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In Pro Bono We Trust

November 5, 2012

The week before Hurricane Sandy turned the East Coast upside down, American Express and other companies joined the Taproot Foundation in celebrating Pro Bono Week. We participated by hosting a Scope-a-thon, an effort to engage our employees in helping to scope projects from nonprofits in order to prepare them to more fully benefit from pro bono consulting in the future.

We had 35 American Express employees in our New York office assist 11 nonprofits in a three-hour marathon Scope-a-thon. The nonprofits included:

  • Brooklyn Public Library
  • City Parks Foundation
  • Creative Alternatives of New York
  • GallopNYC
  • God's Love We Deliver
  • Historic House Trust
  • Japan Society
  • Neighborhood Housing Services of NYC
  • New York Blood Center
  • Reel Works Teen Filmmaking
  • Studio Museum in Harlem

The Taproot Foundation did a terrific job of structuring the conversation around these four questions:

  • First, what hurts?
  • Next, what are some ways to fix it?
  • So, what's the specific prescription?
  • And finally, what's the treatment plan?

The response from both employees and nonprofits was extremely positive. 100% of employees said that they would participate again and refer the program to a colleague. One employee went so far as to say that it was her "best day" at American Express.

Nonprofit leaders were equally pleased, with one stating: "Yesterday's session was a terrific opportunity to gain fresh insights and perspectives from your esteemed colleagues."

The occasion of Pro Bono Week also provided me with an incentive to sit down and read Aaron Hurst's new book on Leadership. In addition to Aaron's role as president and founder of Taproot, he writes a blog for the Huffington Post. Last year, he interviewed 19 corporate leaders (including me) about their careers and interests, and the evolving relationship between business and the community.

In his introduction to the book (he also did the line drawings), Aaron summarizes his discussions with corporate leaders with this statement:

  • At the heart of their visions is an awareness that coinciding and driving much of the change in the social contract between business and society is a change in the social contract between professionals and society. Professionals and the talents they bring in areas like marketing, technology, management, design and finance are the currency of the service economy and are playing a core role in the evolution of corporate philanthropy and community investment.

Here are a few other quotes about pro bono work from corporate leaders featured in Aaron's book:

  • A little over five years ago, we identified our people and their talent as our greatest strengths. Being a company that has a lot of employees, we said we have to leverage this group beyond just their time. While time is valuable, we think that talent is a multiplier. Now, 100 percent of our youth-serving grants have what's called "link and leverage," which is they're linking to a company asset beyond cash. We also leverage internal talent pro bono to get our work done as a foundation. From strategic planning to surveys to website design, employees from different areas of the company volunteer to help us meet our goals. Bobby Silten, The Gap
  • Our Corporate Service Corps is one of our key programs. We take our top talent in the company and give them the ability to deliver strategic planning assistance, project management assistance, technology strategies, and social networking tools. In the last 3.5 years, over a thousand employees have worked in teams with not-for-profit organizations and governments, creating really lasting partnerships. I like to think that we're operating in the community arena the same way we operate in the business environment. Stan Litow, IBM
  • We've always done pro bono work and we clearly see the value internally. We use it as a development area for our people. It's really embedded in our value system. To us, it's accelerating the development of our employees and making better professionals. They need to understand the global markets; they need to understand the broader communities in which we operate. Kathy Hopkinkah-Hannan, KPMG

At American Express, our pro bono consulting program, which we call Serve2Gether Consulting, is completing its first full year of operation. Like Kathy Hopkinkah-Hannan, we're pleased with the results internally, and like Stan LItow and Bobby Silten, we clearly see the potential for leverage externally. Next year, we hope to grow the program globally by partnering with a select number of nonprofit organizations who can help us "outsource" the mechanics of the program. Stay tuned for more results next year.

If you have a question or comment about pro bono work, please share it here.

P.S. Did you know that Aaron Hurst founded Taproot Foundation in 2001 to make the pro bono service ethic part of every business profession and to ensure that nonprofits have access to the professional talent they need to serve our communities?


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