Interview with Lindsay Gruber: Building Corporate Resilience through Pro Bono Volunteerism
It is important to acknowledge that the last few years have been really difficult. However, it is equally, if not more important to reflect on the things we’ve learned, and what we’re grateful for. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from seeing how Salesforce employees give back to their communities. I am inspired by the growth in volunteerism, especially pro bono. Our employees use it to connect with their purpose, and help lift the communities around them. They take their knowledge and use it to help nonprofits and schools build their organizational resilience while amplifying their impact.
No one understands the value of pro bono volunteerism, and the benefits to everyone involved more than Lindsay Gruber, President, and CEO of Taproot Foundation. Taproot connects nonprofits and other social change organizations with skilled volunteers sharing their expertise pro bono.
I had the chance to sit down with Lindsay and discuss how volunteering has changed over the last few years, the multifaceted benefits of pro bono programs, and the power of skill-based volunteering to help us build resilience and navigate uncertain times.
Cheryl Timoney (CT): At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a huge focus on the shift to virtual and engaging volunteers and the community through digital means. But, as you know, things have continued to change as crisis has layered on top of crisis. The required response of nonprofits on the frontlines intensified with this increased demand. Since the shift to virtual, how has volunteering changed?
Lindsay Gruber (LG): So much, and in so many ways. Nonprofits are no strangers to crises. They are highly responsive and counted on by the community to provide support and subject matter expertise. Unfortunately, adding to the complexity right now are the economic challenges hitting every sector. The need for services is skyrocketing while sources of funding and resources are being hit.
There is a silver lining; a bright light is shining on how essential it is to support these organizations. This includes more than traditional hands-on volunteering related to program delivery. You can partner with them to combine their subject matter expertise with your professional skills to help them pivot as needed. Skills-based volunteerism is becoming a much more widely recognized need, and we’re often seeing the sustained impact on an organization can be greater.
CT: Do you think professionals understand how crucial their skills are to nonprofits right now?
LG: There was a time during the pandemic when hands-on volunteer opportunities all but disappeared. At the same time, people were even more interested in giving back. How do you do that in an all-virtual world? Well, pro bono consulting can happen entirely on digital platforms.
In a way, logistics helped people realize they could volunteer their skills. They could connect conversationally with nonprofits, and that helped draw the parallels between their day jobs and the support they could offer. Once they saw how meaningful that work was, they kept coming back. That’s been a really big shift in volunteering over the last few years.
The second piece is that every sector had to pivot at the same time; we all had to shift to virtual. When that happened, it became clear that the same skills were universally applicable, and the value in offering those skills became clear.
CT: Connecting your day job with your personal purpose is so fulfilling, especially when the economy faces headwinds and employees feel pressure within their companies. As businesses look to build organizational resilience as they navigate tough times, how does pro bono volunteering support employees?
LG: Over my 18 years at Taproot, I’ve seen our sector navigate so many changes in the economy. There are a few things that repeat themselves.
The first is that during times of economic uncertainty, when companies have to reorganize and, unfortunately, sometimes downsize, there can be hesitancy around investing in employee engagement and learning and development. There is a misconception that employees would view budgets for those programs as money that could have retained others. We did a survey of hundreds of professionals during the 2008 and 2009 downturn, and found that often wasn’t the case. These programs help employees feel a connection to what they’re doing in the first place, and why they’re doing it. Especially if they are taking on additional responsibilities, these opportunities help them maintain a sense of purpose and connection to the company.
The second is that there is an opportunity to achieve goals across multiple functions. For example, you have your HR team who focuses on employee engagement, and a philanthropy team focused on giving back. At a time when a company might be facing budget cuts, it might appear that these teams need to compete for discretionary dollars. However, one pro bono program can achieve two things; engaging employees with their community and connecting them with their purpose while simultaneously giving back to the community as an organization.
CT: There is a clear benefit to employees who are able to connect to their purpose and give back. Is there a collective benefit to the company?
