Every nonprofit works hard to be a good steward of donor dollars. As donor expectations continue to increase, all nonprofits are confronted with new (and often expensive) challenges—expectations of better operations, more transparent reporting, outcome measurement and better technology.
As nonprofits seek funding to manage these new expectations, the challenges mount. Some funders, enthralled with the overhead myth, stipulate their gifts must be targeted toward specific program budgets leaving few resources for the fundamental building blocks of running an organization. An increasing number of nonprofits compete for the limited number of capacity building or technology grants offered.
Perhaps no key function at nonprofits gets neglected more than technology. In fact, research from the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), which works to improve nonprofits’ use of technology, indicates that the median IT budget at nonprofit organizations may be as low as one percent of the overall operating budget. With so little money earmarked for technology, not only is the cost of business applications far beyond the financial reach of many nonprofits, but top-flight technical talent is also difficult to attract and not always possible to develop internally.
Fortunately, a growing number of technology vendors — NetSuite included — have made it a standard practice to donate technology products to nonprofits. While some product donations are ready to go out of the box, many require tech talent to oversee implementation and make these valuable gifts work for the organization receiving the donation. An unintended consequence of free technology is it often doesn’t solve the resource constraint problem – nonprofits still need the resources to purchase consulting and other services.
One answer that benefits nonprofit and company alike is pro bono volunteering. And while enabling employees to volunteer as project consultants on the technology rollouts at nonprofits sounds like a good idea on so many levels, it’s surprising to learn that it simply doesn’t happen very often. In fact, pro bono volunteering is an untapped resource on all fronts, not just when it comes to technology. According to the Taproot Foundation, which works to help match nonprofits with pro bono skills, just three percent of nonprofits say they have access to the pro bono support they need.
NetSuite realized that, for our technology donations to have a transformational impact on nonprofit operations, we had to pair them with pro bono services. Along the way, we’ve learned that a pro bono volunteer program not only helps our nonprofit customers thrive, it also strengthens our business by giving us more insight into the needs of an important customer constituency, deepens and develops the way nonprofits use our software, and provides our employees with invaluable on-the-job training and an opportunity to give back by offering their professional skills.
Along those lines, according to research from True Impact, a consultancy that helps organizations measure the social, financial and environmental return on investment (ROI) of their programs and operations, employees are three times as likely to gain material job skills via pro bono volunteering as they are with traditional volunteering. In other words, giving away employees’ time in the form of pro bono volunteering effectively injects them with additional value to the company.
While it sounds great on paper, nonprofits shouldn’t rush into accepting pro bono help from companies. It’s important to think through the following tips before you apply for or enter into a pro bono relationship:
- Find the right partner: Free help from professionals sounds great – but you should strategically decide when taking on pro bono help makes sense, and from whom you will get it. Someone offering to do a social media plan pro bono might not be a good fit if your organization doesn’t have a communications department or a process to put the plan to action. The best bet is to identify what you need help with and determine which companies are experts in that field. Some of your existing corporate partners might be the perfect pro bono partners, provided that they have expertise in the area you want to improve.
- Have a clear scope of work: What are your goals for this project? What is the outcome you want to achieve? Identifying what the specific deliverables will be as well as what is in-scope and out-of-scope is a critical piece of working with pro bono volunteers. Will the volunteers be providing training, product support, consulting or something else? Outlining the expected deliverables and timelines up front will help you feel better about the time and effort your organization and volunteers are investing in a project.
- Treat this like a professional engagement: Would you pay a consultant to take on a project and not devote staff time and resources to manage that project? Of course not. The same should be the case for pro bono: budget the time and internal talent you’ll need for a project, meet with your volunteers, and stay on track to receive the deliverables at the end of the engagement.
- Connect it to the Mission: Connecting project need with social impact will help to get volunteers engaged and excited about the work they will be taking on. Sure, writing a script to make a report auto-generate might not feel core to your mission, but automating that process might free up your staff and volunteer resources for other mission-critical work. Making that correlation for the volunteers will help them see the impact of the project they are taking on.
Every company approaches pro bono differently, and many have not yet started a program, although thanks to campaigns like ‘A Billion+Change’ the move to provide pro bono support is gaining momentum. At NetSuite, we formally launched our NetSuite.org SuiteVolunteer Pro Bono program in 2013 with a commitment to take on a significant number of pro bono projects each quarter. We have been seeing the fruits of our labors ever since, with employees gaining invaluable on-the-job training and many of our nonprofit software users emerging as stronger users of the platform.
Our employees desire to donate pro bono time is evident in the program’s growth: since it launched, more than 700 NetSuite employees have given nearly $1.5 million worth of their time to more than 260 nonprofits. In 2015 alone, more than 300 SuiteVolunteers donated 4,694 pro bono consulting hours, worth more than $700,000 using the industry standard valuation.
One of the keys to the SuiteVolunteer program’s success has been a focus on small, digestible projects that begin and end within a quarter. We assemble our pro bono project teams during the first month of each quarter, and each team completes its project over the ensuing two months. Generally speaking, each quarter now features about 100 employees working on 30 to 40 projects. This distributed approach has enabled us to get more employees involved on more projects, thus impacting more nonprofits. These projects also act as building blocks for our nonprofit partners. We aren’t trying to take on all of their challenges at once, but instead are looking for small, incremental ways to improve their operational success.
The bottom line of all these efforts is the power that comes from sharing talent. Every company has incredibly talented employees in its ranks, many of whom want to use their skills to make a positive social impact. Nonprofits and corporations that are able to harness the skills of these passionate employees will find that the benefits of pro bono contributions run deep. What’s more, taking a strategic approach to choosing a pro bono partner and thoroughly outlining the need you’re addressing can ensure a successful project.
For corporations, providing pro bono opportunities for your employees will not only engage your employees and strengthen your business, but can inspire your customers and partners to develop similar programs, thus exponentially driving change in the social sector.
Pro bono help, once thought of as only something lawyers provide, is growing more prevalent across business sectors. By effectively tapping pro bono volunteer skills and corporate pro bono programs, you will gain access to a new pool of resources that can help build capacity and fund those often overlooked “overhead” projects.
For businesses, their employees and the nonprofits they serve, pro bono volunteering can be the ultimate win-win-win.
Erin Dieterich is the Director of Corporate Citizenship at NetSuite, helping to oversee the NetSuite.org portfolio with a focus on designing and implementing global employee volunteerism initiatives – including the signature SuiteVolunteer pro bono and SuiteImpact Team community service programs and the Hackathon 4Good. Previously, she was the manager for Corporate Social Responsibility at Discovery Communications, where she spent eight years developing programs for the Discovery Impact brand, creating award-winning employee volunteerism programs and facilitating charitable giving, cause marketing, disaster relief and public-private partnerships. Erin was member of the inaugural Silverdocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival team and currently serves on the Leadership Faculty for the Corporate Institute at the Points of Light Foundation, and as a board member at Createathon, a national nonprofit promoting pro bono marathons for marketing professionals. She can be found online @edieterich.