How Can Pro Bono Service Cultivate Your Leaders?

What Taproot is discovering as part of our Town Hall Series
Feb 27, 2017 4:05 PM ET

We should have known that when we asked our community to weigh-in and help us shape the future of pro bono service, you would show up. 

On February 8 and 9, our pro bono consultants, nonprofit leaders, corporate practitioners, and philanthropic peers joined Taproot for our first ever Town Hall series focused on introducing our 2017 Campaigns. We asked our communities to weigh-in on how pro bono could be successfully used to address two critical topics: Cultivating Leaders through Pro Bono Service and Engaging Tech Talent in Pro Bono Service. Attendees shared their professional insights, reflected on their own pro bono experiences, and offered potential solutions.

For those of you who couldn’t attend, don’t worry! We’ve compiled (mostly) everything you need to know about our Leadership Town Hall below.

Cultivating Leaders through Pro Bono Service

We discussed three key assumptions as part of our town hall on leadership:

Assumption #1: There are common leadership skills we are aiming to develop among our personnel. In other words, what skills do our leaders need to thrive? We were interested specifically in whether there were differences in responses between the sectors or participants.

What we discovered: Regardless of sector, there were commonalities in responses to this question.

These five skills popped up the most:

  • Communication
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Vision
  • Flexibility/nimble

Assumption #2: There are specific leadership competencies that are better suited to pro bono service. We asked our audience to reflect on their own pro bono experience. Where and how did they (or their peers) exhibit leadership? We were interested specifically in how these may align with the skills mentioned in the first question and which skills specifically were going to rise to the top. 

What we discovered: These responses were quite different from the first question. Not because the responses weren’t sough-after leadership skills, but because they are pretty tricky skills to teach. You want your personnel to have “focus” and your employees to have “empathy.” You want your entire organization, particularly your leaders, to show “respect.” But how do you teach those skills? How do you give people the opportunity to practice them? According to our communities, pro bono can help you do it.

Assumption #3: There are particular ways of engaging in pro bono service that can foster the development of leadership skills, and we asked the audience to identify how those skills can be practiced. We wanted to know, how else can we purposefully structure pro bono service to let participants practice leadership skills? 

What we discovered: We should focus on leadership skills as a part of the pro bono project. Sounds simple, but leadership development isn’t always a known benefit, or even a thought, when nonprofits or volunteers participate in pro bono service. 

Here are some ways our attendees thought we could make leadership development purposeful:

  1. Have initial conversations with participants about their skill learning objectives upfront, and have 1:1 coaching throughout to get feedback on not only the project’s progression but on the participants’ development as well.
  2. Provide additional leadership training, or even role plays, throughout the pro bono project as an added bonus to boost participants’ skill learnings.
  3. Select roles or responsibilities for the project based on the participants’ expertise or organizational role as well as the skill-learning opportunities.

One thing to note here is that pro bono as a leadership development strategy isn’t just for the volunteer. All of the ways pro bono service stretches and pushes volunteers to practice leadership skills holds true for the nonprofit participants as well. Bottom line is, we’re missing a huge opportunity if we focus solely on the volunteer.  

Where do we go from here? Taproot is focused on building awareness of the personnel development opportunities that pro bono service provides, and we’re looking for partners to pilot projects that engage nonprofits in pro bono service as a talent development strategy.

And of course, we’re interested in hearing from those experts and individuals who can help us stay on top of changing leadership trends and identify the right circles and places to drive this work.

We thank all of our stakeholders who both humored and humbled us with their responses and insights at the Town Hall. It’s a new frontier for pro bono service but one worth exploring.

Missed the webinar? Watch the recording here.
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Taproot Foundation, a national nonprofit, connects nonprofits and social change organizations with passionate, skilled volunteers who share their expertise pro bono. Taproot is creating a world where organizations dedicated to social change have full access—through pro bono service—to the marketing, strategy, HR, and IT resources they need to be most effective. Since 2001, Taproot’s skilled volunteers have served 4,600 social change organizations providing 1.5 million hours of work worth over $160 million in value. Taproot is located in New York City, San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. and is leading a network of global pro bono providers in over 30 countries around the world.