either through a faculty member or with a class working in a relevant area.
We had a number of students working last year with Jersey city, doing a variety of analytics projects and responses to challenges that the city has.
You need to find the right match between the problem, the volunteer and the specific assignment: getting those things to fit together well is part of the challenge. A critical part for making this right is the client readiness. Many people focus on the readiness at the beginning of the project, but it’s the readiness at the end which is more important : make it clear upfront what you will be able to do differently if the project works well. The client needs to be ready to take action and make sure that the work is done and implemented.
One of the hardest things about work like this is to develop trust and keep it going. It takes time in a relationship to develop that trust, to spend time working and defining a problem together so that people are all looking at it the same way, as well as getting to know each other as individuals.
6. How do you make sure people can work together? As a facilitator do you have a specific methodology?
One of the hardest things about work like this is to develop trust and keep it going. It takes time in a relationship to develop that trust, to spend time working and defining a problem together so that people are all looking at it the same way, as well as getting to know each other as individuals. To the extent that we are able to bring multiple people from the same company together, that creates a sense of camaraderie. And also if you can leverage a little bit of an organisation’s culture and structure, that helps people feel more comfortable in the work they’re doing, outside their regular assignment.
Creating very clear team outcomes can help, so people can trust each other on things that are smaller steps. Also providing outlets for issues that can come up, whether it’s through surveys, individual interactions with project managers or other chances for people to share concerns. And expecting that to happen.
Finally, we really try to get the volunteers into the shoes of the partner they’re working with, whether it’s spending time at the different work sites, or talk to clients that the organisation serves or interacting with the staff, so that they’re familiar with the organisation. If you have people from outside the organisation make recommendations without really understanding what you do and how you do it, the likelihood of those recommendations being used is limited.
7. You said that you believe the practice of skills-based volunteering will decrease in the next years to come: can you explain?
There is a few flavours of pro bono volunteering.
One part is through an individual who gives his skills or give a service, such as board service: this part will continue.
Another part is someone who does a project on his free time, and that’s continuing modestly as there are more intermediaries helping those people with short volunteering projects.
And there is a third area where the company has sponsored the project. That’s the part which I think is not going to grow for a number of reasons: 1) companies increasingly make their pro bono strategy part of their corporate level strategy, which means they’re budgeting this service at national and global level, so there’s less choice locally to do those things; 2) there has been a shift in the relationship between employers and employees, there have been efforts to have more purpose at work and create more choice opportunities, and the pro bono assignments provided that outlet for choice and purpose. But if major employers can now accommodate that in the course of a regular work week, there’s going to be less need to do that outside of work.
8. You are conducting research activities, can you tell us what they consist of?
We are doing research right now on organisational culture and city government, to try to understand how the unwritten rules affect how work actually gets done and how those unwritten rules might get reshaped. It is a national study, with a series of case studies across the country, made with university partners.
It is somehow related to work we have done a few years ago on how a pro bono assignment can affect the culture of a company that’s landing the resource.
9. Have you adapted your activity to the coronavirus situation? If yes, how? What does it change for you? Have you set up any special measures/device?
At the beginning of it, there was an outpouring energy and interest from the private sector side to do something related to volunteering. At the same time, on the public sector side, they were overwhelmed in responding to it. So in some cases began a decent fit between the interest level and useful application.
At this point, a lot of people are thinking about what the new normal is. Unemployment levels are potentially going to make a huge difference in terms of individuals who will be willing to do projects, and yet cut down the amount of corporate capacity to do projects. It will probably take 18 months for that corporate side to rebound.
10. Why is pro bono important according to you, and why it will be even more relevant in the future?
When I talk to people who are graduating, they are very focused on their job. And especially in the US, that’s how people define themselves. What I remind them, is that even if you are working a hundred hours a week, you still have tens and tens of hours to do other things each week. Some of it you’ll sleep, some of it you’ll eat, some of it you’ll play, but there’s always capacity to do other things with your life.
Skilled volunteering is a tremendous way for you to connect with folks, to meet people you would not meet otherwise and develop new parts of your skills set. The relevance for pro bono, especially in the early stage of one’s career, is the fact that it’s a wonderful way to diversify your skills and your network.
And for the organisation receiving services, there is such a focus right now on innovation and change, and what a great way to innovate is to intake people from outside the organisation who can question the thinking and suggest new ideas. Regardless of what the project is, the fact of opening yourself up to skilled volunteers might make your organisation more innovative.
🌏🧐 Interested by the International Panorama of pro bono study ? You can find the first results here.
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