Lindsay Firestone Gruber is the President and CEO of the Taproot Foundation. She joined Taproot a little over sixteen years ago, when it was a little start-up of around 6 people. She's had the chance to play many different roles and be a part of growing and evolving different iterations on the way Taproot has brought its mission to life, as well as support the larger pro bono movement.
Our goal is to help organizations that are driving positive social change get access to the resources they need to thrive. Our approach to ensuring they get those resources is through pro bono service. It’s the way we’ve chosen to contribute to solving this pervasive challenge that most organizations - nonprofits as we tend to label them in the US - are not able to allocate or even get the financial resources they need in order to invest in their ability to be as strong, effective and impactful organizations as they can be.
While we’d love for things to change for the better at the systemic level to eliminate this underlying issue in the first place, we also recognize that type of change is often slow, and we’ve seen over the last 20 years a substantial opportunity to really accelerate what can happen by supporting organizations though making very high-quality, thoughtfully designed pro bono service available in areas outside of just legal services.
Taproot was founded in 2001 the US and our original programming was all focused in the US. The volunteer side of our founding model involved finding, vetting and bringing together individual professionals into our ‘pro bono consultant’ database. They were staffed on pro bono project teams that we would help oversee delivering pro bono services to organizations that would apply to us for specific pro bono projects.
However, over the past two decades, as more intermediaries began to take shape, it was almost entirely the case that most models were based on partnering exclusively with companies as the source of volunteers. I think that distinction is easy to be forgotten in the “history” of the pro bono movement particularly with some of these older programs - that, at least in Taproot’s case, we weren’t directly working with companies in the first several years of our founding. To some degree, it speaks to the culture of volunteerism and of service and who we were focusing our efforts appealing to.
Early in the broader adoption of pro bono we weren’t focusing our limited resources appealing to employers to have them make the time and space and create programs. We were able to focus our early efforts and shape a deeper understanding of tenets of effective pro bono with the primary focus being on the need of the nonprofits (the beneficiary organizations) rather than starting from corporate objectives as the driving priority. It is also the version of Taproot that existed when what later became the Global Pro Bono Network began informally, when Ikuma Saga came from Japan to the US to learn more about the Service Grant program that our founder Aaron Hurst had put in place when he created Taproot. This was the construct we worked with. It wasn't about needing to understand and break down how the corporate sector works within and across different countries. It really began as a discussion about individuals and their identity and shared ethos as business professionals and wanting to use those skills to give back and support their community.
With corporate culture, the role of government in social services and many other factors differing so much between countries, it was this common appreciation of the power of the ‘pro bono ethic’ within a profession in which we found so much common ground around the potential of pro bono service. And that continues to shape and underscore so much of the way we work to this day. Both with our programming that still brings together individual business professionals as well as the programming we help design and run with companies leveraging their employees’ professional skills.
I think the fact that we had nearly ten years of proven success with that model alone is a relevant part of our own history and journey as well as that of the pro bono movement as we worked to expand that pro bono ethos outside of just the legal profession. It laid the foundation for us to later build impactful corporate pro bono programs that could always be grounded in the core tenets of effective pro bono service. We work with and have built a substantial number of corporate pro bono programs, but in doing so have remained grounded in that professional ethic of pro bono service and the needs-driven approach to pro bono service that is so critical to impactful work (and I know that’s something our corporate partners appreciate about us too).
Culturally speaking, one aspect that has been important to recognize and consider is the variation in what this idea of volunteerism means in different countries and cultures and - with a substantial amount of pro bono increasingly happening through working directly with companies - the perception of the role that one's employer ‘should’ or ‘shouldn't’ play in that. I would say that in the U.S. there has long been a strong sense between employees and employers that to some degree employers owe their employees professional development opportunities and increasingly in the past decade in particular that they should also provide them with community engagement opportunities. But there is great variation across different countries and corporate and societal cultures regarding what that relationship and the desired boundaries are. And through that lens some of the more common corporate value propositions behind this type of programming in the U.S. resonate very differently elsewhere.
