The business imperative of volunteerism

Pro bono work by firms raises their status and is a critical tool for recruiting and retaining new professionals.

One of the most common topics of conversation in our industry is the challenge associated with attracting and retaining skilled talent. Simply put, the demand continues to far surpass the supply. As such, companies are continually looking for ways in which to separate themselves from the competition. And one area is emerging as a discriminator of increasing importance.

Beyond the usual questions of compensation and growth, the data and experiences reported by a number of companies suggest that for newer professionals, the linkage between where they choose to work and their employer’s community engagement is becoming a core consideration. That is why, particularly in the professional services field, pro bono, or skills-based volunteerism, is increasingly seen as a way to both enhance corporate community engagement and also enhance employee engagement and retention.

Three years ago, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal service agency on whose board I have the honor of sitting, launched a national pro bono campaign called “$1 Billion + Change,” and, in so doing, challenged companies to commit $1 billion worth of pro bono time to the non-profit sector. The response was strong; companies such as IBM, Deloitte, Accenture, and others, stepped forward to answer the call. That initiative is being re-energized again this spring by CNCS and the Points of Light Institute.

In June, Deloitte, a national leader in the corporate pro bono movement, convened a pro bono workshop which was co-sponsored by the Professional Services Council, the Fairfax, Va., County Chamber of Commerce and the Taproot Foundation. Dozens of representatives from a wide range of companies attended the session. For most, the social imperative is clear: the degree to which professionals can apply their skills to helping non-profit organizations build capacity and capability has a direct effect on the scope and quality of service those agencies can offer.

Thus, much of the discussion focused instead on the business imperative — pro bono as a key recruitment, retention and professional development tool; its positive effect on branding; best practices associated with successful pro bono programs; and more. The discussion was further illuminated by the release of Deloitte’s report on its extensive, multi-year pro bono initiative which, among other things, documents that such programs are not easy; they require resources, time and planning.

Although this is normally a column about key policy or other market trends, I chose to focus today on the topic of pro bono service for two reasons. First, during June I also had the pleasure of again participating in the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, which attracted 4,000 practitioners from across governments, the non-profit and corporate sectors.

That event again reminded me of the extraordinary opportunities we in the private sector have to help address some of the country’s most difficult problems. Second is the link between the potential for pro bono programs to “do good” while also helping address one of the core issues facing every company in our space: finding and keeping good people.

So, for a change, rather than focusing on what the Obama administration, individual agencies or Congress are doing, I thought it worth a few minutes to reflect on what we can and should do.

Times are tough all around and the non-profit sector is under unprecedented strain. And through effective pro bono programs, companies can enhance their own position and employee engagement, more effectively leverage their philanthropic and community investments and, at the same time, help fill growing and critical resource and capability gaps in the non profit sector and thus enhance their ability to address the very tough community challenges we face.

That seems to me to be the ultimate “win-win” situation.