Twenty years ago, the corporate sustainability movement was just gaining traction. Now, a company that doesn’t track its environmental footprint is the exception. Employee skills-based pro bono programs should have the same ubiquity.
In 1994, “radical industrialist” Ray Anderson had what he called a “spear in the chest” moment: while preparing for a speech on environmental compliance, he realized just how significantly his company, Interface, was damaging the environment. At that moment, he decided to make Interface (a manufacturer of modular carpeting) the most sustainable company he could. For more than 15 years, he worked to grow a movement pushing corporations to think differently about how their operations impacted the planet.
Ray Anderson’s evangelism paid off: Thanks to Anderson’s fearless efforts along with a few like-minded first-movers in business, a movement grew, and in 2012 attention to environmental sustainability is now a core activity for most corporations.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need for those of us working toward social change to be fearless, to be bold in setting goals, experiment with new models, and become comfortable with failure as a possible outcome. When it comes to innovation in the service sector—and particularly the opportunity to grow the skills-based pro bono movement—I think there is a tremendous opportunity to take a fearless approach and make pro bono programs the norm in companies, instead of the exception.
Corporate support for traditional employee volunteering has been in place for many years, and law and accounting firms have long supported pro bono work. But the rest of corporate America has only in recent years begun to recognize the benefits of supporting volunteering that utilizes employees’ skills—whether in marketing, business planning, human resources or a range of other disciplines—to help nonprofit organizations.
Deloitte, Taproot, IBM (PDF), and others have undertaken studies on the impact of pro bono service on their own employees, and the numbers are compelling. For example, in a 2011 IBM survey (PDF), 88% of Corporate Service Corps participants reported that they had improved their leadership skills through their pro bono work. Deloitte, whose employees record pro bono work and receive credit for it just as they would for a paying client, reports that 84% of projects resulted in new business efforts. And nearly 100 corporations have already pledged to provide more than $1 billion worth of pro bono service in the next two years to nonprofits through the A Billion + Change initiative.
There are more than a few pro bono pioneers, and the Case Foundation has been proud to work with visionaries like Stan Litow from IBM, Evan Hochberg from Deloitte, Aaron Hurst from Taproot, and Michelle Nunn from Points of Light, all of whom have articulated both the societal and business value of utilizing employees’ skills to assist nonprofits. These individuals have been leading change within their own companies and within the pro bono movement.
But despite the good news, we still have a way to go before skills-based volunteer programs become a standard tool to benefit corporations, employees, and nonprofits. A 2011 CECP study (PDF) of 184 companies that already had some sort of giving program in place reported that only 60 of them offered skills-based pro bono opportunities to their employees.
Many companies are hesitant to tap into pro bono service because they’re afraid of the impact it might have on their own employees’ productivity and they’re not sure whether this kind of work truly helps nonprofit organizations. I say to them, let’s be fearless and give pro bono a try. We’ve already heard many stories of the transformative power that pro bono efforts have not only for nonprofits, but more significantly for the companies themselves. I believe that soon, they’ll be sharing their own "spear in the chest" moments of when they realized that pro bono programs were an incredibly effective tool for developing employees, building teams, and learning about new markets.
Let’s be the Ray Andersons of the movement to make pro bono programs as obvious a choice as environmental sustainability efforts are today. And let’s show companies that enabling employees to lend their skills to nonprofits not only creates a stronger social sector and more resilient communities, but it also creates a stronger company with more resilient employees.