I know many things have continued to evolve since then, but this topic was a good starting point for what became the first Global Pro Bono Summit. Together we were able to spark that dialogue across countries and cultures to see where there were similarities and differences, where we could all benefit from each other’s value propositions, data, studies, and also recognizing where things did not resonate across cultures and as a result would not be as helpful in trying to get a program started. And although the example I've given largely relates to engaging with companies to drive pro bono service, obviously there's a whole other critical conversation on the NGO/nonprofit side around what resonates and what doesn’t, particularly rooted in whether there is a history of trust in the support that volunteerism can provide or if it has had a rockier past locally.
There are four main ways in which we work:
1. Taproot’s own pro bono programming – our Pro Bono Speed Consulting and one-day Pro Bono Marathon events. We reach out to organizations to let them know about the opportunity to receive pro bono, support the scoping and vetting of needs, and are then able to source and staff our pro bono events and projects through our own pool of pro bono consultants (tens of thousands of people in our system) on an ongoing basis.
2. Our online, open-access platform Taproot Plus, which enables organization to get the pro bono support they need, whenever they need it, with the help of this matchmaking platform. We are dedicated to this open-access construct and view it as essential for providing more equitable access to resources for organizations and organizational leaders. Taproot Plus provides both the opportunity for organizations to scope and post custom projects as well as to sign up for one-hour virtual consultations sessions with a subject-matter expert.
3. Our advisory services where we work with institutions, largely companies, to help them strategize around, design, build and often help run their own customed pro bono programming leveraging the skills of their employees/members.
4. Continuing to build the field and advance the pro bono movement. This is through many avenues like through thought leadership and resources, convenings like the Pro Bono Summit and connecting together with partners across sectors to continue to drive the pro bono ethic.
Going back to part of our founding story from an earlier question, one key way our programming has been different than what is now thought of as “traditional” is that corporate volunteers were not a founding ingredient. At least not in the way it’s thought of today. From Taproot’s first programming 20 years ago all the way through now, tens of thousands of individual professionals have formed Taproot’s pool of pro bono consultants who we support in delivering pro bono services to our core stakeholder – the nonprofits.
Over the years we also expanded to take the learnings and best practices from our own pro bono programs to also start to work with companies and other institutions and apply that knowledge to running programs with them, and all of that too has benefitted from what we learned through our founding model grounded in the pro bono ethic.
One of many things I’ve always really appreciated about the culture at Taproot is how dedicated everyone is to continuous learning, and how we’ve always been very intentional about revisiting, evaluating and questioning our approaches to make sure we’re on the best path for impact. So the evolution of program models that’s happened over the years stems from recognizing that the models do need to vary in order to reflect the diversity of needs organizations have – not just the institutional needs but also what makes support accessible for organizational leaders depending on the nature, challenge or time to address the types of needs. We've intentionally diversified our models so that we do have some team-based longer-term opportunities (though not as long as our founding model which were 6-8 month long projects! They’re commonly 3-4 months). We also have these deep dive one day team-based projects (coined pretty universally now as the “Marathon” model by our founder many years ago, inspired by our friends at Createathon) and one-on-one consultations with subject matter experts in one-hour or half-day sessions.
Allowing for this variation is so important to make sure that the organization ultimately gets what they need, not more, not less.
As the Covid-19 pandemic starting to affect us heavily in March, and accelerating very swiftly from there, we were able to immediately convert all our programming to virtual activities.
We are incredibly proud of that because these organizations desperately needed support and so many other resources were pulled away, either because of logistics or because funders and companies needed to redirect their time and attention. So we really wanted to make sure we could ensure that these organizations got what they needed, when they needed it and in ways that were viable for them. We did some quick surveying and information gathering in order to ascertain what some of the most pervasive critical needs were so we could be as responsive and targeted as possible for the quickly shifting needs organizations had at the type of support that was most useful for them. And because of our experience in many types of pro bono models and our experience with virtual pro bono, we were able to translate those needs into action, which helped us quickly turn the tide and identify the most common types of projects that seem to be the most needed and the delivery approaches that would support them the best and roll it out as quickly and effectively as possible.