LG: Absolutely. Maintaining the morale of employees who weather a tough time with the company is tremendously valuable. Even better? You create the opportunity for them to continue with their professional growth and advancement. Whenever the economic difficulty eases, companies start competing for talent again. Employees who felt like their company invested in them throughout that time are more likely to stay.
This is even more valuable as the pendulum swings even faster. We had the great resignation, followed really quickly by major layoffs at a lot of companies. Interconnecting your CSR, HR, and talent development through pro bono programs will go a long way to help retain your employees. And, more importantly, you maintain a level of support for the community, which is critical if you want a sustainable, healthy business.
CT: Thinking about this connection between corporate purpose and community, a lot of companies are moving towards ESG, with a focus on transparency around goals and outcomes. One theme that’s come up is that every employee at every company contributes to these goals, and plays a role in being more sustainable. Is that something you’re seeing translated into pro bono programs?
LG: Definitely. There is a lot of intentionality that can go into your programming in areas like sustainability. For example, if a company leverages other philanthropic efforts, such as grants, and seeks out organizations in those cause areas, they create additional touch points. This includes executive engagement and board services through pro bono. The work then evolves from a company bringing more assets to the table, to your leadership team getting a more meaningful understanding about these issues and how it affects the business and their teams.
This is where ESG can go from an acronym to something tangible. Rather than focusing exclusively on your day-to-day work, you start to bring the insights you’ve learned from your pro bono experience back to your job. You truly start to see how interconnected everything is.
CT: Building on that idea of interconnectedness, and skills translation, I wanted to ask about a specific important function within nonprofits: fundraising. We’re headed into giving season, but there may be some who are worried about donating, with the economy being what it is. How can pro bono volunteerism help support the fundraising capacity for nonprofits?
LG: The top thing nonprofits say that they need is fundraising and fundraising support. You see the magic of pro bono if you can get past that specific word. Break it down into its parts, and you start to see how different skills apply. Do they need new messaging? Is their value proposition clear? Do they need to segment their audiences to get to the right donors? They might need financial analysis so they can translate insights into the true cost of their programming into more specific asks.
Each of these things is a function within a company – marketing, data analysis, finance – and is incredibly useful for fundraising. You don’t need to be a fundraising expert to help. With pro bono support, you can diagnose a problem and scope the solution in a way that actually gets to the root of the challenge.
We all have a role to play in making the world better.
As we come off Giving Tuesday, and head into the holiday season, I encourage you to reflect on the ways you can give back.
Donating your time, especially through skills-based volunteering, is the gift that literally keeps on giving. It is a gift of empowerment to nonprofits, volunteers, and the communities around us.
Learn more about the Salesforce.org Pro Bono Program. And for more reading about pro bono volunteering, check 4 Ways Pro Bono Service Impacts Volunteers, Companies, Nonprofits, and Schools and The Potential of Purpose & the Impact of Pro Bono Services
About the Authors
Vice President of Tech for Social Impact, Salesforce.org
Cheryl Timoney is the VP, Tech for Social Impact at Salesforce.org, helping change-makers realize the promise of technology to scale their missions and impact. Cheryl goes beyond traditional approaches to help drive strategic impact at the intersection of business and society. Prior to Salesforce.org, Cheryl led program teams in the nonprofit sector, building community solutions for economic and community development.
President and CEO, Taproot Foundation
Lindsay Gruber is the President & CEO of the Taproot Foundation. A widely recognized authority on nonprofit capacity-building, CSR and cross-sector collaboration, Lindsay has dedicated her career to the idea that greater change can be achieved in the world by helping to strengthen the organizations that are tackling some of society’s greatest challenges. Under her leadership, the Taproot Foundation supports organizations by engaging business professionals in pro bono service, ensuring that organizations serving the social good have access to the marketing, HR, IT, strategy and other resources they need to thrive.
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