That was important for many reasons but in part because right in the beginning of this scary period, a lot of companies and individuals really wanted to help, but for many their first thought was to redirect resources only to health care organizations. And what those organizations needed right then was money and supplies and not necessarily the other forms of service and support. But so many other organizations were also being profoundly affected by the pandemic, even though they serve different issue areas outside of healthcare that were ostensibly viewed as not directly related, and many faced some very similar overlapping challenges. They needed to reach marginalized communities and provide support without their traditional program delivery channels. They needed to shift everything to an online and digital presence often with little existing technology guidance. They critically needed crisis communications plans, social media plans and other communications vehicles because suddenly their only way to communicate and to reach their constituents was going to be online or through email. And, for many organizations, some desperate and drastic financial analysis and modeling with a very urgent short-term focus to forecast different scenarios.
For me, our ability to do that, through all our years of experience of translating needs to the types of pro bono projects that can have the greatest impact, that was so important. And doing it on behalf of and from the perspective of the nonprofit organizations as the driving factor, which has always been core to our values. We wanted to ensure that we truly represented the community and organizations with their changing needs. We made sure that programs and types of opportunities could be adaptable and meet the types of needs that organizations feel most strongly about today, and that can also prepare them for resilience in the future and for what will obviously now be a very prolonged period of uncertainty.
And it has been so rewarding to see it in the feedback from the organizations themselves. Just to share a quote or two among the many like it from nonprofit participants:
“This exercise will be the reason we succeed. A powerful few moments during our transition that provided clarity to all that we face. Thank you!”
And one that reflects how I hope all organizational leaders are able to feel:
“What inspired me today is that I'm not in this alone. I've got a team of Taproot volunteers with the skills that I need. All I have to do is raise the flag and help will arrive.”
In our case we are thinking of school systems/public schools as well as some pro bono projects supporting local city governments. Taproot Plus is actually also accessible to school systems and educators in the US. We have also done some programs for various groups that are part of or are supporting city government initiatives, such as a pro bono project last year for the Cook County Public Defender’s office.
And in San Francisco we brought together pro bono programming for a variety of different partners that supported specific challenges that different departments within the local city government was facing. We have run several different programs, either on our own or through corporate partners, directly supporting these types of ‘public sector’ institutions.
We have just one or two times and in very specific and intentionally constructed programs that are appropriate for the level of professional expertise and the needs being addressed. However we, and I think really the field at large at least here in the U.S., have historically almost always had more volunteers than the organizations ready to engage. So even just from a supply-demand standpoint we have not needed to expand the pool by engaging students. And because of the volume and scale of programming we support, all things being equal we are always going to err on the side of engaging pro bono consultants with more professional experience already under their belts to try to maximize the potential benefit to the organization seeking the help.
When we have focused on students, it was more about building and expanding the pro bono ethic through these earlier-career professionals and less about designing programming explicitly to engage their professional expertise through pro bono consulting while they are still students.
Recognizing that in high school, in college, in graduate school, this is where you can really build this pro bono ethic early in someone’s professional identity. This expectation that when they do go to their employer, they are going to ask what pro bono programming they offer. And that will slowly change the influence of what companies think they really need to be focusing on offering. Our founder did a speaking tour of business schools across the U.S. encouraging MBAs to enter the workforce asking their future employers what opportunities for pro bono they provide and to carry a personal professional ethic of pro bono with them. That was over a decade ago and we still hear from folks to this day who were students at the time and carried that with them and brought pro bono service into their company or sought it out as an individual professional as their skills advanced.
In the first 10 to 15 years of Taproot's existence, we had a lot more volunteer networking events. We would have happy hours, quarterly events to share out some of the great stories from projects. In particular when we were a smaller organization, and when our programming was really worked on regionally within a city or different city offices, we would have these events. And in part also because, in the U.S., looking back at 2008-2010 when our economy took a kind of steep slope down, we had a substantial increase in our volunteer pool. And while a lot of volunteers were pursuing jobs they were really looking for a chance to connect with fellow professionals in their field and providing those in-person forums were powerful to do that.
But frankly, over time the world also changed, LinkedIn took off, and the ways to meet the needs and the interests like the community of volunteers have become less about having in-person social events, and more about the opportunity to connect with each other through the programming and the shared identity of being a pro bono consultant. A lot of folks who volunteer through Taproot include that on their resume and on their LinkedIn profile. And we have a community on LinkedIn for folks to identify who else has volunteered at Taproot, and we've heard so many stories about that connection coming up during job searches or when being interviewed by someone. Some person looks and says 'Oh, it says you did pro bono marketing through Taproot for four years, I used to do pro bono technology consulting at Taproot too’ or ‘a nonprofit I’m on the board of was helped out by a pro bono project’.
That shared professional identity on LinkedIn has been a way for folks to stay connected, but especially now, in the time of Covid-19 and our isolation and separation we’ve increasingly found that in any of our pro bono events and programs there is really a sense of community even created just in that one day. And that’s intentional in the ways we create a shared experience even though folks divide out for their own projects. In how we bring everyone together at the start and through shareouts at the end. Through the stories of impact we share back afterward and follow up we do to past participants about the next opportunity.
What it means to create community or to nurture it looks different than it did 15 years ago when it was more synonymous with chatboards or happy hours and I think that’s been such an important piece to appreciate and to embrace.
It varies, depending on any given year or period, what some of the strategic priorities are, that we've identified as most needed within the field. So coming into 2020, we were doing quite a bit on what, at least in the U.S., is frequently referred to as the 'future of work' or the 'changing world of work', which obviously takes on a whole new meaning now in the virtual setting and the different capacity in which work is happening. There are aspects that help to strengthen the link between pro bono service experiences and the types of skills and competencies it helps to develop within a workforce through experiential learning, through building core competencies like empathy, etc. And of course that’s in addition to the relevance to the organizations themselves on the frontlines supporting the shifts to the future of work through workforce development and employment equity and the role pro bono can play in helping support those organizations and their important work. We produced some studies and guides as well as conducted some webinars.
But with so much having changed and been amplified in the world around us particularly in a time like this and especially in the U.S., it’s been extremely important to us and to me to be focusing on driving the providing of open access pro bono services as a critical contributor towards combatting the historically inequitable and systemically unjust access to resources in the nonprofit sector, especially when it’s modeled off of traditional philanthropy.
Who has historically gotten to access philanthropy and who gets to access the resources? Who must you already know or already be funded by or have on your board as a nonprofit in order to access to capacity-building support either through funds or through pro bono? Versus our ability to provide a leg up through a more openly accessible way so that more organizations and more leaders have more equitable access to the resources that can help them and not get stuck in a vicious cycle of exclusion.
So we’ve been doing quite a bit over the last year in particular in pushing that topic in a cross-sector way, collating data and examples, engaging speakers from across the ecosystem of support to push the field to acknowledge and act and making sure that work starts from within, too.
I’ve focused my entire career on cross-sector capacity building for nonprofits. I deeply believe in power of exponential impact – achieving greater impact by helping the service organizations themselves in turn be able to amplify their own work and reach more people, or do so more meaningfully, or whatever is most important for their slice of driving social good.
With limited resources and such an extended time of strain and constraint in front of us, enabling organizations in their work is extraordinarily important so they can do more with what they have as well as have the chance to gain more to fuel their work and effect greater change. Helping the helpers is one of the most important things one can do, and:
I truly believe that in the constrained reality that nonprofits are forced to operate in, unlike many of their peers in the private sector where investment in a business’ leaders, infrastructure, equipment etc. is considered essential, well-designed pro bono service is the greatest means of getting there.
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